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Essay on preparing for Skype or telephone interviews

Did I Say That Out Loud?

January 18, 2012

Technology, it seems, has gradually caught up with our intellectual fantasies. We have entered the predicted "convergence culture," in which interactions such as faculty interviews are portable and shaped by media, and have evolved beyond a merely physical space.

Either that, or our current economic woes have made us more appreciative of connections that involve (free) software instead of dashes through airports.

Whatever the reason, it’s becoming more and more common for hiring committees in national searches to use telephone and Skype (with or without video) for what was once the “conference” interview. Institutions are warming to the potential for Skype (the greatest thing for distance collaboration since e-mail!) to connect far-flung colleagues. No long, expensive treks to conferences: conduct your faculty interviews for free, right from a laptop in your conference room.

What does this mean for faculty job candidates? How is the Skype interview different from a face to face Q&A? As you can imagine, the use of “new” media interjects a whole new dynamic into a traditionally social scene.

On the up side, “telephonic” (verbal-only) exchanges allow you to focus entirely on the information being exchanged. Without the face-to-face visuals to distract you ("What is that search committee member frowning about?"), you can concentrate on the questions being asked and the points you want to get across. No need to dress up — you can interview in your bathrobe, scratch your nose, chew your nails, and consult your notes at will. Visual communicators may feel like they’re interviewing blind, without the usual cues they rely on to interpret responses. But in the verbal interview, the entire focus is the pure exchange of ideas, something most of us came to grad school to experience. Just lock the cat in the bedroom and wait for the call. 

On the other hand, a connection with visuals poses an interesting mix of the thrills of the face-to-face interview and the spills of the technologically mediated exchange. You will be visible to committee members during the whole exchange (at least from the waist up -- with current configurations you do still have the option to interview in shorts, if you choose). However, you may not be able to see your interviewers. There may be a lag between being asked a question and seeing the expression on the face of the person behind it. In fact, the camera may be pointed the wrong way for you to gauge reactions to your responses at all.  We recall one interview where the candidate’s view was a lovely tabletop with the hint of a window in the distance as she listened to the disembodied voices emanating from her laptop.  

So, how to prepare? In October, we recommended that you think through possible answers to hard questions and get very comfortable with “talking” about yourself on paper. Now’s the time to take it verbal. One of the best ways we’ve found to do this is the mock interview. Mock interviews force you to articulate all those fabulous responses lodged in your head and outlined in your notes -- in real time. With real people. Who have real responses. Now, of course, in the mock interview these people will probably be your friends and peers, if not your instructors. But they’ll give you a chance to hear yourself respond: how you organize your thoughts, present your ideas, react to surprises. How you sit, how you pause, how you breathe, or sneeze, or clear your throat. (We’ll stop there for propriety’s sake.)

Call for your Job Search Questions

Are you searching for a faculty position? Here's your chance to write the authors of Job Search in Academe about your experiences, questions, anecdotes, near-misses, and successes! What do you want to tell us (or ask us) about the job search? Let us know what's going on out there!  E-mail Cheryl at creed@sdccd.edu or Dawn at dformo@csusm.edu. All questions remain anonymous.

Now’s the time to realize how hard it is to talk about yourself out loud. We’re all trained from conception onwards not to praise ourselves. Go ahead. Try it right now. Try out one of those stellar answers you’ve mapped out in your head. Say something nice about yourself, right out loud. Feel silly? Sort of like when the mail carrier catches a glimpse of you in the middle of your Xtreme Cardio Fat-Blasting Black-Ops Kickbox workout? We seem to have a social taboo against being in process, and we cover that with humor (or worse, vagueness and self-deprecation). It’s even harder when you’re facing a friend, colleague, or someone you hope will become a colleague instead of your own image in the bathroom mirror.  Mock interviews will help you wear that self-deprecating gene right out of your body.

Mock interviews can also help you find out how your body language reflects whether or not you’re happy to answer a question. What does your face do when you’re pausing to pull your thoughts together? Do you cover your mouth when you talk? Mumble? Grind your teeth, rub your nose, bite your nails, massage your temples, peel your cuticles, or squint before each answer? Would your mom tell you to sit up straight? We all do these moves, and in face-to-face encounters, our listeners have many modes to consult in order to interpret our message. In the virtual interview, listeners have only image and sound. Just make sure both are working for you.

The mock interview can also be a good run-through with the technology. You don’t want to find  out during the interview that you, for example, are distracted by hearing your own breathing (or wonder if your interviewers think you’re panting because that microphone is so darn close to your mouth).

Practice/strategize how to get through the inevitable glitches gracefully, with good humor. And if the video feature in Skype is on and you want to see each questioner, get comfortable asking interviewers to turn the camera. The mock interview can help the technology become the background noise it should be instead of a phantom presence during the interview.

If your institution doesn’t have a formal mock interview set up for you (and it probably won’t), get with others in your same position: your peers. Interview each other over and over until you are all tired of hearing about it, and owe each other for life. Hit the questions that scare you; hit the big three (teaching, research, service):

  • Walk me into your classroom. What are you teaching? How? How do students respond?
  • Tell me about your research. What are your plans going forward?
  • What kinds of committee service interest you?

This will feel awkward at first. The tendency is to kid around, creating intentional “bloopers” and outtakes. That’s pretty much the way all mock interviews start out. It’s just the way social beings get through uncomfortable interactions. But once you’re through the initial nervous silliness, get serious. Your interviewer(s) should not let you off the hook. Make them ask you the hard questions. Make yourself answer them. Then ask how you did, and go again. Once you get the hang of it, the actual interview can feel like a lively conversation among colleagues. We’ve both had interviews like that. No reason you can’t.  

 

Bio

Cheryl Reed, who teaches at San Diego Miramar College, and Dawn M. Formo, who teaches at California State University at San Marcos, are the co-authors of Job Search in Academe: How to Get the Position You Deserve (Stylus).

 

 

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