Hanging on the telephone: a good convention interview substitute?

This song is 30 years old!

Do you still have your old 45 of this one?

A few weeks ago, I posted a question from Busted Barry in Bakersfield about whether to announce in his job application letter that he had no plans to go to the American Historical Association’s annual conference, which traditionally hosts screening interviews for faculty job aspirants.  A telephone interview would be the obvious substitute, so the question for today, dear readers, is:  are phone interviews an adequate substitute for in-person interviews at large conventions like the AHA or the Modern Language Association?

My sense is that telephone interviews are inferior to the real thing, because no department I’ve ever been a part of has brought someone who had a telephone interview to campus as a job finalist when we also conducted conference interviews.  That may be because the people at the conference were truly the best candidates, but I wonder if the disembodied voice over the speakerphone just doesn’t establish one’s energy or presence in the same way that in-person interviews can.  But, Commenter JJO disagreed (somewhat), offered some good advice, and raised an interesting point in his comment on the Busted Barry post given the price of jet fuel these days:

[M]any departments might be looking to save money by finding alternative interview arrangements this year.

I’ve had both good and bad experiences on the interviewee end of phone interviews (be very upfront if you can’t hear everyone or need something repeated or clarified — I know from experience that faking it doesn’t work well; the confusion comes through). But in my department we’ve had excellent luck bringing people in through phone interviews and videoconferencing (usually for postdoctoral positions; we still do AHA for tenure-track jobs, but the positive experiences we’ve had in these other formats might actually change that, particularly given the funding cuts that are already being implemented.)

I think JJO makes great points, but I’d suggest that parity is perhaps the key here:  if some people get in-person convention interviews, and other people get phone or videoconference interviews, then inequitable treatment may be the result.  But, if everyone gets a phone interview or a videoconference interview, that would seem to level the playing field, provided that you have no candidates with hearing loss or other disabilities that might make telecommunications difficult.

So, dear readers, what do you think?  Are phone interviews an acceptable substitute, or do they doom candidates?  Have you heard of any moves afoot in your college or university to go the telephone or videoconference route in these hard times?

0 thoughts on “Hanging on the telephone: a good convention interview substitute?

  1. I’ve been dying to write about this but haven’t because we are in mid-search and I don;t want candidates to think they are reading about themselves or getting indirect messages.

    We just did a bunch of phone interviews following convention interviews and — while in many ways meeting the person is better (facial cues help both sides navigate the process better), with good equipment and proper etiquette, in which committee member identify themselves before speaking, I would say the yield form both groups was about the same. We asked for faxed sample syllabi ahead of time, since convention interviewees had brought syllabi with them in response to cues about two important courses they would teach, and that helped even the playing field.

    That said, I do think anyone on the market should plan to go to AHA if there is any way to afford it. Flying to NY is relatively cheap if you keep your eyes on the sales, staying with friends makes it cheaper, and getting other people to share rooms helps cut costs too. There are jobs that pop up at the convention (not wonderful ones, it’s true, but in this climate…), and historians are very stuffy about their practices, one of which is convention interviews. To say you *won’t* go to the convention will say to some schools that you are not interested enough in their job to show up for a preliminary interview, however unfair that may seem.

    You can always cancel a plane ticket and use it later for a small fee.



  2. Hey, historiann, our former mutual department (your current one) did at least once bring a phone interview candidate in, on a search at which we also did convention interviews (our first year, the search committee on which I was on). That person wasn’t hired, but IIRC we on the committee actually put another phone interview high in our top six.

    So, it’s not necessarily the death knell. But it is far inferior to a convention interview, I think. I did two phone interviews, both for departments that only interviewed by phone (I think). The first was an unmitigated disaster. They asked after my research, I did my standard one sentence response, and then paused, as one might in a face to face interaction to get a nod or a head tilt or some other indication to go on… but of course got none of that, so the silence turned into them switching to ask after my teaching. Not good.

    So for the second one, I motored on and kept talking as if I were getting nods. It worked, and I had a campus interview.


  3. In-person interviews are much better than phone interviews. I always find phone interviews awkward and confusing.

    Maybe departments can try teleconference interviews. That way everyone can see each other.

    Historiann, I read a review of your book in the Fall Issue of Eighteenth-Century Studies. Have you seen the review?


