Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Job Market Is A Lot Like The PBS NewsHour, And Other Advice For Skype Interviews

"Of course I can teach the second half of the U.S. History survey, Mr. DeMille "
As I have suggested in earlier years, the day of the convention interview may be coming to an end.  It has been spitting blood and teeth for at least twenty years, as the academic job market has taken a pounding with only occasional, and unusual, seasons of activity that cause the professional association newsletters to write perky articles about recovery.

Even when I was a graduate student, a person could expect to pick up more than one interview at a conference.  Three interviews were considered a tipping point after which it was clear that something you were doing was ringing a bell and there would be a job with your name on it.  Even visiting jobs sometimes merited sending a small committee to the AHA:  the job that washed me in the holy water of the Ivy League and sent me catapulting into a real career was a three-year non-TT gig at a school that sent a committee to the AHA.

However, the economic crash, the near-freeze in new hiring that followed in 2008-09, and the cautious thaw in pared down academic budgets in 2009-10 may have put a permanent dent in sending hiring committees to the annual conference, even though the professional organizations don't like it (go here for a great 2009 blog post by Robert B. Townsend of the American Historical Association in response to the last time I declared the death of the conference interview.)

Let's face it:  searches are expensive and time-consuming.  Depending on where the candidates are coming from, where your campus is and whether you are served by a major or a minor airport (when was the last time you tried to buy a plane ticket to or from Tulsa?  Columbus?  Flagstaff?  Williamstown?  Burlington? Ithaca? Corvallis?) a visit to campus from one candidate can cost up to $2500.  Most colleges have shaved a hundred bucks off each visit by making the faculty purchase their own alcohol, but there really isn't any way to budget less without asking the candidate to bring a sleeping bag.  One way to save real money, and a few precious days of winter break, is to not send three to five faculty to the annual conference.  This will result resulting in saving your institution a minimum of $3K, and as much as $8K.  And think what kind of money it could save the job candidates?  There are so few jobs that hardly anyone has even two interviews anymore.

So Miss Desmond, get ready for your close-up.  It's time for the Skype interview.

I did a Skype interview last spring, for a job that no one could have interviewed  at a conference for, and it does pose certain challenges that I will address below. But it also has great advantages.  Other than liberating a big chunk of the budget (either for more useful things or for hiring another dean), one great advantage to ditching the conference interview is that departments could be liberated from the tight calendar on which searches are approved and carried out.  We would, of course, also have to liberate ourselves from the idiotic idea that the "best" candidates, like the best local peaches, are only available at a certain time of year.  The latter could be a more difficult task, but look at it this way:  doctoral candidates defend at all times of year but departments hire as if all doctoral candidates defended in May.  Furthermore, given that most schools have two to three terms, and students drift in and out at will, why couldn't a faculty member begin work in January?

Great.  Now that we have that straight we can begin.

