The Telephone Interview
Natasha Sajé | September 2006
If you are looking for a teaching job, you will probably run into an aspect of the interview process that is rarely the subject of job hunting advice, the telephone interview. Interviewing candidates by telephone enables a department to narrow choices for permanent positions without the expense and trouble of trips to the Modern Language Association (MLA) convention, and telephone interviews are often used to fill short-term or replacement positions. In any case, the telephone interview demands some of the same and some different skills from the face-to-face interview. As during an MLA interview, the departmental interviewing team can number from one to as many as seven. The department chair usually calls the candidate to arrange a time, and the interviews last between fifteen minutes and an hour. However, you may be called without notice. Stéphane Pillet, Associate Professor of French at the University of Puerto Rico-Mayagüez, remembers an out-of-the-blue phone call from one department chair. Pillet answered the phone in French, with a joke, because he thought it was his neighbor. The chair proceeded to interview Pillet for about ten minutes, and then scheduled another phone interview with more department members for the following week.
You should find out the time frame for the interview, and then take into account that it may go over or under the allotted time. In other words, don’t schedule a thirty minute phone interview for 2 p.m. and then plan to leave the house at 2:30 p.m. The interview team may have some problems in getting set up, getting the conference phone to work, etc. If there’s a time zone difference, be clear what it is. If you don’t hear from your interviewers within ten minutes of the agreed-upon time, call the chair and leave a message like, “This is Jane Smith at ten after two o’clock on Wednesday. I was expecting your phone call and I am wondering if I’ve made a mistake in the date or time.” These interviews can take place anytime before the job is to be filled, probably between November and July.
Do Some Research
I’ve been on both sides of the telephone interview process and suggest that you prepare for the phone interview as thoroughly as you would for an MLA interview. Find out as much as possible about the position, the department, and the institution, keeping in mind that websites may contain outdated information. If possible, find out the names of the interviewers, and then research what they do in the department by looking at the website. Sometimes to keep things simple, the group will appoint one or two people to ask questions compiled by everyone. Sometimes all five will chime in, but you are not expected to differentiate.
Put Your Best Foot Forward
Concentrate on putting your own best foot forward, on demonstrating your qualifications for the job. Do not let this verge into boastfulness or name-dropping. Academics are good at analyzing tone, and the right one is to state accomplishments or skills without a trace of enhancement, as though you were stating them about someone you do not know. Always assume your audience knows the relative prestige of programs, writers, presses, journals, etc. For instance, it is OK to say “I have a story forthcoming in Shenandoah,” but not, “My story forthcoming in Shenandoah, a selective journal published at Washington & Lee University.” You might make a list of four or five of your own strengths, to remind yourself to bring them up when appropriate. You will likely be asked about your current projects, but do not speak about their excellence. Leave evaluations to your recommenders and to whoever else has read your writing.
Make a list of questions the interviewers are likely to ask. These include: How would you teach Intro to Creative Writing? How do you grade creative writing? How do you determine which students to admit into selective classes? What difference do you find between teaching graduate and undergraduate students? How does your own writing affect what and how you teach? How do you teach revision? What kind of administrative experience have you had? Most of the time, the questions will be straightforward and prepared in advance, but once I listened to a colleague speak to a candidate for about two minutes and then realized that she hadn’t actually asked anything, she had only complained about my college’s admissions policies. Our candidate was so adept, however, that he turned her talk into a discussion of whether incoming freshmen should be able to waive the English composition requirement via Advanced Placement exam credit. The interview team wants to hear how you think and how you express yourself, and sometimes what you say is less important than how you say it. This candidate proved he was quick on his feet, exactly in the way that students’ statements sometimes can be turned into questions to facilitate discussion.
Although you should anticipate questions, you should not anticipate the desired or “correct” answers. Once, another interviewer and I asked three telephone candidates about undergraduate publication: i.e., “How do you feel about undergraduates publishing their creative writing?” I personally don’t encourage my undergraduate students (even graduate students) to publish their work; it can distract from their progress as writers and there’s plenty of time to market the work after the degree. However, my colleague thought undergraduate publication should be encouraged. Thus, there was no “right answer”; in fact, our three candidates answered in three different ways, and our evaluation of their answers depended not on whether they agreed with us but on how well they supported their reasoning.
If you are asked why you want to leave your current position, do not be negative. In one telephone interview for a staff position at my college, one candidate “hung herself” by complaining about her current boss. If you complain, the interview team will be reminded of Horace’s adage, “skies change, souls don’t” and see you as the source of the problem. Frame your reason for leaving in positive terms about the potential position: “I’ve always wanted to live in the Rockies” or “I love the small college atmosphere.”
