Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Other Side of the Basketweaving Interviews

Having talked last time about what we were looking for in our interviews and what impressed us, I'd like to talk a little today about what happens on our side, and what we're looking for in ourselves.

First, we're not lawyers. But, we're basically ethical folks who are trying to do a good job and find a good colleague for the UB department. I can't speak for every search, of course, but in my experience, people are trying to do a good ethical job, and we're not perfect. Some of us are less perfect than we'd like. Me, for example.

One of the things we're told we need to do is make the interviews as much the same across the board as possible, and so we create a question script and follow that with every interview. That means we won't accidentally ask one candidate to describe a class she'll teach, and ask another candidate to talk about his research, and then decide that the she can't do research and he can't teach, and go from there. Each candidate gets the same basic questions, and the same time. It helps when we're tired that we have the script and stick to it.

We scripted out our questions over email in the couple of weeks before the telephone interviews began.

The script has us start off by introducing ourselves, and then we move to the questions:

1) Tell us how you would teach a course in SCUBA safety for deepwater basketweaving. (Some of our questions aren't really questions, of course.)

2) Tell us about your current research project and how it fits with our teaching needs.

3) Tell us how you'd contribute to [campus project].

And so forth. We're allowed to ask unscripted follow-up questions, which we tend to do only when something isn't clear in the answer, or when someone says something that sparks someone else's interest in some extra information.

The thing is, if you're not told in advance that all the questions are scripted, they sound really... well, scripted. They jump from teaching to research without much transition. Maybe we're bad script-writers.

We've been meeting in a conference room across campus (well, more across campus for me than for some, perhaps), where there's a speaker phone. That means we're sitting around in semi-comfortable chairs with our coffee and maybe some snacks. We don't mean to be rude, but if we're doing several hours of phone interviews, we may need some sustenance.

So if there's silence at the end of your answer, it may be because we're not sure you've answered, or I may be scripted to ask the next question and trying to swallow some over-hot coffee or writing a note.

It's hard to do phone interviews because they feel awkward. But then, all interviews tend to feel awkward to me. Phone interviews probably favor the candidate who is quick with words and well-prepared. They don't favor looks or outfit over other factors though, unlike in-person interviews. They may favor certain voice types.

At the end, we gave candidates a chance to ask their question(s). Finally, if the candidate hadn't asked, we'd explain the timeline.

I can't emphasize enough that most of the candidates we've interviewed have sounded quite good. We had a few that really stood out, but I have a feeling most of them could do the job. It gives me headaches to know that there are really solid candidates out there who won't get jobs, just as there were when I was on the market. But maybe demystifying things helps. That's my hope, anyway.


  1. You mean to say that committees are made of people? People who can't always give jobs to every person who's qualified?

    Come now. Surely you jest.

    In all seriousness, this is something that I imagine many people realize but is all too infrequently put into words. It is perhaps not the most reassuring of knowledge, but at least, as you said, demystifying. Thanks again.

  2. When I'm on a search committee, I find it helpful to think about the fact that I can give a job to one person (or, more precisely, make a recommendation). That's a more positive way to think about it than to think about all the applicants who won't get a job.

    On a related note, search committees should strive for as much transparency as is legally allowed, even if you have to overcome resistance from administrators who would like to keep things confidential even when there's no reason. At some institutions, search committees aren't allowed to notify applicants of their status until the search is concluded. That's daft. The last time I chaired a search, I sent a rejection letter to those who were not shortlisted in the first round, informing them how many people had applied and that, regretfully, they were not among those who made the short list. I thought that was a matter of simple decency.

  3. Your post has great questions for those on the receiving end of phone interviews. And Brian is right: you're giving someone a job, even if you can't give everyone a job.