Here's what you need to think about when you are on the search committee:
  • In case you don't really understand Skype, it is essentially a videoconferencing device (a telephone, in other words) that you can download and use for free on any laptop.  This means that it is easy to use, and you don't need to have people from IT involved.  What you do need is to position the screen in some way so that the candidate can see your faces to the extent that this is possible.  Have someone in another office Skype into the room in which you will do the interviews so that you can prop the laptop up on books and gauge how well your faces can be seen.
  • There is a good chance your faces can't really be seen.  Therefore, it's a good idea to wear different clothes, space yourselves boy/girl/boy/girl, and whatnot, so that the candidate has an idea who is talking at any given time.  Even so, repeat your names occasionally.
  • Even if the visuals aren't great, the candidate can see you well enough to know whether you are picking your nose, texting, passing notes or whispering with your neighbor.  Do not do anything you would not do with the candidate in the room.
  • Do not suggest that a candidate go to an internet cafe for the interview.  This is wrong, since there is no possible way that the candidate can control for the atmosphere, the quality of the equipment, or even being able to get online at the correct time.  If a candidate cannot possibly do Skype at home or in a university technology studio, then settle for a conference call.
  • Do consider taking advantage of how inexpensive these interviews are, and expand your semi-finalist list.  I have never been on a search where we haven't knocked people off the conference interview list for marginal reasons; and I have never done a set of conference interviews where at least a third of the candidates didn't knock themselves out of the running in the first five minutes.  I have never done a search where at least one semi-finalist who was intriguing but sort of a mystery didn't hit the ball out of the park unexpectedly when asked about hir teaching, or turn out to be interesting in some way that was not revealed in the dossier.
And if you are the candidate:
  • Consider setting the stage.  That's right -- all they are going to see is your big ol' head and whatever is behind it, so use that to your advantageProp your computer up on as many books as you need to pile up to ensure you are looking directly into the camera, and then decide on your backdrop.  What books are central to the thesis?  Is someone on the committee an author whose work needs to be featured -- with lots of lovely post-its bristling out of the top?  How about a green, leafy plant, that makes you look like a mature, relaxed person?
  • They can only see you from the waist, or maybe mid-chest, up.  Be conservative around the face, since your head will fill half the screen:  facial jewelry that is larger than you have ever seen any of the untenured faculty in your department wear into the classroom needs to go for the Skype interview.  A big heavy ring in your septum is going to make them wonder about what they can't see.  On the other hand, everything below screen level they can't see so -- let it all hang out!  I mean literally!  It can be your little joke.
  • In every interview, particularly the preliminary ones, you need to get certain things about yourself on the table, regardless of how inept the interviewers are.  And yet, in the moment, those things can be hard to remember.  The Skype interview allows you to -- write them down! A Sharpie, some note cards, and a small bulletin  board (or a dry erase white board)  that can be placed behind your laptop are a worthwhile investment.  The survey you would be expected to teach?  Sketch it out, with key texts.  A little anecdote that dresses up a methodological problem in your thesis?  A phrase like "Soup kitchen/condom/fireman" will remind you of exactly what you wanted to say about it.
  • While I don't necessarily recommend this, some of us, when especially nervous, find that a quick swallow of vodka does the trick.  Guess what?  They'll never smell it on you.
  • Be bold.  Answer questions aggressively, and make sure you address your answers to the person who asked them, even though the people at the table may look like little flesh-colored balloons with wigs on.  You have to exaggerate turning your head, since you can see them just by flicking your eyes:  women, in particular, get annoyed when they ask a question and the candidate appears to be directing hir answer to the men in the room. 
Above all, be prepared to do a Skype interview if you are going on the market.  I have known several job candidates recently who were taken by surprise by this, and did not have computers that had cameras in them.  You can buy a serviceable webcam over the internet for as little as $25 and spend a couple hours learning to use it so that you are ready to go when the search committee calls.  While it isn't OK for the committee to force you to do an interview in a public place, it also isn't OK for you not to be ready to do an interview because you haven't bothered to prepare for what is an increasingly common way to do screening interviews.  When they call, they may want to schedule for next week -- or for Friday.  The web cam is as essential to your job market success as a good interviewing outfit.

You may have discovered already that many of the links embedded in this post are to other posts I have done on the job market in past years.  Read them and learn. Good luck.


Lesboprof said...

Great post, Radical!!

I disagree with only one point: Don't go casual (or less) from the waist down. You never know when something might happen that is unexpected--such as your fire alarm going off or a child falling down--that necessitates that you get up while on camera. It could be a bad "scene," if you do.

Also, write down the names and mark the locations of the interview committee members as they introduce themselves to you. That way, you can address them by name, even if they never re-introduce themselves. It makes you look very smart.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

Even if the visuals aren't great, the candidate can see you well enough to know whether you are picking your nose, texting, passing notes or whispering with your neighbor. Do not do anything you would not do with the candidate in the room.

Wut? They may as well learn sooner than later what faculty meetings are like.

BTW, skype or some other kind of internet bullshitte would be impossible for natural science faculty interviews. This is because the candidate needs to give a public seminar as part of the interview.

