phone interviews

Suresh posted a few months ago about academic phone interviews and asked “maybe it’s because there are more people chasing each slot and so these filters are more necessary now?” I’ve had a few phone interviews this year, with some turning into on-campus interviews and some not. Although it’s considered a thing that only smaller departments will do, I actually think the phone interview has a lot of positive features that make sense for lots of departments:

  • You can screen a much larger set of candidates — it’s probably quite difficult to decide on 6 people to invite for on-site visits out of 300 applicants. Phone interviews let you screen out those who seem under-prepared, un-interested in your job (i.e. they applied just because it was there). If someone’s research is not really in your area (e.g. a department with no information theory people), it is a good chance to get the candidate to explain it to you rather than puzzling through the research statement. This also saves money.
  • You can talk to unknown candidates — of course if your advisor is great friends with someone at school X then chances are that person will know your name (or at least your advisor’s name on your CV). But hiring people you know personally may be a suboptimal strategy long-term, so phone interviews let you broaden your search.
  • It can be done in a decentralized manner — you don’t need the whole committee to be there on the phone call. Divide and conquer!
  • If your search is pretty broad, then you can talk to a few people in several different areas. This means you can find the best-sounding candidate in each area and then the committee can try to compare good apples and good oranges instead of the whole motley cornucopia.
  • From the interviewee’s perspective, you get to learn quite a bit more about the department, its priorities, and the culture from a 30 minute chat on the phone. You get this from the questions they ask as well as the questions you get to ask. That’s definitely the sort of thing which you can’t get from the website.
  • It provides good feedback for the interviewee — if you get a phone interview, you know you’ve made some sort of list (medium, short, whatever) and that knowledge is helpful, given the uncertainty mentioned in my previous post.

That’s not to say I necessarily enjoyed all of the phone interviews; the phone is an awkward medium. But I do think on balance that they are a good way to improve the search process from the employer and job-seeker side. Besides, I’m not sure I look my best in Skype video chats…

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Some thoughts on the job market

I’m interviewing this spring to find my next gig after this postdoc, which is a convenient way for me to excuse my lack of posting. Applying for jobs is in a way a job in itself, with attendant time sinks and things popping up, etc. One thing that struck me is the sheer inefficiency of the process. This is my third time applying, and I think I sent in about 60 applications (most of which I had no chance for, in retrospect) for academic and research lab positions. Most of my comments here relate to the academic market.

Different places want different things. Some schools don’t want a cover letter. Some do. Some want you to email the application as a single PDF. Some want you to fill out half the information on your CV into a web form and then also submit your CV. Some schools want a combined two-page research and teaching statement, and some want them separately (or with page requirements for each). Some don’t want any teaching statement. Some schools want letters sent directly, some will email a link to your recommenders, some want hardcopy letters, and some will request letters only from a few applicants. Some want 3 letters, some 5, and some up to 8. Some places have a common interface like AJO. Many schools use the same software package (like RAPS at Columbia).

The bewildering variety of formats makes it hard for applicants to keep their recommenders (who are busy people) informed. I sent my recommenders endless emails with lists of which schools wanted what, which schools they should have heard from, and which schools will only contact them if I made the first cut (in which case, could they let me know for my own records?). What if your application somewhere is rejected because they sent an automated email to your letter writers without informing you and it was eaten by their spam filter? This would hardly be fair, but I imagine that it does happen. I’m not sure what is to be done, but it seems like moving to a common format like the AMS Coversheet may not be a bad move, or using some kind of letter warehousing service.

Another related factor which contributes to inefficiency and psychological distress is the lack of feedback regarding the status of one’s application. I got a rejection letter from last year’s job search in October of this year. Did they really made the decision only then, or were they just flushing their buffer? I’d prefer a form rejection letter early to the ambiguity even from the place that wants a “mixed-signal circuit” expert but welcomes “excellent candidates in all areas.” Just getting an email saying “sorry, you’re not a good fit” can help refocus the applicant’s attention on those openings which are still “open.” It’s a buyers market — there are 300 applicants for each open position, so perhaps departments don’t have time to send all of those letters. But emails are cheap!

There’s no real way to make the application process less time-consuming, but I think it can be made less confusing and less draining. The question is how, and what is the incentive for employers?