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?