How to Take a Phone Interview for a College Teaching Job

July 1, 2013

In Paragraph City, when we go looking for new faculty, we always conduct phone interviews. Doesn’t everyone? They come at the point when we have screened resumes & cover letters and selected a batch who seem to meet all our basic criteria (the “Required” part of the ad, and maybe some of the “Preferred” too).

I’ve seen search committees make twenty phone interviews for one position, with just two or three of the committee participating in each, and I’ve seen them make five phone interviews, with all members of the search committee in the discussion. And everywhere in between.  I’ve also seen a lot of mistakes made by candidates, some of whom we never spoke to again.  Candidates entering into the phone interview need to think through just what’s going on, remembering things like this:

  • The job you applied for is in your grasp. Phone interviews are time consuming to arrange and conduct; if the committee didn’t think you were capable of doing the job, they would not bother. So treat this as a real interview.
  • You are not interviewing to get the job; that comes later. You are interviewing in order to get called on campus. Your goal is to make the committee want to meet you.
  • You are your voice, yet most of us don’t really know how our voice portrays us. How much do you “um” and “ah” and what other verbal habits do you have? I knew a colleague who sighed and squinted and made eye-contact before he answered a question; in person, it communicated a thoughtful engagement, but on the phone he just sounded dull, and possibly bored.
  • Static, background noise, lag between Q and A, throat-clearing, the hum of your computer fan or the tapping of the keyboard or the squeak of your chair: these are all part of your voice in a phone interview, too.

If you don’t know how you sound over the telephone, you are handicapping yourself; it’s like going to the in-person interview in your everyday clothes, without checking in a mirror first. So record a rehearsal with a friend. I know, nobody actually does that, do they? Well, you should.

At the interview:

  • Set it up for clarity. Unless you have awesome cell reception, use a landline and find a quiet place to take the call, never outdoors.  Even a gentle breeze across your phone can make it sound like you’re standing under a waterfall. Also avoid voices in the background (where is this coming from, a Geico call center?), traffic noises (so she conducts business on street corners?), and the kids (he knows he can’t do this job from home, right?).  We interviewers try to not think rude thoughts, but we do have to choose among candidates, and are you able to turn off first impressions?
  • Do not answer the phone with “hello” like you think this might be your neighbor calling because your dog pooped under his Jimmy’s swing set. This is business. You gave them the time and place to call; so don’t create the impression that you forgot about it. Whether your professional greeting is “hello” or “hi” or “howdy dudes”, give it and follow it up with your name; we want to hear that you are happy to talk to us and that we’re in for a great 20 or 30 minutes of conversation. That doesn’t start out with an awkward “is this….?” followed by “hi this is Paragraph City, remember we were going to call you?”  Nice blog post on this from Interview Angel: http://interviewangel.com/dont-say-hello-in-a-phone-interview-2/
  • Stand up for the interview. You will answer questions with less lag time and speak more clearly; at least most people do. It’s too easy to get casual and sloppy on the phone, so do what you can to keep it professional, and being professional will give you confidence.  I also recommend you dress as a professional for the interview.  And smile – not all the time, but as you would for an in-person interview. Remember, you are your voice, and we hear subtle inflections on the other end.  We heard a candidate yawn once.
  • Do the usual prep: have your resume and questions ready on note cards, make a list of your qualities that you want to mention (matched to the college’s ad, if you’re smart), and know a ton about the college that’s calling, including where they are and what they are near and what you particularly like about them and who else works in the department. I wrote about questions for community college teaching applicants here  and here .
  • Rehearse your ending.  It’s likely to echo in our ears for a minute after we hang up, and it may even be the first thing we say to each other about you, so plan it. “Nice talkin’ to ya” is pleasant, but not great in that professional, we-want-to-meet-this-person way that you want.

Finally, here are a few “nevers,” most of which I have heard and all of which seriously damaged the candidate’s chances.  None of these are particularly rude or stupid, but they do communicate that to you this is not a serious interview, just a thing you’ve got to do today, maybe an inconvenience that’s interrupting more important things.

  • Don’t take the interview while you’re driving. You will be giving us only half your attention (for the safety of other, hopefully less) and you can’t get a job when you have dialed your intellect and sense of humor and memory down to 50%.
  • Don’t take the interview in the mall or at the dentist’s waiting room with your ten year old. (“Mr. Johnson, we’re ready for Jimmy now” from the background does not enhance our impression of you.) or in the garage while you oil’s being changed. The whine of those air wrenches really carries.
  • Don’t yawn, burp, heave heavy sighs, eat, power walk, start every answer with “So,” or speak through gritted teeth about a former employer. Seriously, people have fewer inhibitions over the phone.  Some true stories.
  • Don’t drop the phone, use call waiting, or say “excuse me a moment” so you can chat with the Fed Ex guy at your door. You know we can hear you even if you put your hand over the mouthpiece, right?

If you find yourself irritated that all these things, which have almost nothing to do with how well you can operate the controls of a college classroom or win the respect of your students and the admiration of fellow academics, well, me too. But take my word, that is the way it is.