  4. In an MLA field here, and I think that I agree that *most* of the time one shouldn’t rule out doing the convention interview circuit and that *most* of the time one shouldn’t reveal in the letter if one is planning not to attend the convention. However, I broke these rules myself in an application I sent out this year, because it gave me the opportunity to highlight my interest in this *particular* job, as well as to highlight something on my CV that wouldn’t otherwise have made it into the letter. I did this with the full understanding that I may not get an interview because I said I wouldn’t be attending MLA, but also I felt like I didn’t want to waste their time and mine by hiding my circumstances. Would I have done this were I not already in a t-t position in which I’m happy? No way. Would I have done this were I doing a full search this year? No. Would I have done this solely based on personal concerns (money, not feeling like traveling, etc.)? No. But I think that had I represented myself otherwise, in this particular case, that it wouldn’t have served me or the institution to which I’m applying terribly well.

    Perhaps part of my feeling on this is that I think the “screening interview” list (from my experience on a search and from hearing stories from others who were either searching or on other committees) has some flexibility, and if you wait until later to say you won’t attend the convention, that may mean that you won’t get interviewed at all anyway. They’ll just go to an alternate who will be attending, whose letter wasn’t as sparkling or something but whose application was very close to the top of the pile with everything else. Maybe you’ll get the phone interview or local interview later, if the committee couldn’t find 3 reasonable candidates to bring to campus from their initial interviewing at the convention, but just because they gave you the initial call doesn’t mean they’re so stuck on you that they’ll offer you a phone interview right off the bat when you reveal late in the game that you won’t attend the convention. If you’re the top candidate and everybody is in love with your application materials? Maybe. If you’re in the middle-to-bottom of the 10-15 person pool? In my experience, not so much.


  5. I have only done one phone interview as a candidate and one phone interview where I was part of the committee. As the candidate, the department-in-question was interviewing at a conference that I don’t normally attend. I thought the phone thing went well, but I was ultimately not invited to campus.

    When I was part of the committee, the person interviewed by phone did get invited to campus, but was still seen as “less interested” in the job than the other candidates (S/he was a near-tenure junior person whom we suspected was looking for a better deal from their home university. Not attending the conference suggested (fairly or unfairly) that s/he just wasn’t that serious about moving).

    Still, with universities having to cut costs, I think we will see a huge increase in the number of phone interviews. For now, though, I can’t imagine why a job candidate wouldn’t attend AHA or MLA if s/he is seriously on the job market. It’s expensive, I understand. In the end, though, having an actual job is more important than short-term cost cutting.


  6. I have probably done close to a dozen phone interviews, although never as a substitute for a face-to-face. Given the fact that the initial screening in my current job was through a phone interview, I suppose I had better not complain!


  7. Thanks for all of your reportage on your experiences. (And thanks for stopping by to comment, AS, and to correct my faulty memory!) In general, I agree that novices and/or the unemployed should suck it up and go to the conventions. But, there are cases, as Dr. Crazy suggests, where different strategies are reasonable. I think it’s reasonable for search committees to expect that people who are senior, and people who are applying only to (a) particular job/s, will not necessarily be at the conferences. Although, Dr. Crazy, I still think that in *most* cases it’s wise to hold back in the job letter about your plans–or lack of plans–to attend the big conferences. But, as previous job-search related discussions have demonstrated here, the process is highly variable and contingent–what might feel right to say (or withhold) in one application letter may not be right for all of them.

    I would caution against people judging phone interview candidates, however: in some cases I’m familiar with, we did phone interviews because people had medical problems that prevented their travel, or made it very difficult. (Late-stage pregnancy in December and January is a very understandable reason not to want to fly off the week after New Year’s!) You may not know all of the reasons that prevent people from getting to a particular east-coast (typically) city for a particular weekend in January. TR, I hope your phone and conference interviews went well and get you some great candidates to bring to campus!

    (And, Ortho–yes, I saw the review, and I was very pleased. Thanks for mentioning it!)

    So–who else has wisdom to share? (Maybe I’ll post the story of my personally disastrous phone interview here later…)


  8. My institution is four hours north of most anywhere and, historically, Canadian universities don’t regularly use the national conference as a hiring venue (it meets in late May or early June: well past the prime hiring season). So we’ve never had the whole “AHA interview culture” to shape our expectations (though I did my rounds at the AHA when I was finishing up at grad school) and I think that’s made me much more suspicious of the whole conference interview system.

