Tips for job applicants: what we want to hear on the phone interview

Against all odds, you have an interview! Don’t order the spinach salad! Oh, wait, it’s a phone interview? Hmm, how does that work? I remember a giggly trans-ocean interview from Rice in which the faculty all crammed into my office to conduct the phone interview. We tried to be nice. We tried to be quiet. We tried to make each other laugh with scribbled notes. It was difficult to figure out what we wanted to learn and what we learned.

There are so many fantastic candidates that we cannot possibly bring to campus that suddenly the phone interview seems like a reasonable alternative. But what can we learn that we do not already know from your CV, your statements of teaching and research, your reprints, and your reference letters? We want to learn that you have snap! You are enthusiastic! You want above all else to come here! You have thought about the future. You can tell us things not on your resume. You know what your first grant proposal will be about. You can tell us about 3 things you are doing, not one. You have a five year plan, a ten year plan. You care about others, students and colleagues. You love to teach! You are exciting! You give specifics, not generalities. You also know how to listen, are thoughtful, and ask us careful questions about our department, our university, and our city. How can you do this? Rule number one: no long silences. Fill them!

I’ve heard there are some tricks, like don’t stop talking until they interrupt with a new question. But I don’t know much about tricks. I imagine you could answer, then ask if they want more detail or want to move on to a new topic. I recommend that you think of a list of questions, then plan out answers to them. You must be curious about them, that place, and show you have done your homework on it. Never say that you do not have any questions. Anticipate any awkwardnesses in your history and decide how you will handle them. They should not ask illegal questions (kids, spouse, etc.) but if they do I do not think you should lie. Just sound available and enthusiastic.

Try to find out in advance exactly who will be interviewing you and do your homework on that person, or those people. It is a lot easier to talk freely when you have an idea of who you are talking to.

OK, you want something more specific.  Here’s a possible list of 10 questions. If we did phone interviews, I would want to ask the questions in the same order of every candidate, for fairness.

1. What most excites you about your research right now? Remember to answer with the big question that you are asking, not just something about methods.

2. Besides your main project, are there other tangents you are taking with collaborators? We want to see some breadth and an eye to the important questions, not the details of just one system.

3. How would you differentiate yourself from your postdoctoral/doctoral advisor? What indicates your independence? What will they let you take away?

4. What is the coolest thing you have figured out?

5. What do you see yourself doing in 5/10/20 years? Keep asking big questions. Remember to use tools not yet invented.

6. What is your teaching philosophy? Describe a favorite teaching experience. Teaching first jobs will ask more teaching questions.

7. What will your first grant proposal look like?

8. Tell us about hurdles in your research/career/education and how you overcame them.

9. What particularly attracts you to our department?

10. What would you like to know about this place?

I’m not saying these are the questions I would ask, but they are questions you should be prepared for. Put some vim in your voice. Practice a phone interview with someone who cares about you. Sound enthusiastic. Don’t give brief answers. It is all right to effuse over to a new topic. If you have something you are proud of, be sure it gets said!

Good luck! At least there will be no teeth with spinach on them!


About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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3 Responses to Tips for job applicants: what we want to hear on the phone interview

  1. Erin says:

    Thanks Joan! This is really helpful. A phone or Skype interview seems like a significantly different beast from an in-person interview (p<0.05). It's good to get advice on what answers or style might help the commitee get a sense of who the interviewee is.

  2. Pingback: Interviewing students the Oxford way | Sociobiology

  3. Pingback: How do you get an academic job in biology? | Sociobiology

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