Monday, February 14, 2011


Rethinking Skype Interviews

Last week’s piece in IHE by “Young Philosopher” about replacing first-round conference interviews with Skype interviews has stuck in my craw for the last few days. I’m increasingly convinced that he’s on to something, but with a few key qualifications.

(I have no ‘brand loyalty’ on this one. I’ll just refer to Skype because it’s convenient, but any synchronous, interactive web video platform would accomplish the same thing.)

Last Fall, in response to a reader question, I mentioned that I’d never seen a candidate who had only done Skype interviews actually “win” a faculty search. But I have to admit some second thoughts since then.

The hole in my logic was that I was assuming that ‘distance’ interviewees were necessarily competing with ‘in person’ interviewees. That has actually been the case on the ground thus far, but it doesn’t have to be. And thinking back, I’ve actually been interviewed by old-fashioned telephone in the first round a few times, and some of those resulted in in-person followups. If old-fashioned telephone works, I don’t know why Skype couldn’t.

The key is consistency.

Typically, faculty interviews occur in two rounds. The first round brings in 8-10 candidates, usually some local and some from a distance. That group gets winnowed down to (usually) three finalists who are invited back for a second round.

I’m still unwilling to give up on the second round being done in person. Especially for distance candidates, the opportunity to see the campus itself, to walk around it and get a flavor of the place, is crucial. I’ve had enough experiences of “this wasn’t what I expected” that I wouldn’t want to give up on that reality check.

But for the first round, I could imagine holding every interview via Skype, even the local ones. That way, every candidate is on a level playing field. We can save the expensive and time-consuming reality check for the finalists.

The major advantage of moving to Skype for first-round interviews is cost. Flying people in and putting them up in hotels is a serious cost. That’s especially true when flights have to be booked on short notice. For candidates juggling multiple interviews -- yes, it happens, even in this market -- the time commitments are substantial. But anyone who actually wants a job should be able to block out an hour at some point for a distance conversation; if they can’t even be bothered to do that, then I know what I need to know.

(This seems to be a difference from the situation YP describes, in which first round interviews are routinely conducted at a regional/national conference. For a host of reasons, including cost, scheduling conflicts, and differences among disciplines, we haven’t done that. YP’s proposal assumes poor graduate students trekking to a conference in hopes of getting interviewed; the cost savings from Skype would accrue to the graduate students. Here, we’ve always paid for candidates to come to us, so the savings would accrue to the college.)

Admittedly, it would be a little awkward to interview incumbent adjuncts or local candidates via Skype. But that seems like a small price to pay for consistency. Comparing an in-person candidate to a distance candidate introduces a glaring measurement error; if everyone is on a level playing field, then at least nobody is gaining an undue advantage.

I can imagine two potentially significant problems. The first is teaching demos. I’m not sure how well teaching demos would work over Skype. We’ve typically included teaching demos in the first round, since for a teaching institution there’s simply no point in putting a candidate forward who isn’t effective as a teacher. Virtual teaching demos could be pretty misleading, since they wouldn’t really approximate either a real classroom setting or an online class. There’s probably a way around this, but I haven’t seen it or figured it out.

The other major disadvantage that leaps to mind is the less-than-perfect reliability of internet video. Those of us old enough to remember Max Headroom have probably had the occasional flashback while trying to converse on Skype. Interviews can be relatively tense on a good day; throw in random technical glitches, and suddenly you’re basing decisions on the vagaries of bandwidth.

The second objection strikes me as mostly temporary, though, given the speed of improvement of these things. The first is tougher, but I wouldn’t be shocked to see someone figure out a reasonable way to work around it.

With travel costs continuing to climb and budget pressures continuing to mount, the logic of Skype-type interviews -- at least for the first round -- is becoming more persuasive. Wise and worldly readers, is there something I’m overlooking? Alternately, have you tried the all-Skype route on your campus?

No Skype yet. Just old-fashioned conference call then an on-site for a select few. I do not see a major change in the near future. Skype cannot accurately capture all aspects of a teaching demonstration, for example. On-sites, though expensive, are a much better indicator.

Since most candidates are pre-evaluated initially by their credentials (CV, application, etc.), phone keeps everyone on an even playing surface. Skype adds as additional dimensions to a candidate that may "muddy" good applicants in the pool.
Our campus and department has used phone interviews for the first round for probably a decade. The conference interviews described by YP are criminal. Its a way to externalize the costs of the job search onto the grad students. Skype/phone is the way to go for round one.

Do you really need a teaching demo? Can't you ask for a teaching portfolio instead? Specify the kinds of material want to see, and see what you get.
Re: Teaching demos. Many schools now have "smart" classrooms that can record video and sound in the room. If candidates are coming from a school, either as an instructor or a grad student, they may have the ability to send a teaching demo as a video. Many schools now are also looking for candidates to show their competence with technology - what better way to do that in the first round?
I do a lot of online and mixed mode teaching so I'm pretty familiar with the tech options out there, but I think it is too much to ask of any candidate that they master not only their own system, but also your local campus system, to do a virtual teaching demo. One might think that the platforms are interchangeable, but then one would be wrong. Unless you are selecting for familiarity with your particular system & set-up (in which case you'd better include that in your position description!) this is a big issue.

As for video skype teaching (even when overcoming all tech hurdles) - it isn't the same, especially with a group of students you don't know - very hard to "read" the room and adjust accordingly, which is a critical element of good teaching. If the person would be teaching primarily face to face, then that's how they should expect to do their teaching demo.

