Friday, February 05, 2010

Phoning It In

Some institutions of higher learning use the Phone Interview for an initial screening of candidates on the medium short list (for various positions at various levels) before deciding on the short short list of candidates to interview in person. For some positions (e.g., a sabbatical replacement or postdoc), the phone interview might be the only interview, especially if the candidate is on another continent and there are financial and/or time pressures to fill the position.

I have been on the interviewer end of quite a few phone interviews, but I have never been the interviewee. I use "phone" here rather loosely -- some of these interviews have involved a conference call using telephones, whereas others have involved various forms of video conferencing, in which some or all of the people involved can see each other on a computer monitor or on a big screen via projection.

I do not like phone interviews, although I realize that they are necessary in certain situations. Last summer and fall, I did quite a few phone interviews whilst I was traveling and I found this very logistically challenging. For one of them I ended up sprinting through the streets of a European town when my cell phone died and I couldn't find a functioning pay phone. Working out a mutually convenient time for a call involving people on 4 continents was also interesting.

More typically, I am in my office or a conference room for the phone interview, and a group of faculty collects for the event.

Here I summarize the pros and cons of phone interviews for the interviewer; feel free to add items from the point of view of the interviewee if you have experienced an e-interview:


- cheap and efficient!

- you can take notes without making the interviewee self-conscious

Hmm. Is that all the pros or am I unjustly biased by my dislike of talking on the phone?


- conversations are more awkward without the in-person cues you get to help guide the conversation; during phone interviews, people inadvertently interrupt each other often and there's a lot of "Sorry, go ahead" kinds of conversational fragments

- the extent of interaction is much more limited; you feel like you have to get all your questions in during the one conversation and there is less of an opportunity for the discussion to evolve

- embarrassment: During a recent slew of phone interviews, one of the people involved could not distinguish between the voices of the two American women and this created a few difficult moments before I learned to say "This is FSP and I am wondering..".

- my own personal preference: Did I mention that I hate talking on the phone? I think I would actually prefer an internet chat interview -- has anyone done this?

I wonder if there are people who are eliminated from consideration because of an awkward phone interview, whereas these people would do really well in an in-person interview; or vice versa. Or are phone interviews an effective method of reducing a long list of qualified people to a shorter list or even to one preferred candidate?

I must say that in the phone interviews I have done in recent years, I am always relieved when I can hang up the phone, but I have in every case been very pleased with the candidates selected via this interview method.

Perhaps this method of interviewing will become even more common owing to the financial allure of e-interviews, but it's difficult to imagine that it would ever take the place of the 2-3 day interviewfest that most places currently use to select human beings as colleagues.


Anonymous said...

As someone who has been an interviewee over the phone, I thought this method is less intimidating than a regular video or in-person interview. The disadvantage is that you can't evaluate facial expressions and therefore it is harder to determine if your explanation of things and answers to questions is sufficient or not.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

I would rather stab myself in the fucking ribs with a rusty fish knife than conduct a phone interview.

Anonymous said...

One important pro argument is that phone interviews are more environmentally friendly, because they involve less travelling, i.e. flying. I have been surprised twice by how casual supposedly cash-strapped universities were with their 'just buy a ticket and come over' even when I asked for an interview by phone/Skype. It's also important for the fairness of the process to interview EVERY candidate by phone first-even if s/he is at the college across the street...Skype and a good camera can actually do quite amazing things

Anonymous said...

I haven't done phone interviews but have done a couple pf webcam meetings with prospective grad students from other continents to decide if I could support their application to do a phd in my lab. Webcam interviews are now so easy to set up and so much more friendly than phone-only interviews that I think they should be standard, at least in the first round of searches.

Curious Computer said...

Does anyone really run phone interviews when an in-person interview is practical? I was the interviewee in a phone interview for a PhD position/scholarship. It was awkward, mostly because it was hard to hear what people were saying. (Five interviewers sharing 2 phones between them.) However, the alternative was a 24 hour plane trip, each way. I found out when I arrived to take up the position that my supervisor was very worried I couldn't understand her (non-native) English, just because I had to ask so many times for something to be repeated.

John said...

I participated in a few phone interviews when I was on the job market last year (I described them almost a year ago here: As a candidate, I preferred interviews where the interviewees were in their own offices. The fact that none of us could pick up on nonverbal cues seemed to level the playing field a bit.

Anonymous said...

