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Faculty candidates: Tips for a successful “skype” interview

A teleconference interview with an academic search committee has become a standard practice in university searches for faculty hiring. (Here I’ll call it a “skype” interview, although a variety of teleconferencing software is used.) For example, as part of an expansion in SEAS we recently did four national searches that all included skype interviews. The skype interview was used as the primary means to select among those on the “short list” (usually the top 12 or so) down to the three candidates invited for an on-campus interview. In one of these searches we had a very large applicant pool (190 applicants) so we selected 20 applicants for skype interviews.

Consider the importance of the skype interview when it is used this way. All of the effort you put into the written application and generating strong reference letters has gotten you into the top 10 or 12. To make it into the top three you now have to impress the search committee in your skype interview, yet many candidates seem unprepared for this step of the process. This post offers some guidance on preparing for the skype interview with the search committee, based on my experience and conversations with others from the search-committee side. First I outline what to expect, then give a description of what the search committee is looking for in these interviews, then finally offer a series of “do’s” and “don’ts” for you as the candidate during the interview.

What to expect

The search committee is a group of faculty tasked with evaluating all of the applications, making the short list, conducting the skype interviews, and selecting the final three candidates that will be invited for on-campus interviews. When candidates come to campus, the search committee will organize and host those campus visits. The committee may contain from three to six faculty members, one of whom serves as chair. Members will range from assistant to full professors. They may be from a range of disciplines, although at least one person will be close to your discipline. One or more may be from a different department, school, or college at the same university. Departments ask for outside help as a way of cross-pollinating, casting the net for applicants more broadly, and getting a fresh perspective from another unit at the university. There may also be a graduate student on the committee.

Everyone on the search committee has seen your application and looked at it closely enough, and saw it as being strong enough, that they agreed you should be on the short list. Each person has spent time carefully reviewing the parts of your application that they thought were the most important (whether the publications, grants, teaching statement, etc.) By this stage, they have also probably received your letters of recommendation. The search chair has probably looked closely at all of the letters, while other committee members may or may not have read them closely. There has likely been some brief discussion about the letters, along the lines of “She got a really strong letter from Prof. X at university Y,” or “Professor A at university B wrote about his research, but nothing more than what’s in his papers, so she didn’t seem to know him very well.” Members of the search committee have also probably seen a few of your top publications and each member has skimmed them to varying degrees. Members have looked at your Google Scholar profile and someone on the committee has told the others your citations trend, your H-index, and how the citations rank on the papers where you are first author versus those where you are a coauthor. Committee members discuss your citation levels in the context of how many years have elapsed since your PhD was completed. (If you don’t have a Google Scholar profile, make one as soon as you finish reading this post. It’s that important.)

In the search I most recently served on, as I mentioned above, we skype-interviewed 20 candidates. We set up continuous blocks of time (about 4 hours each) in which we interviewed 4 to 5 people in a block, with the interview start times typically spaced 45 minutes apart. The interviews were generally 30 minutes each, sometimes a little longer, giving us a few minutes to review each candidate’s strengths both before and after the skype interview. We were generally sitting there with the equipment on and the interview link open about 5 minutes early, so if the candidate showed up a few minutes early, we stopped whatever else we were talking about and started the interview.

When you connect, the search committee members will all be sitting around a conference table with their webcam and screen at one end. They will all appear small on your screen, and some may actually be cut off at the screen edges. You, on the other hand, may be projected onto the screen of a large-screen TV at one end of the conference table so they will all see you really well. Consider whether you should sit a little farther back from your camera than you normally do, so your head is not three feet tall on the big screen. Some candidates appear much more relaxed if the shot shows them sitting comfortably, back a little from the camera, from the midsection up. Dress the way you would for an on-campus interview; it doesn’t look pretentious, it looks professional.

Screenshot image of search committee.
What the candidates saw during our skype interviews. Note one person is speaking while most others are using their computers to view materials and take notes.

When the interview begins, the search chair will introduce herself and probably begin with a brief statement about where they are in the search process, how many candidates remain on the short list, and the timing of the rest of the process (e.g. the dates when they expect to have on-campus interviews.) Then the committee members will go around the room, having each person on the committee ask you one or two questions. After you respond, someone may have a follow-up to that question. From the committee’s perspective, these questions are scripted. All candidates are asked the same set of questions, so that candidate’s responses can be studied and compared – remember, from their perspective, their main task at this stage is to narrow the list from 10 or more candidates down to the top three. While you are talking, several committee members may have their noses buried in their computer screens and typing … but don’t be put off by that. They are taking notes and scrolling through your application or your publications while you talk.

Some of the questions they will ask are easy to anticipate, for example, what could you see yourself teaching or what types of courses would you like to develop. Others may be harder to anticipate and specific to the department or the position description. At major research universities, questions are likely to focus more on your research; at smaller liberal arts colleges, questions are more likely to focus on your teaching. If you haven’t been on a faculty interview at a major research university before, be prepared for high-level questions about your field, including questions about your own intellectual contributions to your field. Unfortunately, PhD programs often do not prepare people for these kinds of questions and many candidates are not ready for them. Talking about your intellectual contribution to your field is different from talking about your methods or what your data showed (which is a mistake that many candidates make). It is a good idea to think about higher-level topics and practice some succinct responses to such questions.