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Explaining the Black Hole of Applying for Community College Jobs

March 22, 2013

EssayCity, the larger metropolis north of Paragraph City, published in its newspaper an article on that gap between when you apply for a job and when you hear back from the employer (http://career-advice.monster.com/job-search/getting-started/job-application-process-following-up/article.aspx  ). They refer to that time as the Black Hole, and I have to think that it must be even worse for applicants for faculty positions. However slowly business progresses, certainly a faculty committee moves slower.

On search committees, I have always felt terrible about how little we can respond to applicants, so to salve my conscience, here’s something of an explanation.

I’ll start by describing the steps that a faculty search committee in Paragraph City goes through, once enough applications have come in to rev our engines.

  1. Preliminary sort, either by the committee as a whole or the committee chair. Committees are formed of four or five faculty. We eliminate candidates who do not meet the minimum requirements as stated in the ad: usually the degree held and the amount of experience in college teaching, but it can also include particular coursework, leadership experience, and amount of familiarity with the community college. As per our HR office, it is illegal to consider applicants who do not meet “applicant must have” job requirements, and we don’t even look at those.
  2. Then we each read the resumes, cover letters, and transcripts of the remaining applicants; time passes. Applications with missing parts go into a kind of limbo, some never to emerge if the transcripts or references or whatever never come through. Others that we consider ‘acceptable’ we each put in a ranked order of preference.
  3. We meet (often harder than you’d think, given our various teaching schedules), share our ranking, agree on a committee ranking, and decide on a group of candidates to interview by phone.  This number varies by committee, but it might be as high as 15 or 20; often more like 10.
  4. Now more time passes as someone has to mesh the committee schedules with candidate schedules and find a block of half-hour periods when all can talk on the phone. If you are not in this group to be contacted, you must wonder what’s taking so long, because you’ll hear nothing from us. If these interviews aren’t satisfactory, we may well go back and pull you out for a second round of phone interviews, so we don’t tip you off that you have been put in a second tier somewhere (which is still not as bad as limbo).
  5. Over a couple of days, the committee or its subgroups interview candidates, trying to decide which we most want to meet in person. We meet & decide on five or so to bring on campus.
  6. Now we each take one or two of these five candidates and phone their references. Depending upon the time of year (Spring Break, President’s Day holidays, the dates of a major conference in the discipline), it can take a few days to speak with three or four of each candidate’s references. The candidate can’t come on campus, though, until we do.
  7. If the reference checks don’t produce any surprises, we finally have a go-ahead on five applicants. Five candidates means that the entire committee has to free up most of five different days to meet with them. In Paragraph City we consider it rude to have candidates bump into each other, and we also expect to need several hours at least to know whether or not the fit between the candidate and the college is good. You see, we already know you can do the job; the review of credentials and phone interview told us that. We’re now in the business of comparing to find the best of the competent.
  8. Once I was on a committee that could meet only once a week. Those five candidates took five weeks to interview.  Between every interview I thought of those applicants in the Black Hole. Yet if those five we brought on weren’t satisfactory, and the candidates we had phoned had all found jobs elsewhere, it was possible we would still go back to that second tier pool of candidates.
  9. On campus interviews usually involve this: meeting time for anyone on campus interested, interview time with faculty, a teaching demonstration, a meeting with deans and a meeting with the president, a tour of the college, and a meal.  It’s surprising how much comes out over the meal, good and bad, about the candidate and the college.
  10. After the interviews, assuming all has gone well, the committee passes two names on to the administration, which can accept one or reject both (a rare event), so a few more days pass. Then the candidate is contacted and the job offer made. Often the candidate wants some time, possibly to consider (or wait for) other offers. When she accepts verbally, a contract is mailed to her, and only when a signed contract is returned and HR is happy with all the paperwork, then are applicants sent a Thanks for Applying letter. How much time has passed? Not always as long as two months, but that’s common.

The article linked above gives great advice on what to do while waiting in the Black Hole. I’ll add a few more tips.

  • It’s probably ok to call, and most understandable if you are in that phone interview or personal interview group. But know that you are more likely to reduce your chances of getting the job than you are to increase them.
  • If you call, what you are doing is re-opening the interview, so act and sound that way. You may speak only to an administrative assistant, but his or her office is probably three steps away from the division chair, and what you say will be conveyed those three steps.  We don’t want people who are easily annoyed, self-important, impatient, or rude teaching our students, so don’t communicate that.
  • Better action is to follow-up any interview with a thank you note. I’m more impressed by something that comes through Snail Mail and is not the generic silver Thank You script on a white card with a generic remark inside. Make the note as unique as you want to be remembered and send one to each member. Don’t jot off an email to the chair and ask her to forward it to committee members. Then if a couple more weeks pass, instead of the phone call, contact them by email with an offer to send any more information the committee might desire, and at that point ask for an update on the process. You can control the message better in writing. Communicate a sense of how interested you remain in the qualities of the hiring institution, and feel free to get a little specific (without being long-winded).
  • Then let go. You finally have very little control over the process once you have sent in your materials. It is not a reflection upon you personally if you are not called for an interview, and if you were called in, and you were genuine during the interview, then just trust in the wisdom of the committee. They thought you would not be happy there, and why not leave it believing that they were right?

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