I did two phone interviews before for a short-term job. On one occassion I was on a different continent and the other I was just out of the country at the time. I agree that the awkwardness of phone interviews, especially conference type interviews. On that occassion I was halfway up a mountain and interviewing via mobile phone. If they had called up slightly earlier I probably wouldn't have to keep interupting them with the fact that I cannot hear what the interviewers were asking me about as the line was bad so they needed to shout out a bit and the line was going to break any minute.

amy said...

I'm grateful I haven't had to do a phone interview yet (as either party). I have a mild phone phobia, and I would definitely be disadvantaged as a phone interviewee. Plus, the jobs I would interview for would expect some kind of teaching ability, and how well could that be judged over the phone?

Anonymous said...

I did a video conference for my post-doctoral position and fealt it was terribly awkward. The screen showing my potential advisor kept cutting out, but everything was normal on their side. Regardless, I got the position. Downside, I didn't get to visit before starting... had I seen and met in person, I might have looked elsewhere.

I also did a pre-screen phone interview for a faculty position. That wasn't so bad since there was no video component. There was a lot of interrupting but it was on both sides. Made it through for the real interview...

Jen said...

I just had a phone interview with Harvard on Wednesday, and I was worried about it for the same reasons. I don't really like talking on the phone because you always seem to be interrupting that person, and they can't really see any of your body language. Thankfully it went really well regardless of that minor awkwardness. I just wish she could have seen how big I was grinning when she was explaining her research! It's exactly what I want to study and I was so excited, but that doesn't always come through in words.

Prof-like Substance said...

I have had to (and am about to) conduct interviews via Skype for grad student positions. It is often impractical to fly perspective students in and I think this strategy, one-on-one, is not a bad compromise. Not as impersonal as the phone but cheaper than bring people in from afar.

Unknown said...

Phone or video conference interviews are very common if you a) come from Australia or somewhere similarly 'far away' and/or b) the institution is strapped for cash. They are never, ever better than a face-to-face interview and both parties are at a massive disadvantage. I have had several phone and video conference interviews as the interviewee and they are plagued with technical hitches - even in this modern era, and with the problem of not being able to read the reactions of the person you are speaking to. Non-verbal cues are a vital part of communication. Then add in problems with thick accents and shortage of time and not being able to get a 'feel' for an institution... it all ends up an unsatisfying mess. It's especially unfair to the phone interviewee if some are interviewed in person and some are not.

Anonymous said...

My favorite is the interview by text message! If a prof cannot ask a question/answer a question within 1 sentence, I do not want to work with them. I even sent a picture text message of a figure I did to my future adviser (I start this fall) and she was very impressed with my use of alternative resources of communication.

Anonymous said...

If I'm genuinely very uncomfortable with a phone/video interview - such that I think it will put me at a serious disadvantage - how can I say so? Can I say no?

Anonymous said...

I hate phone conversations with professors in general and especially for an interview. I really like the suggestion by FSP to conduct online chat (im) interviews.

Here's one upside to the torture that is phone interviews... if the interviewer asks an unexpected question for which you haven't thought of a good answer for beforehand then you can ask them to repeat it (supposing that phone interference made the question difficult to hear the first time) which buys the interviewee more time to think of a good answer.

Anonymous said...

From interviewee side - the institute that invites me over has a higher chance of recruiting me than the one that conducts a phone interview. If you are deciding on spending several years of your live somewhere, you want to at least see how your future workplace will look like (equipment, expression on grad students' faces, facilities, the lot).

Anonymous said...

I have been the interviewee several times and feel they are incredibly uncomfortable. I found out later how I had misunderstood a question and answered fairly poorly - in a group setting, it seems less likely that someone would use a followup question to try to get you back on the right track. In person, I could have probably seen I was answering it incorrectly via the interviewer's body language, and then I could have asked for clarification.
The plus to being an interviewee is you can surround yourself with material on the job/your potential responses/the school, etc. That was mildly reassuring while I was waiting for the call!

Anonymous said...

Phone isn't your thing? Don't forget the newest medium for remote conversation -- the twinterview.

A previous commenter writes:

If a prof cannot ask a question/answer a question within 1 sentence, I do not want to work with them.

I guess I'm old-fashioned... Among other things, I try to get a feel for personality when I interview prospective students/faculty (would we work well together? do I want to sit on a committee with this person?). 140 characters is a little to brief for all but the best writers to transmit their personality.

Becca said...