Nearing the end of the skype interview, the committee may take 5 minutes or so to see if you have any questions. Of course you have questions. However, five minutes at the end of the skype interview is probably not enough time to answer anything substantive. If you want to ask about the teaching or the service expectation, about the facilities that will be dedicated to this position, or other things, these questions are better to ask in a separate phone call with the search chair and/or during the on-campus interview. At the end of the skype interview the search committee is very much in evaluation mode … that’s where their heads are. A strategic use of this time for you as the candidate would be to follow up on something that came up in the interview, e.g. “While I have the whole committee here, can I follow up on _____?” Another suggestion is to ask the committee if they saw any concern that you could try to address with the remaining few minutes. If one of your responses did raise a concern, it might strengthen your case if you had a few minutes to address it.

What the search committee is looking for

The search committee is looking for these three things: (a) someone who will be a good faculty colleague, (b) someone who will “interview well” if they are invited for the on-campus interview, and (c) someone who fits the needs of this position well, as described in the job ad (and in the context of the needs and the traditions of that university and that department). I will address these in turn.

Evaluating whether a candidate would be a good faculty colleague is difficult, if not impossible, in a skype interview. The on-campus interview fills that function much better. For the skype interview, avoid seeming negative (or arrogant, demanding, or critical) and accentuate collegiality where you can. For example, “I think it’s important for the faculty to work together to agree on the courses needed in the curriculum” is a collegial type of statement.

The point about showing the committee that you will “interview well” is critical. It’s one of the most important things to demonstrate in the skype interview. Show that you listen carefully to their questions, you get what they are driving at, you are thoughtful but quick, and you can respond in an articulate manner. Show that you know what the department is about and what the search is about. One goal is to impress them now, but an equally important goal is to show them you will impress in the on-campus interview.

The committee is looking for strong scholars, but also people who are interesting and engaging to have a conversation with. If they invite you to campus, they are going to be having meals with you, showing you around, and listening to your 45-minute seminar. They are probably evaluating, “is this someone I want to spend that much time with?” – that’s human nature. Show your best ‘people skills’ (as hard as it is to do that over skype). Show that you can be somewhat relaxed and collegial even in this high-pressure, high-stakes situation.

On what it means to be a good fit to the position, search committees have endless debates and frankly a book could be written. Hiring a new tenure-track faculty member through a national search is a big deal to the existing faculty and everyone has strong opinions. No candidate is perfect in every dimension, so the discussion revolves around priorities. Every search is idiosyncratic and buffeted by departmental politics and the personalities of the people involved. Sometimes search committee members enjoy a solid consensus about the most important consideration in the search, and other times they don’t. I recall once in a search for an ecologist, there was disagreement about whether the hire needed to be purely an aquatic ecologist, or whether it was OK if they had a terrestrial focus. What the search committee agreed on, after debate, was that a somewhat terrestrial focus was OK as long as it was someone who “got their boots wet.” (Meaning they did at least some work in wetlands or riparian zones of streams or lakes.) In that case, in the skype interview the committee might have asked the candidate about the types of field sites they envisioned working in, to see if the candidate mentioned any habitats where one’s boots would get wet. For the candidate, it’s impossible to know the right answers to these leading questions or to guess the compromise aspects of the “fit” that the committee is seeking. You could email the search chair and ask whether they would be open to a phone call prior to the skype interview to allow you to learn more about what they are looking for. Do read the position description carefully and address its specifics where you can in the skype interview just as you did in your written application.

Getting your boots wet: Bill Currie working with a student in the field.

Understand the disciplinary nature of the position. Universities hire junior faculty, in part, to be representatives of their fields. If you are an ecologist (like me), the department wants to hire you as an individual, but they also want to hire an ecologist. They want someone who attends and presents at the right conferences for an ecologist, publishes in the right journals for an ecologist, submits proposals to the right grant programs for an ecologist, and in general walks and talks like an ecologist. I personally think it’s unfortunate that there is such a disciplinary expectation for junior faculty, because it works against scholars who are broader or interdisciplinary or for whatever reason don’t fit the mold in a particular field. (In my opinion we need more scholars who don’t fit the traditional expectation.) If you feel you don’t fit a traditional mold, you may have nothing to lose and a lot to gain by saying so and by describing your unique approach to scholarship that crosses fields in an innovative way. Still, be advised that the typical search process in the typical department tends to favor people who do fit the mold – the current expectations of a person at an early career stage in a specific field.

Perhaps above all, or on top of all of the other concerns, the search committee is looking for someone who is ready to step into a tenure-track, junior faculty position. This is one of the intangibles. Evaluating these intangibles is one of the reasons we have humans, instead of an algorithm, conducting the search. Simple metrics like time since degree or numbers of grants are not reliable. We’ve seen people who completed their PhD degree 8 years ago who are not ready to step into the demands of a tenure-track assistant professorship, and frankly may never be ready. In contrast, we’ve seen people who just completed their PhD degree within the last year and do appear ready for the demands of a tenure-track assistant professorship. If you don’t have a good sense of what it means to be ready for these demands, ask your PhD advisor, postdoctoral mentor, or other faculty members … or that could perhaps be a future blog post.

