The Media Studies Job Market, 9a: The Phone Interview
by Jonathan Gray — University of Wisconsin - Madison
September 18, 2010 – 21:36
Not all universities do phone interviews, but they’re pretty common. If you’re being interviewed by phone, you’re likely in the final ten or so, if for logistical reasons alone (it takes a lot of time to do these), and if it’s a group interviewing you, you may be in an even more elite group. It’s a tricky stage, though, since a lot of people wait till they get to the campus visit to do the really top-notch preparation, and there have been a few times when I’ve heard this become all too painfully clear in a phone interview. Below the fold, I’ll try to offer a few thoughts on how to interview in general, and how to handle the peculiar demands of phone interviews.
First, when you get the invitation for an interview, make sure you take a time that works. The committee may have a little flexibility, and may have other times for you. If not, then change the world around you so that you’re ready for this – don’t run home to pick up the phone panting, don’t take the call where you’ll have problems hearing or concentrating, if it’s early and you’re not a morning person, wake up earlier and get coffee, make sure you have full bars of energy and reception on your phone, and so on.
As for the dirty details, going into the interview, you should be able to:
- explain what your overarching purpose academically is. What do you do, in other words?
- distinguish this from your current project (dissertation?), and thus be able both to discuss that project in different terms (and you should even be ready to discuss each chapter separately), and to explain the connection to your broader interests.
- explain how you will convert your dissertation into a book (and be warned: if the answer involves a whole lot of work, that may not impress much). You may also be asked what kind of press(es) you plan to approach, or which you have already approached.
- say what you plan to do next, and have a few thoughtful things to say about it.
- give keywords to describe your approach. Some committee members may, awkwardly, ask you to pigeon hole your work, so know how to do so (“I try to make audience studies in the British cultural studies vein more accountable to contemporary television textuality” or so forth)
- explain what motivates you as a teacher.
- know what others in the dept research and teach, and say how you’d fit in. Be able to discuss what you’d add to the mix, and how you’d overlap meaningfully with others.
- discuss classes you could offer. Have details (ie: know what books you might assign, what might be your main theorists, etc.). And especially if you’re more junior, realize that you’ll likely be given a big service class, so be prepared to say how you could teach that too.
- discuss how you’d translate your current style to a new audience of this university’s students (read up on their demographics and character).
- talk about how you balance research and teaching (and think about what this university needs from you before charging into this one).
- ask them thoughtful questions if they give you the chance.
- deal with inappropriate questions about your marital status, etc. They may not be allowed, but there are always some schmucks who will ask, and some people who stumble onto the topic, albeit with good intentions.
Also, if it’s a religious institution, be ready to discuss how you fit within their mission. Research the place, so you know how serious they are about that affiliation, and how pervasive it is in your department. Don’t just assume they want you to be like them, but do be aware of how their religious mission might work in a less direct manner. So, for instance, at Fordham, it was common for one of the Deans (at the on-campus interview) to ask candidates what Jesuit education meant to them. But this wasn’t a test of Catholicism. Yes, the faculty had some priests, but I still don’t know the religious beliefs of many of my colleagues of four years there. Fordham took what they called “ethical education” seriously, though, and this is what they meant by that question – the point was to see if you’d even thought about what it might mean to teach in a school that requires all students to do a course in ethics, several courses in philosophy and in religious studies, etc. I know two people, in vastly different fields, who had phone interviews with a Baptist university, on the other hand, who were asked, almost as the first question, how their own faith would fit the university’s. So read up and ask around, and get a sense of how the school’s faith affects who and what they are.
Know that phone interviews can be evil creatures, since they can be an all-important filtering mechanism before the campus visit. Bringing a bad candidate for a visit is embarrassing, to the committee, and to the department when the Dean sees them. So from my experience, you’re more likely to have questions that are designed to test you (and test you hard) on things on the phone than once you’re there. Some committees have a standardized set of questions, some personalize them to the candidate a bit more, but all are likely to have areas of your application that they’re a little concerned about, or which need explaining. Think through what these might be as a first stab at guessing your questions. If you’ve published a lot and are applying to a liberal arts college, be ready to face some serious questions about your teaching. If you’re applying to an R1, they’ll want to check that you can handle the expectations, that you’ve thought about where to publish your book, that you plan to submit to top journals, etc. If you’re an ABD, in general, you’ll need to prove that you’re ready for the big leagues, that you can teach a class, etc.
If they’re evil, however, it’s also because they’re awkward social moments. Meeting someone on the phone is hard – body language is so important to understanding people you don’t know, and in the limited, real time environment of a phone call, it can be hard to accurately figure out expectations or even to see if you’re dying or triumphing. I often got off the phone having no idea if I bombed or aced the thing. They’re all the harder when conference-called, since then the faculty are also awkward and on edge, as they try to choreograph the whole thing, and/or jockey for question time.
I’d highly recommend working out techniques to check on whether the committee want more or less detail. I’ve heard candidates who ramble on about simple questions, whereas others have given insufficient detail. The easy answer, I’d say, is to err on the side of brevity, and then ask if the committee would like to know more. Bear in mind, too, that not all questions are equal in their minds, so just because they took ten minutes to get you to discuss your dissertation doesn’t mean they want you to spend ten minutes for any other question. So check in (“Does that answer your question? Would you like me to say more?”).
If you’re the type of person who speaks with long pauses, don’t. Work on giving answers that don’t stop, dawdle, and linger; be economic and keep moving.
Have a coffee or juice or pinch your cheeks or whatever you need to do to be awake, alert, and to have a positive, engaged tone. Monotonous voices are so universally associated with boredom that even if you’re actually very exciting, you may be digging yourself a hole with your voice if you don’t at least try to show signs of life. At the same time, be focused – don’t let energy become manic, lest you sound like an excited teenager at the mall instead of a job applicant.
Also, while I don’t encourage going into these things too slick and planned, it could still pay to prepare for them as a politician might prepare for a debate. You don’t know the exact wording of the questions that will come your way, or even of what questions are coming. But you should have a sense of some things you want to share with the committee. And you may need to capitalize on some moments to share them, so think about how you can easily let people know how very much teaching means to you if it does, for instance. There’s an odd dynamic in interviews wherein you’re being asked to answer someone else’s questions, but that risks reducing you to a markedly inferior position, when part of what the committee might be trying to ascertain is whether you can hold your own … and so being able to throw a few things in there, and not simply treat it as though you’re a contestant on Jeopardy might also help to boot you out of that position. Go easy, though – candidates who really try to take charge of the interview and run it themselves are destined for failure.
Final tip: don’t dwell. It’s like a game of Tetris at high speed: sometimes you’ll mess up and put a piece in the wrong place, but it’s now there and the best thing you can do is excel at placing the other pieces. So if you have a bad answer, just stay in the moment and make sure you answer the next question better. And the “don’t dwell” advice extends to after you’ve hung up. By all means think about how you’d answer it better next time, and think about how you might make up for that bad answer if you get to the next round. But don’t beat yourself up. Just dust yourself off and keep moving.
I know of candidates who’ve plummeted in rankings after the phone call, but I also know of one or two who have owned the phone interview, by being on the ball, ready for anything, energetic and enthusiastic, interesting, and generally awesome. Just be one of the latter, and you’re set.