    We’ve done some phone interviews and many video conference interviews, almost always for one year positions. Then again, my department never makes a long “shopping” list which is then winnowed down to a short “real” list: the interview is the interview. When it’s for a t-t position, we fight for (and get) permission to interview all of our candidates on campus. When the position’s limited term, things are often different and on-campus interviews aren’t always possible.

    I’m okay with phone interviews but I’m positively enthusiastic about video conferencing interviews. You can get a real feel for someone’s teaching ability if that’s a top priority, or see how they are at presenting research in a more conference-based format. You can also bring in outside people to answer the interviewee’s questions in the face-to-face format such as the librarian and staff members.

    Video conferences also permit many faculty members to see for themselves what’s going on in the “open” part of the interview. We also invite our undergraduate and graduate students who aren’t part of the formal interview process to attend: their reactions are valuable.

    The caveat is that video conferences usually require the candidate have access to a facility from which they can teleconference (though, in the age of Skype, more people are able to organize this from their own computers!) and that may still be a hardship for someone who’s in a remote location or dealing with a five or six hour time difference.


  9. My department has switched completely to telephone interviews, which I have found superior to MLA interviews for several reasons. First, since everyone is interviewed via phone, we don’t face the problem of two different media. Second, few of us actually want to attend the MLA (and my institution won’t pay for attendance unless one is delivering a paper – even if one attends in order to interview). Since we usually run at least two searches a year, MLA interviewing places a fairly large burden on the few who do attend (I also think MLA interviews themselves are bizarre and often hurried affairs). And in the past, reports from those individuals who interviewed our candidates at MLA were frustratingly vague and sometimes oddly biased. Phone interviews allow an entire search committee (including our student members) to hear the candidates and to ask follow-up questions. When a committee chair first proposed interviewing by telephone, I was hesitant, but now I am a real convert.


  10. I agree with Poe. Here, we can only budget for 3 on-campus interviews, so the telephone interview is very important. For each position, we interview up to 10 shortlisted candidates via telephone, then select our 3 on-campus candidates from those discussions. We use a script that is made up of questions from the committee members–and because we are working from the same script for every candidate, we get a nice data set to compare apples to apples on the responses. I’ve done this for the last three years running, and find it works very well.


  11. I wish! I am seriously grumbly about requiring starving graduate students and adjuncts to fork over $1000 in plane fare, hotel and conference fees for a 1/20 (maybe) chance of getting a job. Not to mention that interviewees usually need to make reservations and fork over the money without even knowing if they’ll get any interviews at all, and that many interviewees could potentially have interviews at multiple conferences for many years. That’s a lot of money when you don’t have an income. Is the difference between an in-person interview and a videoconference important enough to impose that hardship?


  12. Janice, Poe, LMC, and Devorah make convincing points about the value of telephone interviews or videoconferencing. I agree–perhaps technology will eclipse the need for all of that air travel. (If that happens, the AHA will need to figure out what its role is in life as we know it, since it exists for the most part to host job interviews and business meetings!) That might be reason enough alone to ditch the convention interview: make the AHA an intellectually stimulating meeting? What a concept!


  13. I’d point out that some of the discussion here distressingly describes some of the weird thinking that goes on in interviewers’ minds and (sometimes) discussions. Is candidate X “really” interested enough? is candidate X “really” wrangling for a better position at X’s current institution? is candidate X “serious” about “moving”? is applying for just one job “really” being on the market? All common enough ideas, I suppose–but all fail to take the application for exactly what it is: an expression of interest in the job being advertised.

    One may well wonder about any of these issues, but the failure (by either applicants or readers of files) to take an application as an honest expression of interest in an advertised position is simply acting in bad faith, I think. Decisions about whom to interview should never take such concerns or questions into account.

    [In the interests of full disclosure, I am on the market, applying for exactly one job, and thus possibly perceived as not “really” on the market. I am seriously thinking of not attending the “interview convention” in my field, in part because the expense of going for exactly one potential interview seems ludicrous, expecially since the position I’m applying for is closer to my home than the airport is. And I am as serious about trying to get the job as one can be.]


  14. I agree, Tom. (I’d also point out that the same unfair speculation can happen with candidates who do it the old-fashioned way, by having a convention interview first.) As someone who left one tenure-track job for another, I’ve heard these speculations about other job candidates and have tried to shut them down because of the prejudice they may engender. My motto is that if someone has applied for a job, they’re interested until they withdraw from the search.


  15. Pingback: Skype interviews to supplant big conference interviews? : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

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