So Close, So Far: Distance Interviews

Last night, my husband pointed out that if I had channeled all of this writing energy into an article, I'd be well nigh done by now. I like to think of it as priming the pump.

Yesterday, I detailed six points of preparation for academic job interviews.Today, I'd like to go into three of those interview formats in detail, focusing tele-interviews: phone, Skype, and Video-Conferences. Tomorrow, I'll say a few (choice, but still SFW) words about MLA interviews.

Phone Interviews
As schools struggle with budgets--and with the ethics of asking candidates to foot the bill for MLA--it seems as if more jobs are choosing to interviewing at a distance. This change can ameliorate much of the nervousness with in-person interviews (no worries about coffee breath), but the disembodiment can be disorienting. The phone interview is the most disembodied, since candidates have no image on which to focus (as with Skype and video-conferencing) and a committee of five gathered around a phone hub can sometimes produce confusing (overlapping, hard to hear) questions.

1. Locate yourself in a comfortable space where you know you won't be disturbed. I only had access to a cell phone at home, so that's what I used. While I worried about the call being dropped, it only happened once, and that was because my house had spots where I couldn't get a signal. Find a good spot with a clear signal and plant. If you're using your office phone (or any kind of school-sponsored equipment), do a test call the morning of or day before. Universities often save the technology upgrades for semester breaks, so if you're interviewing between the Fall and Spring terms, you may have issues. My advice is to check the lines of communication and work to prevent tele-crises.

2. I was advised to (wait for it...) arrange a committee of stuffed animals which corresponded to the search committee. The rationale is this: By closely approximating the interview situation (ha), your speech will come across more naturally. Didn't work for me. Maniacal laughter during the phone interview might weigh against you.

3. I invested in a hands-free headset with a microphone (something like $25 at Staples) because I worried about my face bumping the keys and because I wanted to be able to access documents. I also knew I'd get tired of holding the phone to my face for 45 minutes. I had to practice for a few days before I found the right distance for the mic. Too close and you're in heavy-breathing territory. Too far away, and you sound like you're in a tunnel.

4. My (not-so-)secret weapon: A $4 whiteboard. On this whiteboard, I noted the specifics of the job call, the committee members and their pet projects, texts and objectives for my dream course, demographics about the department and the school, and my three good questions for the committee. It's okay to ask questions to specific committee members, especially if you've noticed similarities with your work. They're often flattered that you bothered to research what they're doing and how you might contribute. The whiteboard allowed access to all of this information without the hazard of the "ruffling pages" background noise. I took a digital photo of the whiteboard before erasing it, so I could be reminded of what we talked about in case I was invited for a campus visit.

5. Understand that silence is okay and that nervous chatter (over the phone) can sound very different than in-person nervous chatter. No heavy breathing, and since I was sick during a few of my phone interviews, I had to practice moving the mic away when I coughed.

6. Revoice unclear questions. Without the benefit of body language, this kind of communication can be confusing. Looking back, I wish I had possessed the confidence to ask one committee member to repeat her question. After five minutes of my animated monologue, they finally interrupted me to clarify. 

Skype Interviews
The Skype interview offers the worst parts of phone interviewing with the best parts of in-person interviewing. Potter does a fine job of detailing the Skype interview in the link I provided yesterday, but I'll reiterate my experiences here.

1. Be aware of what's behind you. I found it cliche to set up in front of a bookcase, so I just cleared away the clutter and let the beige walls speak for themselves.

2. I used my headset for Skype interviews also, because my laptop was old and I wasn't at all confident in its ability to pick up my voice (or in the speakers to be loud enough for me to hear). I called attention to the clunky equipment by (unsuccessfully) trying to sell the committee members life insurance. They laughed, they relaxed, I relaxed.  And that headset is very silly looking.