Bardiac said...

Comrade, in the humanities, it's pretty common to do preliminary interviews with ten or so candidates before inviting a small number of candidates to campus for in person interviews, which often include teaching or giving a talk. I think the skype idea is for the preliminary interviews.

Susan said...

We're doing phone, not skype, interviews this year. I skype with my sibs all the time, but I wouldn't want a call to drop, or some such. Also, the phone makes it easier to do interviews on people's off days.

But otherwise, the same things go. You need to be just as focused as you would be for an in person interview.

Anonymous said...

TR, what do you see as the advantage to (often low-quality) visuals via skype, as opposed to just a conference call/phone interview?

Realistically, what does video skype give you, other than allow for biases based on appearance? (Yes I know these are part of an in-person interview too - but if you're going to do off-site interviews, what's the point in going with video skype vs phone?)

benjamin aldes wurgaft said...

Having done a Skype interview myself as a job candidate, I'd like to add one more thing: look directly into the camera. Do not, repeat, do not spend most of the time looking at your computer screen as though you and your interviewers could see eye to eye normally. Regardless of how intelligent you are, the hominid tendency to look at the eyes you're trying to make contact with, can be a very hard one to break. Thanks TR for a timely and practical post!

Brian W. Ogilvie said...

@Anonymous 9:28: Having been on both sides of a phone interview, I'd say that the big advantage of Skype is that you can see how your interlocutor is reacting. I found it frustrating being on the phone with a group of people and not knowing who was speaking, or whether I should continue with my answer or change the subject. With Skype, you can see whether the person on the other end is nodding and implying you should continue, or beginning to lose interest.

TA4EVA said...

Oh for pete's sake.

jason fossella said...

Environmentally speaking, we're going to have to move to skype-type interviews. Have you looked up the emissions on a cross-country flight? It's not pretty. I stopped flying about a year ago because of it.

Leslie M-B said...

My preliminary interview for my current job in a history department was done via videoconference. All I had to do was connect my old university's tech folks with the interviewing institution's, and they took care of the technical details. I think it cost me $79 for the hour, and the interviewing institution reimbursed me for the cost. The connection was relatively clear, the screen I was looking at was very large so I could see everyone, and all technical problems (and there were a few) were handled by the pros. The committee made DVDs of the interviews available to faculty who weren't on the interview panel.

More expensive than Skype, yes, but highly recommended!

The department's administrative assistant recently put one copy of my interview DVD in my mailbox. The thought of watching it horrifies me, but I'm comforted to know the other copies went into the trash. :)

Jason Mittell said...

I'm a big advocate of Skype interviews in lieu of conference meetings. I chaired a search committee for a media studies hire last year and blogged about the search. Here's the excerpt about our Skype interviews of 10 short-listed candidates:

We could have chosen 3 candidates to bring to campus without doing the Skype interviews, but I feel confident in saying that only one of those three would have matched our actual invite list. The Skype interviews gave us a sense of each candidate’s ability to articulate themselves and make us excited and interested about their research and teaching. In a small department at a small college, faculty need to feel comfortable with colleagues’ abilities to communicate with each other, students, other departments, and the field at large. Is it fair to judge somebody’s communication abilities solely by how they perform in a 45 minute video interview (or an in-person hotel room interview either)? No – but the nature of the job search is that there are so many candidates who are strong on paper that you need to find ways to distinguish between them beyond the CV.

The content of the Skype interviews ranged from teaching to research to their career goals. I sent some questions ahead of time, specifically asking candidates to prepare to talk about how they would teach a core course in our program, and outline a new course they’d bring to the curriculum. Again, I hope readers charged with leading a search follow this lead, as all the candidates were appreciative to be able to prepare answers to these questions in advance – and it’s not like you’d ever really be asked to pitch a new course with no advanced prep! We tried to avoid asking “zinger” questions, as it would not only tell us little about the candidates, but it would reflect badly on us as potential colleagues. Overall, the conversations were less about getting the right answers, but about demonstrating their ability to communicate effectively, admit when they don’t know something, and show some promise to be innovative thinkers and teachers.

