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

November 28, 2010, 11:16 pm

“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 ou
    t!  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.

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