The very best way to prepare is to answer interview questions by talking into a tape recorder or enlisting a friend to listen. Yes, a tape will be agonizing for you to listen to, but it will tell you what you sound like. The big difference between an MLA interview and a telephone interview is that you don’t have visual cues to let you know when people are smiling, frowning, paying attention, etc. Thus, you have to ask for cues.
The most common mistakes in a telephone interview are to either talk too long on a question or not long enough. Without visual cues, some candidates interpret silence on the part of the interviewers as a signal to stop talking, and this is a mistake. Interviewers are eagerly waiting to hear you demonstrate your qualifications and intelligence. On the other hand, repeating yourself or verging into unrelated areas without being certain that the interviewers want to know about them is also a mistake. During the interview, stop and ask, “Have I answered your question?” Or, “shall I elaborate?” Or, “would you like me to say a bit more?” The only sure way to hear your own oral conversational tics is to record yourself and play the tape back while imagining you are on the other side of the interview. Do you say “um” between every two sentences? Do you repeat yourself? Do you take a long time to get to the point? Do you laugh nervously even when nothing is funny? Does your voice go up at the end of every sentence, as though you were asking a question? These things can be discovered by listening to yourself, and then you can correct your habits. Practice far enough in advance (perhaps six months) that you are not too self-conscious during the actual interview. If it doesn’t make you too nervous, you could also tape your responses to an actual phone interview for later analysis. In other words, think of this practice as a few hours’ investment in public speaking skills that will not only help you during your telephone interview, but in every other kind of oral communication. I’m not suggesting that anyone has to change a lifetime speech habit for the sake of a phone interview. Some speech habits can be good; for instance, recently I was listening to Camille Paglia on National Public Radio and was struck by the way her slight stutter when beginning a response conveyed confidence and excitement, as though her mind were faster than her tongue.
The last question you will no doubt be asked is, “Do you have any questions for us?” This is a time to ask real questions such as, “What is the teaching load?” or “How do you envision this position fitting into the department?” or “What are the department’s future plans?” or “What kind of problems have you had with your writing center / freshman comp. program /recruitment plan / etc.” If you don’t have any of these kinds of questions, a good all-purpose question is “What are the students like?” I do remember an MLA interview where I asked this and one department member answered, “The students are naïve,” while another retorted, “They are not. They may be farm kids but they are not naïve.” The disagreement escalated into an embarrassing argument. There was nothing I could have done to prevent the argument, short of not asking the question, and there was certainly nothing I could do while it was taking place, although I did try to interject (unsuccessfully!) by asking a different question. Needless to say, the candidate bears the responsibility for whatever happens during the interview even if it is not his or her fault. Your potential colleagues will not want you around if you remind them of their disagreements or other negative things.
During the interview, you might use a notepad to keep track of questions that have been asked and have your vita and syllabi handy. In fact, Ana Kothe, Associate Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Puerto Rico-Mayagüez, points out that one of the advantages of a phone interview is access to a computer—and all your syllabi—while you are on the phone. Remember also that while you should not use the telephone interview time to ask things that you could have found out by looking at the website or reading the ad, interviewers may ask you something that is perfectly clear from your vita or letter or writing sample, and you should not redirect them to that document. They’ve read dozens, maybe hundreds, of documents and they might not have yours in front of them (although they should). The telephone interview is also not a time to ask about salary or benefits or to ask how many candidates are being interviewed. At the end of the telephone interview, if the “next step information” is not volunteered, it is fine to ask the interviewers something like, “What is your timeline?” It is not necessary to write thank you notes or emails after a telephone interview (or for that matter, after an MLA interview or an on-campus interview). These notes make no difference in the outcome. It is OK to follow up on something mentioned during an interview, for instance by emailing the text of a published work of yours that was brought up.
If it’s a temporary position, you’ll probably get a call from the chair or dean offering you the job, and that’s the time to negotiate terms. If the interview team is narrowing choices for candidates to bring to campus, then you’ll get a call inviting you to travel to campus at the institution’s expense. If you don’t get a call in a week or so, assume you were not one of the top candidates, but don’t rule out the possibility of getting a call later in the process, say if the institution’s top candidates turn them down.
Whatever happens, as with any other interview, remember that the process is as much about the interviewers as it is about you. Sometimes this is called “fit” and it concerns not so much your competency but how you make your potential colleagues feel. And this cannot always be engineered or controlled, although you should try to learn from your mistakes. In my years of being interviewed I definitely got better at reading and responding to situations. One advantage of phone interviews over in-person interviews is that you won’t be distracted by visual information, like the interviewer’s hair. Another good thing about telephone interviews is that the interviewee gets to stay in her pajamas if she wants!
Natasha Sajé is the author of two books of poems, Red Under the Skin (Pittsburgh, 1994) and Bend (Tupelo, 2004) and many essays. She teaches at Westminster College in Salt Lake City and in the Vermont College M.F.A. in Writing Program.