I had a surprise phone interview for a faculty position last year, and it was awful. It's possible that most of the awfulness came from me being caught totally off-guard, but I feel it's very hard to connect with someone for the first time when you can't make eye contact or get general facial expression feedback. My highly entertaining account of the entire event can be read here.

Anonymous said...

i did a phone interview, for a faculty job that is 20 mins away. i found it was strange that they didn't just invite me in, but it is probably fairer for all the candidates that we were all interviewed the same way.

and that got me thinking that phone interviews might be "fairer" since no one can judge you by the color of your skin/weight/height/pregnancy status.

phone interviews are awkward, but one should be able to talk about one's research under any circumstance.

Jen said...

I am hearing-impaired, and while I can hear, I am really dependent on lip-reading. I've been invited to several phone interviews. Each time, I have to mention my hearing issues. Once, it was for a post-graduate fellowship, and the committee was wonderfully supportive. They actually flew the committee chair out to my hometown to conduct the interview (I got the fellowship, and had a wonderful experience). Another time, it was for a teaching position within 25 miles of my hometown. However, after I requested accommodation (I said I was willing to drive anywhere for a face-to-face interview), I was basically told, thanks but no thanks, and I was no longer in consideration for the job (even though I had excellent performance evaluations from previous teaching positions, so my hearing wasn't a huge detriment to my teaching ability). I'll be on the job market in the fall, and I'm very worried about how faculty search committees are going to react if I am invited for phone interviews. [I'm hoping that video iChat will be an option.]

John Vidale said...

Personally, I'd rank in order of efficiency, asking questons

1. in person
2. by email
3. by phone conversation

In person, one can use body language to communicate more effectively, especially with the non-verbal cues when enough has been said and which points are controversial and should be dropped or reinforced.

By email, nobody has to wait around while details are looked up and arguments carefully thought out.

By phone, awkward silences and ad hoc responses are rife.

That said, making phone calls is an important skill in functioning in the academic community. People who are phone-averse or poor phone communicators have flaws that are relevant to admission and hiring decisions. When my grad students can't pick up the phone to cold-call (or at least cold-email) necessary collaborators on the other side of the country, for example, I'm irritated.

Ceriness said...

I'm on the market now, and I hate, hate, hate phone interviews, mostly because my voice sounds really young to start with, and the phone pitches it even higher. Also, I have a regional accent (West Virginian), and it gets worse when I'm nervous. That combined with the lack of body language really throws me off my game, and the impression my interviewers get is of (in my most paranoid nightmares) a little hillbilly girl who somehow managed to read a lot of Classical literature. In a voice interview I can't offset this with professional attire and body language, and I feel that it puts me at a distinct disadvantage against people with more sonorous and Midwestern phone voices. When I interview in person, by the way, I do very well and usually move on to the short short list.

Also, a friend of mine had a video conference interview with a nine (NINE!) person committee recently in which the connection kept lagging out (so he didn't know what the interviewers last heard him say). The interview was, as he told it, incredibly hostile too.

Yes, it saves money, and perhaps introduces (in voice only) a colorblind atmosphere, but your voice is only a very small part of who you are as a person, scholar, and teacher.

Anonymous said...

I have had many phone interviews for faculty positions, only one of which did not later turn into an invitation for an on-campus interview. I find the most enjoyable phone interviews to allow some breathing room on both sides for follow-up questions/discussion/debate. As an interviewee, the things I most appreciated on the part of the interviewers:

1. Scheduling phone interview in advance to allow for mental and emotional preparation!

2. A savvy, comfortable "lead" phone interviewer. This would first involve an introduction to the interviewers in the room. Importantly, this introduction would then be followed by an informal description of some aspect of the department or interview - goals, priorities, atmosphere, info not available on the website for instrumentation, gaps in the department for teaching, etc. If it's friendly, it puts everyone at ease (breaks the ice) and provides a background to the interviewee for the general types of non-verbal cues they would otherwise be missing. In my opinion, this strategy sets everyone up to "perform" well in this interview medium, and allows tough/sensitive follow-ups later on in the conversation that lead to more open and unguarded candidate responses.

3. An actual conversation and interest on the part of the hiring committee, including maximum participation by the interviewers (if there are 8 people in the room, it's uncomfortable to only be speaking to one or two of them with a silent audience). An "interactive", friendly (not "softball", rather a matter of tone) phone interview leaves a positive impression of the department as potential future colleagues and lays groundwork for good performance and interest by the candidate for the school in question later on.

