TT Phone interviews: Don't talk yourself off a short list

Dec 18 2012 Published by under [Education&Careers]

I never did a phone interview for my interviews when on the TT job hunt and so I balked when my search committee colleagues suggested we do a round. My though was simply that we would have a bunch of superficial conversations with people that wouldn't change our perception.

I was wrong.

I was quite surprised at the variation in how people handled the phone interviews. I fully recognize that candidate anxiety is high this time of year, as examplified by Reaction Norm's posts on phone interviews and some of the questions. It's a tense time and I remember it well - sitting in the kitchen with my very pregnant wife trying to figure out if I needed to look for another postdoc or whether the job deities would smile favor on me.

But luck favors the prepared and it's unwise to go into a phone interview without having prepared. There is a lot of interview advice on Dr. Becca's job advice aggregator, but fresh from the search committee (SC) side of phone interviewing I've posted some suggestions here for candidates.

1) Do your homework. I don't think it is at all necessary to read papers from people on the SC or anything like that, but you should look into the department, college and university. Know a little about the size of the school and the size of the department. Identify resources, like centers, that may be helpful to you.

2) In a similar vein, find a few people who you might like to talk to should you be invited for a campus interview. The web makes this easy, so have a feel for who is in the department and what research overlap there may be.

3) Be organized in your answers. If you got the questions ahead of time make sure you have some talking points and don't ramble for days. If you didn't get the questions, consider the question and then get to the point. A SC doesn't need to hear a dissertation-level answer and you want to leave time at the end for your own questions. Common questions to prepare for:

-Why is this university a good fit for you (Reaction Norm's fav). Don't go on about "the international reputation of your prestigious university" like you are reading from one of those "Dear Esteemed Professor, I want to work in your lab on *cut and paste topic* using my background in *completely unrelated field*" emails. Identify resources that would be helpful. Proximity to field sites? Potential colleagues? Whatever, but give a couple specifics.

-What could you see teaching here? Demonstrate that you have thought about this. You don't need to see what classes need to be offered (that's for later), but the committee wants to know you have fired a couple neurons on the topic. What level course would it be? What's the topic? Have you considered the general outline? Would it have a lab? Field component? Etc....

-Describe your experience/plans in applying for extramural funding. Have you been involved in submitting grants? Have you submitted something yourself? This your opportunity to bring up unsuccessful proposals that don't show up on your CV. Also, have a feel for WHERE you would apply in the future. And not "I would apply to NSF", but how about "I would probably target the Evolutionary Processes cluster in NSF's DEB".

4) Have questions. Don't be surprised at the opportunity to ask questions you might have, remember that the SC is ALSO trying to recruit you. They'll want you to have a chance to figure out if this is good for you too. Some questions were aggregated by Reaction Norm, but I think a lot of those are more on campus type questions. For the phone interview I would stick to something like:

-What are the teaching expectations and are the different for pretenure vs. tenured faculty?

-Is there lab space available or will space have to be renovated?

-Is available as a shared resource?

-How are grad students brought into the program (rotation or not) and how are they supported?

-If your work might cross departments or colleges: Is there a history of collaboration between Search Department and XXXX Dept?

-What is the time line for the interview process?

5) Finally, be yourself. I know that is cliché, but you can't guess what the department is looking for, so you need to just let them know about you. Be organized in the talking points you want to get across, but don't read a script. Try to roll with the tone of the committee and just let them know who you are. If you make it clear that you are interested in their department and excited about the opportunity to come discuss in person, you've done your job.

7 responses so far

  • There almost always seems to be a phone interview if one is on the short-list ( budgetary issues?).

    I have a list of questions that some senior personal in the institute gave me, and I have ready made answers for some stuff ( like my research plans) and tailored answers for others (like department, university etc).

    Seems to be working for me 😀

  • And as the old expression goes, practice, practice, practice. Have a friend call you up and do a phone interview. Have someone sitting with you and taking notes. If it doesn't go well the first practice, do it again.

  • aaaa says:

    If your work might cross departments or colleges: Is there a history of collaboration between Search Department and XXXX Dept?

    There is one exception to this rule: if your home department has been XXXX in grad school or during your postdoc and Search Department is trying to figure out if you're a good fit. In this situation, if you ask too many questions about XXXX Dept before you have an offer, it may seem like you want to be in XXXX, which is not great for your chances.

  • studyzone says:

    Two more pieces of advice that I found very helpful to keep in mind:

    1) find a quiet place, with good phone reception (if using a cell phone), and ensure that your cell phone is fully-charged. I was lucky in that the two postdocs and I that shared an office were very flexible about each other's interview needs, so when one of us needed the office for a postdoc lab, the other two made sure they were in the lab or elsewhere. One of my friends made the mistake of doing a phone interview at home - her dog started barking incessantly, and could be heard even when shut in the bedroom.

    2) Skype/FaceTime interviews are increasingly common (half of my interviews were Skyped, and my new dept. conducts all phone interviews this way). Since the committee can see whatever the camera picks up, dress professionally from waist up (I sat in on one phone interview where the candidate was wearing a conference T-shirt. The committee was not impressed.). Ensure that the space behind you is either bare, or tidied up (I placed a few text books in my discipline strategically on the bookcase behind me in the office).

  • Mac says:

    Chime on the advice to be concise and do your research. A friend (really, it wasn't me :)) had an early phone interview where at the end they essentially told her they had to go but hadn't gotten to ask all their questions and they seemed annoyed. They were trying to be fair by keeping the same time limit on all interviews but as an enthusiastic and voluble person she had gone on too long with early questions and they ran out of time. She did not get a campus interview. Many of us enjoy talking about all the great things we could do in that shiny imagined future but keep in mind the committee has a number of these to get through and if you get the campus interview you'll have more time to get into those.

    I had a couple phone interviews and this may be about where those jobs were but one question I got and am not sure I answered well was about whether the area was an issue for me. In those cases it was that the school was fairly rural. This can be a hard one to answer honestly if you haven't been there but if you think it's an issue they might raise it's worth thinking about the possible benefits of the area to be able to discuss them.

  • AD says:

    "...find a quiet place, with good phone reception", "... dress professionally from waist up" and " Ensure that the space behind you is either bare, or tidied up"

    +1 to all the above. I ALWAYS make an effort to look for a quiet place with good reception for phone interviews. If its a video call then I usually book our conference room and sit in front of a plain wall or cabinet so that the interviewer(s) have a tidy view. I have always been invited to the next interview stage following the first screening interview.

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