For chemists of a certain generation, there is something comforting and deeply familiar about a landline telephone. The voice on the other end comes through loud and clear, and there is no way that your ear will accidentally hang up the phone. You also don’t have to worry about the sound breaking up or whether you have enough battery life to finish the call.
Growing up in the 1980s, I spent many late nights in middle school and high school chatting with friends on the telephone. When I graduated and began looking for jobs, the phone interview gave me my first taste of the working world.
These days, it seems that the classic phone interview may be going by the wayside. During the past five years, as I have tracked the academic and industrial job markets, many academic interviews have dropped the classic phone interview and begun conducting interviews online via Skype or other videoconferenceing software.
I don’t like this trend of Skype interviews. I think we place too much trust in our ability to read faces; we think of ourselves as excellent judges of character by simply looking at a face or seeing our conversation partner’s raised or lowered eyebrows or tilted head. I’m not saying that people have poor judgment, but I am skeptical of our ability to overcome our prejudices about appearances so early in a screening process.
It’s not unreasonable for employers to want more information from potential employees. A cover letter and a two-page résumé aren’t much to go on. Phone or Skype conversations are about gathering data about a candidate’s personality and communication style. Just like an in-person meeting, there are some simple meta-questions being asked and answered in that conversation: Can the person carry on a simple conversation? Does he or she interrupt? Does the candidate listen to questions and answer thoughtfully? If I brought this person in for an in-person interview, would it go well?
You can’t invite every candidate to an in-person interview because of the cost of travel. Here I’ll admit Skype interviews offer employers an advantage: Skype interviews allow more candidates to give a short version of their research presentation and answer a few questions in front of the search committee. Increasing the number of people who get a fuller airing of their candidacy is unquestionably a good thing.
In the end, I must bend to reality: Skype interviews are here to stay, and the wise interviewee must learn to master them. So what can you do to prepare? Like with any phone interview, pick a private place that isn’t too loud and doesn’t have bad acoustics, have a glass of water handy if you get dry mouth when you talk a lot, and wear something that is appropriate. I have heard of people doing Skype interviews in their bedrooms wearing a nice shirt and jacket, and jeans. If you’re doing this at home, hopefully your children or your dog don’t come bursting into the room or your neighbor doesn’t start a lawn mower while you are doing your Skype interview.
There is also the “practice, practice, practice” aspect of interviews. I valued my preparation sessions with my graduate school friends and postdoctoral colleagues so much. Translating this to Skype interviews is awkward—the gaze of your friends through a laptop screen is not nearly as warm as it is in person. Getting used to the presentation software and knowing where to put your microphone, camera, and lights all require forethought, so find a friend to help you test it out ahead of time.
Whether it’s by phone or through Skype, you have the opportunity to speak with your potential employer and land an in-person interview, or even be hired on the spot. If you can successfully communicate how your background and your skills can complement your interviewer’s organization, you will make a great impression no matter the technology.
Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of C&EN or ACS.