In my experience, the worst phone interviews are those designed to be "fair" - a bored voice plodding through 5 or 6 multi-faceted standard questions requiring lengthy responses, often requiring the candidate to repeat or reiterate similar points at later parts of the interview. Awful, awkward experience for everyone involved - candidate never feels good after one of these. I don't know if the phone interview is directly responsible for this, but...when I've had awkward/uninformative phone interviews followed by on-campus interviews, and, later, offers, I have always declined those offers. This may be more an indicator of "atmosphere" of the department and match for my personality, but that has been my experience. (And, really, when you're going through tons of these in an interview process on both ends, who doesn't appreciate an actual conversation where some small connections are made?)

Anonymous said...

@Jen, I have the same problem as you and do like you - I explain why I can´t call by phone and offer to meet directly. In general, I have not experienced any difficulties with academics in terms of getting interviews + jobs (still post-docing though). Recruitment agencies and industry though have been less open, and if I find myself back on the job market on the way out of academia, I am also concerned about how being unable to do a phone interview will affect my chances.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

That said, making phone calls is an important skill in functioning in the academic community.

Not really. I would say that fewer than 1% of my relevant communications within the academic community occur by phone, 95% are by e-mail, and the remaing 4% are in person. E-mail is a bajillion times more efficient than phone.

When I am out of town for a couple days, I return to hundreds of e-mail messages, and usually zero voice mails.

Anonymous said...

"Not really. I would say that fewer than 1% of my relevant communications within the academic community occur by phone, 95% are by e-mail, and the remaing 4% are in person. E-mail is a bajillion times more efficient than phone.

When I am out of town for a couple days, I return to hundreds of e-mail messages, and usually zero voice mails."

CPP: A couple of things: 1) you have not accounted for the other <1% of your relevant communications. I am assuming the <1% is by regular USPS mail? 2) maybe people don't want to leave you a voice mail because you have a rude voice mail prompt.

Also, to everyone, why all the hate for phone interviews. You all practice interviewing skills in person, try practicing for a phone one too and then it may not be that weird.

amy said...

I'm horrified by the stories of bias against people with hearing-impairment. What a terrible violation of the ADA (assuming you're in the US) and of basic human decency!

Anonymous said...

@Anon 1:46 pm

Even if one practices for a phone interview, the candidate can't control weirdness generated from the interview side of things. They may not have a clear sense of what the job candidate will be able to hear, who will ask what questions, etc. The whole process works best when the interviewing committee has a good system - many hiring committees do this so rarely that they do not and the process can be a bit of a strain for all involved.

John Vidale said...

I'd agree with CPP that email generally is much more useful than the telephone, however not infrequently I (and my students) have deadlines, or must extract a response from hard-to-motivate people.

Then the telephone (or texting, or just plain showing up in their office, if it is nearby) is necessary.

One can conduct business purely by email via cell modem from a beach in Hawaii, at some level of efficiency, but the telephone remains a well-used tool where I work.

I'd hate to compile stats on how many telecons I've endured, another task requiring the ability to talk on the phone. Already one for an hour this morning, and I was requested to have been on the phone the rest of the day as well if the snow hadn't cancelled another meeting slated for DC that I didn't bother to trek out to.

I'm not sure of the relevance of the ADA to posted comments - often hiring depends on being able to work, and thus the ability to see, talk, hear, travel, etc., are relevant is for evaluating ability to work. Of course one can't arbitrarily eliminate against people from consideration, because as always, it is the complete picture that should be examined.

I have to say surprise interviews with multiple people on the line would be a terrible idea, but I've never heard of such a thing.

Genomic Repairman said...

I have transitioned over to skyping for these types of things and it is good for meeting with distant collaborators.

John Vidale said...

one other point

When I am out of town for a couple days, I return to hundreds of e-mail messages, and usually zero voice mails.

True, but often when a call fails, I sent email rather than leave a voice message because office voice mail can be hard to remotely recover, information requires transcribing to archive, and written messages are clearer than oral ones.

I just called two potential grad students today, for example, plus returned the call of a reporter and had to get my TA's immediate attention with another call. Fluent use of phones remains useful, not that I'm claiming to be good at it.

Not sure why I'm quibbling with CPP, email is usually is the communication medium of choice.

amy said...

@John V: The ADA requires that people have an equal opportunity to apply for jobs -- if people aren't even willing to interview you because of a hearing impairment, that's a clear violation of the law. If you believe you are capable of doing a job, then they have to give you a chance to prove that to them (within reason -- and the accommodations the earlier posters mentioned were very reasonable). It's no longer allowed to assume that a person cannot do a job just because they have an impairment.

