Don't Phone It In

March 23, 2011

Over the past several years, I have had the opportunity to be involved with a variety of phone interviews, both inside and outside of academe and on both sides of the call. Throughout all of these situations, I have noticed a few problems that candidates, including me, have struggled with; overcoming them will greatly increase one’s chance of getting a campus interview.

Know where you are applying. The lack of this knowledge seems to be the most common problem I have seen in phone interviews. At one point, I was on a search committee for a faculty member who was already struggling through the interview. However, he still had not ruled himself out of our running. He then asked about our curriculum in a way that let all of us know he had not even bothered to glance at the website. With the ease of access that almost all colleges and universities provide these days, committees expect the interviewees to be familiar with their programs.

Looking at the curriculum can help clarify the job demands, as well. Several years ago, I applied for a job teaching poetry at a university. The school was on the small side, which I knew, but my research did not go into that curriculum very deeply. In fact, I had not given the interview much thought, as I knew I could talk about how to teach students how to be better writers of poetry. However, the committee expected me to teach poetry as a genre, as well, something that was not in my area of expertise. Their questions on that subject clearly showed I was not the candidate they were looking for. A bit of research would have helped me see the types of classes taught by each of the faculty (only three beyond the person they hired) and what I would be expected to teach.

Contrast this experience with my first university interview, where I had made lists of authors and works I would teach in a given class, just in case I was asked.

Of course, such knowledge goes beyond curriculum, as well. I have heard candidates interviewing at independent high schools denigrate private education; they also had not bothered to learn the lingo and know that independent schools prefer that term instead of private, which further hurt their chances. I once interviewed at an independent high school and, in response to a question about why I wanted to teach there, I talked about the higher level of motivation among the students. The faculty member who asked the question laughed at my response. Needless to say, I did not get the job.

Be specific in your answers. The lack of specificity often relates to a lack of research above. In one phone interview where I was a committee member, we kept asking a candidate how she taught a particular subject or how she would handle a particular situation. She repeatedly gave general answers, even when we pressed her for specifics. We had no idea how she would actually teach the introductory class in our discipline or how her research influenced her teaching, even after a 45-minute interview.

Similarly, in the phone interview for the poetry job I mentioned above, the committee kept pressing me on poets I would teach in a survey class on poetry. I gave vague answers about the Confessionalists or the Beats, but my lack of specificity gave away my lack of knowledge on the subject. Taking 30 minutes to prepare would have helped me overcome almost all of my vague answers.

As above, specificity goes beyond curriculum to mission and institutional fit. I once had to cut a person off when I was conducting a phone interview for a library position because it was clear she did not fit with the school’s mission. Her answers were so broad they would have fit any school, but they showed no connection to the distinctive nature of our institution. Given how many schools try to differentiate themselves with programs such as service learning or cross-cultural experiences, knowledge of those aspects of their mission will help a candidate give clear, specific answers that relate to that college or university.

Be succinct in your answers. One of the reasons phone interviews are so difficult is that there are no facial cues to let the candidate know when he or she is saying something that clearly does not fit with what the committee is looking for. The lack of such cues encourages candidates to talk and talk and talk, in order to cover everything the committee might be looking for.

One of the best ways to deal with such a problem is to have a group of concise answers for the most common questions well-rehearsed enough that one knows how long they will go, but not so prepared that they do not sound fresh. Candidates should know how to give a one-minute summary of their teaching philosophy and research interests, certainly, but they should also be able to talk about why they want to come to that particular school, how they would fit in with the department, and specific examples from classroom teaching or research (depending on the institution’s focus) that relate to the school’s mission, all in roughly one minute.

One committee I served on dealt with this problem more than almost any other. We asked one woman why she wanted to come to our university, and she took almost a full 20 minutes to give her answer. She even included the weather as one aspect that would induce her to move from her home. Another man went over five minutes in response to the same question, an answer that felt like it took 20 minutes. Neither of them was invited to campus or received a good deal of serious consideration.

Given the job market in higher education today, candidates need to do everything they can to separate themselves from the pack of applicants. Once a candidate reaches the phone interview stage, she has a clear opportunity. Though phone interviews are difficult, they are also an opportunity to show true interest in the college or university that has taken an interest in the candidate’s portfolio. Solid research and clear, concise answers can help show a committee just how wonderful a fit that candidate could be.


Kevin Brown is an associate professor of English at Lee University.

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