DD, I'm surprised, though, that you have your initial 8-10 candidates all do teaching demos. That is very time-intensive (finding them an audience, possibly imposing on an existing class & eating up one of their days, etc.) and given that you are going to seriously consider less than half of them for the job, seems like it could be a waste of everyone's time. I like Matt L's suggestion here.
That's a lot of teaching demos. I've never done one except when I've already been on campus.

Like Young Philosopher, candidates in my field are expected to be at the national conference if they want to be interviewed. It can be expensive, especially for those of us who are poor--which is most of us, really.

There's also an informal meet-and-greet in philosophy that sounds pretty horrible, if you ask me, because it's a mix and mingle time where people decide who among their candidates they like socially and feel comfortable with. Then we wring our hands about the non-white philosophers and women who so rarely make the cut in most departments.
That's some odd spam you're attracting.

I did two skype interviews this year - both were in lieu of any conference or on-campus visits for the first round. Seemed to work find, although personally I like the conference interview process better just because I think that I am better at charming people face to face. I find skype an awkward format. But it's awkward for everyone, so fair enough.
We've begun routinely doing video-conferenced interviews as the semi-final round, especially for administrative positions. On-campus candidates for the position are also interviewed by video confernece (which they hate, btw). It has worked well for us.

(Parenthetically, it's interesting how different people can be in a video interview and in person...)
We did all-Skype interviews for the first round of 10 candidates this year (and in the past we've done phone interviews). It was great--we were so thrilled to go from phone (not seeing) to Skype (seeing). I HATE conference interviews (which we've also done), because your dynamic with conference participants is then so strained, especially if your candidates are people you have otherwise socialized with in the past at a conference (in my very small field, this happens).

This year, we even did skype interviews to add a first round to grad candidate recruiting, and that was great too.
I think you obtain more valuable information if you do not give the teaching demo topic to the candidate in advance. Instead, allow them to choose from ~6 topics on the day of the interview and give them 30 minutes to prepare a presentation. This will give you an idea of what they truly would do in a classroom rather than an over-the-top video demonstration that they had two weeks to prepare. I think in-person is better than skype for reasons that others have already mentioned: candidate gets a better feel for whether the institution is a good fit for him/her, and it reduces the tension regarding technical difficulties.
Be uniform in what you do or expect lawsuits. That said, most companies now do phone interviews before ftf meetings. It's faster, easier and it helps screen more qualified candidates.

6 topics on the day of the interview and give them 30 minutes to prepare.... This will give you an idea of what they truly would do in a classroom rather than an over-the-top video demonstration that they had two weeks to prepare.

I really disagree. I spend 8-10 hours on each hour of class time, assembling videos, photos and short interactive quizzes to go along with the lecture. I have to preprogram my on-line environment to make it do the polling and other tricks I want it to do - that can take an hour as well. The 30 minute prep tells you how well the person will do on open mike improv night but says little about the polished presentation they would make as part of their professional life as an instructor. I'm hoping your faculty spend less than half an hour preparing for class....
For a job this year, we did the first round interviews by phone, and then brought people to campus. It saved money not only for the candidates (who didn't have to travel to the meeting) but for us, who didn't have to send two or three people across the country to a national meeting. And we did a phone interview for someone who was visiting on campus this year: he may have been down the hall, but he was on the phone.
We are not using Skype yet. However, do use phone interviews for all applicants, even the local ones. Last year, we had a candidate who lived only a couple of miles away from school but still, to be consistent, s/he had a phone interview. We have a standard list of questions for all candidates and committee members take turns asking those questions. At the end, all applicants have an opportunity to ask questions.

The second round is always conducted on campus. It consists of meeting with the committee and administrators, campus tour, and teaching demo. The teaching demo is the best way to select the finalists, mainly because there are plenty of people who can spin stories but have no idea how to teach. Our candidates are given three topics a few days before the interview and have 20-30 mins to teach the topic, just like they would in real-life. They are specifically instructed that observers are their students. We even invite real students to these demos and actively participate by asking questions, etc. Candidates with strong teaching skills adjust immediately because they find themselves in a familiar environment. However, people who just "talk" are visibly squirming.

Skype can easily replace phones. However, the only alternative for face-to-face interviews would be teleconferencing, if done correctly. It's still not I would prefer because you can't give a campus tour via webcam but, in hardship cases, it might work for teaching demos.
Ivory, it gets pretty tough if you spend 8-10 hours preparing for 15 hours of class a week! Doesn't leave much time for grading, not to mention office hours or lunch.

My view is that we expect a candidate at a CC to have taught the entire course before, or something similar, and should be prepared to discuss teaching random topic X as readily as a Uni candidate can discuss an off-the-wall question about their research program and that of competitors.
Ivory, it gets pretty tough if you spend 8-10 hours preparing for 15 hours of class a week! Doesn't leave much time for grading, not to mention office hours or lunch.

Yes - my first year sucked. I had no kids and my husband traveled 75% of the time for work which helped. I couldn't do it today. But in my department, we teach the same preps every year - so after that first push, I could just maintain and it wasn't so bad. I still spend time refreshing and prepping for classes but not as much. In 30 minutes, I'd never be able to prep the way I do for my regular classes - a lot of my "teaching" happens outside of class.
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