Now that we’ve discussed what you can expect from the skype interview and what the search committee is looking for, let’s move on to the “do’s” and “don’ts” for you as a candidate in this new type of interview situation.

“Do’s” and “don’ts” for the skype interview

Do: Find out what meeting software the search committee will be using and install and test it well in advance. Become familiar with the interface in advance. Check whether the computer you plan to use has a high-quality webcam and microphone, and if it doesn’t, then invest in a separate webcam/mic that you can attach through a USB port. Test the whole setup in advance with friends or colleagues, using the same teleconference software that the search committee will use.

Don’t: Go into the interview with newly-installed teleconference software or untested equipment, or use a poor webcam or microphone. Members of the search committee are eager to meet you and talk with you and eager to begin the interview on schedule. It really takes the wind out of the sails when the first 5 minutes are spent trying to troubleshoot audio problems so everyone can hear you. (Still, if technical problems do occur, deal with them in a cool and professional manner; don’t allow it to make you flustered.)

Do: Listen carefully, make sure you heard the question right, and then respond thoughtfully and succinctly to each question. Stop talking after a minute or two and ask the questioner if they want you to continue, or if you should stop there. (They probably have several more questions to ask, and time is dear. A half hour goes by very fast.)

Don’t: Ramble, go off on tangents, or spend too much time answering one question. This is a problem with teleconferencing. If you were in the room and rambling on too long, you would be able to tell from the others’ body language or glances that it’s time to stop. But through a webcam interface, you can’t see those cues.

Do: Have talking points prepared that give concise answers to the kinds of questions you are able to anticipate. Put some time into preparing these in advance and jot down some notes. Rehearse them with friends and colleagues.

Don’t: Completely memorize, word for word, every response you plan to make. This comes across as stiff. (If you do have a response memorized, then don’t allow it to be obvious. Employ your acting skills and make it seem like your response is spontaneous and you are delivering it for the first time.)

Do: Ease into the interview, and save some of your most valuable gems for the second half.

Don’t: Launch into an initial speech that goes on for 10 minutes and that tries to address every anticipated question and every qualification you bring to the position. This comes off as too aggressive and amateurish. The initial questions may be low-key, but follow-up questions will come. The search committee will give you a chance to address other questions and topics. You probably will have a little time at the end to add anything you feel you need to say.

Do: Be relaxed. Do whatever you need to do before the skype interview to make yourself relaxed – a good night’s sleep, exercise, meditation, decaf coffee … whatever works for you.

Don’t: Be so nervous that you freeze and forget everything that you prepared or stumble over your own words.

Do: Show that you are a strong scholar and articulate speaker. Strive to find the sweet spot between the too-simple and the too-pedantic use of language. Frankly, being able to find this sweet spot is a big part of being a professor and being able to communicate effectively with students and colleagues. The search committee wants to see you demonstrate this skill.

Don’t: Either over-simplify your language or over-jargonize your language. Language that uses a high-school vocabulary is too everyday and oversimplified for a faculty interview. But on the other end of the spectrum, language that is too jargon-rich or full of complex, specialized theories, or a speaking style where you cite authors in the middle of every sentence, is too pedantic.

Do: As you speak, refer briefly to specific examples from your research, thus subtly reminding the committee of some of your accomplishments.

Don’t: Recite a list of the information that is on your CV or of all the projects you’ve been involved in (the committee members have all read that.) Don’t give a long explanation of one of your papers (they have also seen your publications, if you sent them as part of the application). This is probably the single biggest mistake that candidates make in skype interviews – trying to impress the committee with a long, verbal listing of accomplishments. The members of the search committee were already impressed enough by your accomplishments on paper to ask you for a skype interview. You’re past that. This is now the next stage, where they are assessing other things such as your ability to communicate verbally, effectively. Show your communication skills through an engaging back-and-forth exchange.

Do: Tie your own research in an interesting and compelling way to broader questions and advances in your field, and describe how you expect your research and scholarship to evolve going forward.

Don’t: Continually refer back to the same few topics, experiments, or findings from your own research in a very narrow manner. This makes it appear that you are myopic, as if you can’t step beyond the specific project that’s right in front of you.

Do: Give articulate answers and tangible examples where possible.

Don’t: State overly general platitudes. For example, an overly general platitude would be “In my teaching, I want to focus on the way students can learn best.” Sure, but what does that mean? Remember, you are talking to a group of university professors who have been teaching for a long time. A better statement would be to offer something more tangible, such as “I think it’s important to teach students critical thinking skills,” or “I like to emphasize case-based teaching.” Think tangible and meaningful, not vagueness and platitudes.

I hope you found this helpful. If you did, drop me an email. Or even better, pass it along. And good luck with your skype interviews!