Anonymous said...

re: Leslie M-B: I was asked to do a video-conference interview early this season, but the committee didn't give enough advance notice or time slot selection to fit into the schedule of my university's videoconference services, which books up months in advance. We barely managed to find a mutually convenient time. Also, hiring the technician (mandatory to use the technology and expected by the committee) would have cost $250 for the hour I had to book (including set-up time, 30 min interview, some time to spare).

So $250 for a single interview? Just as expensive, perhaps more, than a conference interview! Skype would have been better if not as crystal-clear. Committee should be aware of, or at least ask about, constraints with video conference facilities with their candidates.

Tenured Radical said...

As a big Skype fan, I would also add that graduate schools should expand their videoconferencing facilities so that they are accessible and free to students on the market. This would be part of helping your graduates become employed......

Lost in the desert said...

I love, (LUV!) the Skype interview. I have had dozens of interviews--conference, phone, campus-- and had my first Skype interview last year. For my mind, the upsides are tremendous. Not only is price appealing (i.e., free), but it removes some of the traditional pitfalls of the in person AND phone interviews. One need not worry about standard academic awkward handshakes, odd eye contact, and the dreaded sinking couch on Skype. Gone, too, is guessing about the reception with the phone interview. Plus, I really love to get comfortable before the interview. So sign me up!

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Anonymous said...

"In case you don't know what Skype is", the oldskies up in academe are out of touch. I hope they don't go trying to put a webcam on their word processors.

Mama said...

I was interviewed over skype as a candidate for an assistant professor position and my advice would be to train faculty on how to effectively use skype! We did not use the video function because we skyped in a faculty member from Thailand so it was more like a conference call. The interview was incredibly awkward--the faculty member in Thailand was dropped off the call several times during my 30 minute interview and while the rest of the committee was telling me to keep talking, they would also interrupt me saying "Hello, XXX are you there?" If your university plans to use skype, make sure they have a good handle on how to do it--otherwise you risk putting your candidate in an awkward situation where they do not feel comfortable and are not able to express their ideas without being interrupted! Great post--VERY relevant for current job seekers.

Anonymous said...

I very much agree with Jason Mittel and Mama's comments. I did two Skype interviews as a candidate with very good schools this year. The freeform interviews that I did left me feeling that faculty were trying to get through the process as quickly as possible rather than locate the best candidate.

I made mistakes, of course, but my overall impression of the faculty was that they were less familiar with Skype than I was (despite the fact that they were very well-intentioned).

The employer should always be in control of the interview environment. Jason Mittel's suggestion about precirculating questions (especially for course proposals) and not asking "zinger" questions would do a lot to give interviewees the sense that the faculty has adequately prepared and wants to get the best candidate.

All in all, the conference interview is far more pleasant and productive for this candidate. If schools can find a way for the Skype interview to come closer to the conference interview in terms of professionalism, Skype could come close to face-to-face meetings but search committees will have to put the same thought that they do into conference interviews for that to happen.

Anonymous said...

I've done several SKYPE interviews and only 1 tanked. Kept dropping the call and we finally settled on a conference call instead. The other went really well. It's interesting how much easier it is than a conference call where you can't see who is talking, there are odd silences, and all that. One thing I do recommend is to not have a jumbled bookcase background. Yep, I know people want to show off their dissertations, but it just looks busy. Also, wear a warm color (coral or something) next to your face rather than blue (cool color) Finally, print out a small picture of a good friend, cut a little "half moon" out of the bottom and tape it just atop your camera "eye." This helps you lift your face and react to the camera -- not to the eyeline of the video screen people (which actually makes your eyes look downcast to those on the video. Last, turn off your screen saver (which usually pops on every 15 minutes or whatever), and call and have a SKYPE chat with a friend that lasts at least 15 minutes. You'll not only feel more comfortable, but you'll know for sure that if the call drops, it's not you(!)