3. Beware the lag! Common knowledge says that Skype interviews should be conducted where one has access to exceptionally reliable internet service. I had to weigh reliability against potential distractions, and so I stayed at home. I crossed my fingers that ComCast would get it right just this once. Of course, there was a dramatic (about 15-second) lag. They would ask a question, I would wait, I would answer, and then awkwardly watch them wait. We'd move on, and they would laugh at something I said 15 seconds ago. There's no remedy for lag. Just be flexible and have a sense of humor. They're dealing with the same thing on their end, very likely, so everyone's in it together.

4. Oh, but what to wear? Not your jammies. I kept it simple with a white button-down, jeans, and a kicky necklace. (The necklace was for my benefit.) Your wardrobe shouldn't be the most memorable thing about you; as Potter notes, practice self-restraint with the giant gold hoops that day. With that said, my advice is to err on the side of conservative, but know the genre. A suit may be overkill for a Skype interview, but I know plenty of people who opt for them. Everyone's fuzzy anyway, so it may feel like you're talking to 8-bit video game characters. But do wear pants. You may need to grab something across the room.

5. Finally: that whiteboard. It is possible to prop your whiteboard (from the phone interviews) behind or beside your laptop, in case you'd like to keep stats or other particulars close. Beware, though, that even fuzzy, it's obvious when you're reading cue cards. (I was totally called out on this one during a practice Skype session: "So, hey. How's that crib sheet working for you?" ::Dies::)

It's my opinion that the video-conference format most closely approximates in-person interviews, and so I found it an easier transition. If you are invited to video-conference, you have to first find a location which provides access to this type of technology. If your university offers distance-education classes on campus, chances are that you'll have access to a video-conference site. If not, it's worth a call to your IT department. If your school doesn't have this equipment, your community may, particularly churches, high schools (which sometimes offer distance-ed classes), nearby colleges/universities, and performing arts centers. VC equipment is prohibitively expensive. If you have no access, you'll have to discuss other interview options with the committee members. It's my experience that committees are generally understanding of such barriers, but it's also my experience that interviews with added accommodations can be negatively framed.

1. Much of what I've written about phone and Skype interviews pertains to video-conferences, with the added stress of being able to see the whole committee very clearly, all at once. Review your materials in advance, since you'll have no leeway for reviewing them during the interview. It's high school boyfriends again: Each one is the only one.

2. With VCs, it's easier to address members of the committee because you can see them clearly. I found it helpful to treat the situation as I would an in-person interview and use committee members' names often. I worked to look the members who asked each question because I knew they could see that small gesture.

3. I had to control for personal twitches. I conducted a few video-conference interviews when I worked in Human Resources, and I can attest that chronic face strokers and hair pullers are viewed differently than someone who doesn't display her nerves so readily. I planted my hands in front of me or, when I felt anxious, held a pen. It was a small gesture, but it channeled my energy to something less distracting. I didn't sit with my hands in my lap, since (from my turn on the other side of the screen) I know it makes me look armless or overly concerned with my... lap.

4. Wear pants. From the waist up, I looked respectable in a black suit jacket. Below the waist: jeans and snow boots. I almost didn't make the interview because we were iced in, and I had to be prepared to walk to the bus stop in the cold. Today, it's a funny story. But on that day, I was mortified that they might (Heaven forbid) see my jeans. A waste of energy and anxiety. I shouldn't have worried. But do wear pants. Since you're likely not video-conferencing at home, I hope this point is superfluous, but you never know.

Distance interviews may be one positive change that comes out of university budget cuts. For the cost of one candidate's trip to MLA, a department could purchase a lower-end video-conference unit. Skype, though clunky and lag-prone, is free. Phone interviews--which comprised the bulk of my interviews--seem to be the format most schools reach for when they can't get to MLA. (In my experience, but I would love to hear what others think.) Most of the how-to materials on job market success--mostly anecdotal, like mine--follow a traditional interview pattern: submit the application, maybe submit additional materials, MLA interview, campus visit. As distance interviews become more common (and let's hope they do), candidates who are financially disadvantaged will have a fair shot at jobs they otherwise couldn't afford to interview for.

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