What to Expect When You’re Expecting an Academic Job Interview, Part II: The Phone Interview

by Justin B. Moore, PhD, MS, FACSM

The Scholarship of Public Health addresses topics relevant to scientific publishing, dissemination of evidence and best practices, and the education of current and future professionals. This post offers advice on getting an academic job interview.

If you read my previous posts and followed the advice, you’ve undoubtedly been inundated with offers to interview. Okay, maybe inundated is a bit strong; it’s a tough job market out there. But, hopefully, a few of your preferred universities have reached out to you and asked if you’d be willing to conduct a phone interview with them. This is typically the first step in the interview process (though there are exceptions), and usually means that you’ve made the final 5-10 candidates under consideration. Depending on the search budget, the final 2-3 candidates will usually be invited to campus for a formal interview. Having participated in several searches on the hiring side of things, you’d be amazed at how badly people do during phone interviews. As such, I’d like to describe what you can expect and give guidance on how best to navigate the experience.

The Phone Interview

Phone interviews tend to be formulaic and relatively boring experiences designed to separate those who only look good on paper from those who are worth further consideration. Basically, this is the first test of your communication skills in a controlled setting (ie, do you card read well). Phone interviews are typically 30-minute to one-hour affairs guided by a series of questions intended to standardize the experience for all candidates. After you have conducted a few of these, you’ll find that most search committees will ask very similar questions, but you should be prepared for the occasional curve ball. Some general tips:

  • Take the call in the quietest place you can find, with the best phone reception, and the least possibility of being interrupted/distracted. Your home may not be this place, as you don’t want your interview to be interrupted by a barking dog or a firetruck zooming by with lights and sirens blazing. Shared offices can also be bad. If necessary, you might want to reserve a room in the library or other quiet place.
  • You’ll want ready access to water for the inevitable dry mouth.
  • Do your research! I cannot stress this enough. If it’s on their website, you should know it. Make a cheat sheet to refer to. I am constantly amazed by candidates who don’t know basic information about the department they’re applying for, such as the number of faculty, faculty interests, degree programs, etc. For research intensive positions, PubMed and NIH RePORTER searches of the faculty can yield useful information regarding their current research interests.
  • That said, don’t shoehorn the information into the phone interview. Just because you found a recent article on a topic from a member of the search committee doesn’t mean that you need to bring it up on the call.
  • Be prepared to talk about what interested you about the position. If you applied for every job that you might vaguely be qualified for, that doesn’t matter. Have a good answer for why this specific position is interesting to you, and don’t say location and/or to avoid homelessness.
  • Prepare for questions about your teaching interests (if applicable), research interests (always), etc. If you prepared those statements when applying for positions, you should have plenty to talk about. For the former, you should look up the required courses taught in the department. Personally, I can’t stand it when someone says, “I would really like to develop a course on [the topic of my research].” Someone has to teach Introduction to Public Health, and it might as well be you.
  • Have questions for the committee. One I like is, “Where do you see the department headed in the next five years, and what role do you see the incoming faculty member playing in the evolution of the department?” This can give you good material to build upon for the on-campus interview.
  • Don’t try to be funny. At all. Not even a little.

If all goes well, you’ll make the cut and get invited to travel to the university to kick the tires on the job and make the case that it should be offered to you. In the next post, I’ll talk about what to expect when you get on campus, how to prepare, and how to close the deal. In the interim, remember to clear some space on your credit card if possible. You may need it.

Justin B. Moore, PhD, MS, FACSM, is the Associate Editor of the Journal of Public Health Management and Practice and an Associate Professor in the Department of Implementation Science of the Wake Forest School of Medicine at the Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, NC, USA. Follow him at Twitter and Instagram. [Full Bio]

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