John Vidale said...


I'm sure you're right that illegal discrimination is possible, and the situation described by Jen is suggestive.

On the other hand, there's no obligation to interview all applicants. Further, limited budgets and tight deadlines can lead to unwillingness to re-schedule an in-person interview at a later time. Still further, my impression is that adding an in-person interview for one person might legally require doing the same for everyone to not discriminate against everyone else, although such judgments are above my pay scale.

A Life Long Scholar said...

I did my "interview" for my post-doc position via Skype from another continent. However, they had me do a talk--I sent them the powerpoint presentation, and then did the talk, telling them when to advance to the next slide, and questions arose naturally, and the talk gradually faded into a conversation. It felt much more like hanging out with like-minded individuals talking about interesting topics than an "interview".
Due to connection issues we used the video camera for only a tiny bit at he start, and then switched to voice only, after the group on that end all had a chance to wave at me.

Anonymous said...

I would be terrified of one. I have hearing difficulties and I must rely on lipreading. The interview would involve more 'I am sorry, I cannot understand' and 'could you repeat what you just said? than anything else.

But give me a regular interview and I do very well.

Kevin said...

"Not sure why I'm quibbling with CPP, email is usually is the communication medium of choice."

E-mail is by far the dominant medium. I deal with 20-50 real e-mail messages a day, but one about one real phone call a week. (I get about 4 times as many wrong numbers as real phone calls, since my extension happens to be a likely one to misdial when trying to get an outside line, so even the claim that phone calls are less likely to be spam doesn't apply.)

I had the voice mail service to my phone turned off when the administration started using voice mail as a way to spam all staff.

I did have to call all our grad applicant interviewees recently. About 1 in 5 was reachable by phone, but all responded to e-mail within 2 days, which is much faster than phone tag.

ME said...

Our department does international grad student interviews similar to ALLS's method. They send a power point and we go through the slides with them telling us to advance. We have 1-2 faculty members on the call. The main point is to assess their English skills, but we get some idea of how well they understand their research too. It's actually really improved our admissions process.

I prefer phone interviews when they are one on one, rather than conference style. The awkward interruption tends to increase with too many people on the call.

I hate conference calls in general, but at least you can zone out or eat lunch.

Anonymous said...

I have interviewed for several positions in industry, and they all did the first interview by phone. Then if you made it to their shortlist is when they would fly you out for an all-day onsite interview where you give your seminar and have one on one interviews. But always the phone interview was the first one to determine if you were worth the company's time and money to fly out and set aside a whole day with you.

John Vidale said...

ok, ok, uncle.

On further thought and checking my phone log for the last several weeks, CPP, Kevin, and others are right, real phone conversations are rare.

Essential for me because I'm also involved in a range of extra-curricular responsibilities in management, committees, and governmental liaison, but phone skills may be optional for most ivory tower positions.

Anonymous said...

Question from a graduate student who is currently interviewing for biomedical programs: Is it standard to send thank-you emails to the professors that you meet?

Alex said...

There are ways to do remote interviews with deaf candidates, e.g. an online chat. Deafness is very different from "I really don't like phone calls so it's unfair to ask me to do one." The point of an interview is to have people think on their feet, and for most people spoken communication (either in person or on the phone) is the most convenient way to do that; for the deaf, an online chat or maybe a phone call with an interpreter is the way to go.

Physics departments always do phone interviews for faculty positions, to narrow the list of people who will be invited for live interviews. It's a more efficient use of time and resources for everybody involved.

Kevin said...

"Is it standard to send thank-you emails to the professors that you meet?"
About 1 in 4 students did that this year in our program. In our program it confers no advantage, but it certainly doesn't ever hurt.

Anonymous said...

" Is it standard to send thank-you emails to the professors that you meet?"

I don't think it's necessary, but it can't hurt as long as you keep it short and don't sound overly effusive in gratitude (because that could be off-putting). maybe just one line to say "thanks for taking the time to meet with me today, I hope to hear from you again soon." and no more.

Ace Kittyhawk said...

I hate talking on the phone so much that I have been procrastinating on calling my doctor until I run out of my prescription and it becomes a "help! its urgent!" kind of call. You can imagine how I feel about phone interviews. I have had skype chats to interview grad students and also socially. It's better than nothing but I am not comfortable. Alas, sometimes email gets to be too time-consuming...