Making the right impression: Academic phone interviews

Holding pattern (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

This post comes about because of @emilyandthelime’s query about academic job-hunting and phone interviews. While Skype and video-conferencing are gaining ground, phone interviews still pop up regularly.

It’s stressful enough being on the job circuit, but scoring an interview where you won’t be flown in can ratchet up the angst.

We depend on visual cues (smiles, gestures) so much in making an impression that being bereft of these when doing a phone interview can be daunting. You might also feel that the candidates who are fronting up in person for their interview had a ‘home-ground’ advantage because they’re able to smooth their presence into and out of the interview. On the phone, you appear and disappear with a click.

Conversely, not having to be in the same room as an interview panel can feel less intimidating and allow you to perform better. This was something that I found and appreciated. And in the instance I’m thinking about, they gave me the job (which always helps me remember the interview fondly).

Here are my top strategies for making a great impression when interviewing by phone:

1. Do your research on the panel.

This is true for all interviews, but it’s even more important for a phone interview where you’re hoping to make yourself positively memorable for everyone. The best way to do this is to engage in some way with their research interests or past projects. Have you heard about their work and can say something intelligent about it? Do not fawn – a truism to live your life by! – but do make observations about its direction or impact.

If there’s a potential research collaboration with someone from the panel, float it as a light possibility. This demonstrates you’re looking to engage with researchers in your new institution, you’ve done your homework on people, and you’re pro-active. Make sure, of course, that you don’t come across as that person’s (wannabe) best friend.

2. Have all relevant position material in front of you, including the interview panel’s short biographies.

I had small stacks of information surrounding me on the desk, highlighted and underlined to within an inch of their lives. You want everything to be within arm’s reach and easily skimmed. It doesn’t give quite the right impression if you’re heard to be flicking through papers, then you suddenly respond with a suspicious detail about someone’s research or project work – they’ll know you just looked it up!

This level of convenience in accessing information may not always be possible, though, especially if you’re interviewed while you happen to be out in the field (or literally in a field, as an archeology colleague recounted to me). Times like those, you may have to be dependent on your electronic devices and a good memory!

3. Remember whose voice is whose – use each person’s name every time you respond.

Try to recognise panel voices as soon as you can. If  anyone’s a bit mumbly or you didn’t hear their name properly, there’s nothing wrong with asking them to repeat it. Better this than using a wrong name, or not referring to them by name at all!

4. Respond to as many comments as you can, sometimes even if it’s just to agree.

The interview panel can’t see you so you need to project yourself into the space with them more than if you were fronting them visually.

If possible, synthesise some common elements within the interview that shows you were listening closely. For example, when talking about your current research work, you may be able to say something like: ‘As <Panel Member A> mentioned earlier, the field of Y is a dynamic one, and my plans are to…’

5. Try to avoid too much dry or sarcastic humour.

This kind of stuff may not transfer well without the accompanying quirked brow or wry smile. People might just think you’re a smart-arse, and that probably doesn’t help with snagging that job. You don’t have to be humourless, just avoid anything that might be interpreted as snide.

6. Clear the time and space.

This might go without saying, but just in case you tend to over-schedule your time: Ensure you clear a blocks of time before and after the stated interview time. Chances are, they’ll call you a bit late, and you may end up chatting longer than intended if they’re asking good questions or you’re getting active conversation (both nice signs).

Similarly, don’t chance someone walking in on you mid-interview. Lock your room door if possible, and put a sign on it saying that you’re on a tele-conference (otherwise, they might just knock and knock and knock…).


Another couple of other good hints, which you can find in context on this Columbia University job-search factsheet, are:

  • Use a land-line: Be wary of cell phones.  You don’t want static or a dropped call to mar the interview
  • Be prepared to fill the “dead air”: If there is a prolonged period of silence, you might want to ask a question or use this as an opportunity to discuss a topic of your choosing.

Other than that, all existing advice about academic job interviews hold! Deep breaths beforehand and a perspective-restoring chat with friends afterwards are always good ideas.

Any other strategies for phone interviews that you’ve tried and would recommend? Things you definitely should not do?


  1. I’ve had two interesting experiences with phone interviews. A long time ago I applied for a job in a different state. Half way through the interview the phone just went dead. I had no idea what had happened. I just couldn’t hear anything anymore. I didn’t know if they could hear me, or if it was dead on their end, too (hint – don’t swear, they may still be able to hear you).

    They rang back about half an hour later. Apparently there was a problem at their end. From this, I learnt the importance of (a) not dissolving into a quivering mess and taking to alcohol if things go wrong and (b) have a back-up mode of communication (like e-mail or SMS) for emergency contacts.

    The other time it wasn’t me at the end of the line but a colleague. We were in the Daintree in Queensland and she was going to do a press interview early in the morning. There was only a pay phone available at our (relatively) remote accommodation, so she had stocked up on coins. The night before I noticed that almost everyone who used the phone was using phone cards rather than coins. She was adamant that her supply of coins would be all that she needed.

    Unfortunately, phone companies don’t clear the money boxes on remote pay phones very often. They fill up and can’t take any more coins. Her ‘interview’ consisted of repeated instances of: her putting the money in the phone; the phone connecting for about 30 seconds; the money falling through to the coin return chute; her being cut off. As you can imagine, the interview didn’t go to air.

    I don’t know what I learnt from that – respect local knowledge, perhaps, or test, test, test.


    • Hi Jonathan

      Technical issues would have to be the worst. If you’re without the choice of a landline, pre-testing mobile reception is important – but, even then, you don’t know whether it’ll be ok for the time you need it!

      Re Daintree non-interview: Coin phones! #retro

      PS: What’s the equivalent of resorting to alcohol if one doesn’t drink? This is mostly a rhetorical question…


  2. I have done a couple.
    I dressed up properly as I would for an interview in person.
    I made an extra effort to speak clearly and a bit more slowly than I normally would.
    Both times I had some info printed out but found that it was more of security blanket, in reality I didn’t really have time to go back to typed up notes. The first time I had been told by a colleague to have lots and lots of printed info but this was a bad suggestion in retrospect. It’s fine to have a few docs like your CV, presentation and the suggested short bios above but any more and it gets messy. Much more important to have everything memorised as you would for a normal interview.
    I wrote down everyone’s name as they were introduced and tried to personalise my repsonses more than I would normally in a face to face situation.
    I found it useful to have an idea of what to say when I finished an answer to avoid dead air and to avoid having to say something clunky like ‘I have finished answering’. Something like ‘to sum up my answer is x,y,z’
    I also made an effort to really rehearse my presentation and get it pitch perfect as I felt any stumbling or pauses were amplified on the phone.


    • Hi Kat

      You’re right about too much info swimming around in front being counter-productive. I think that having a single sheet with the School or unit’s existing research and teaching strengths is also useful. Often, you’ll be asked a question that’s trying to find out how well you ‘fit’ with the current staff mix and, no matter what their ‘aspirational’ priorities for research/teaching, demonstrating the ability to fit right in with what’s there is always handy.

      Well done on practising beforehand. I was so nervous I think I muttered test answers over and over to try to memorise, rather than focus on tone and manner. Luckily, the panel I had was chatty and quite considerate of the phone interview context so I felt relatively at ease for it.


  3. I’m famous! I have to say while I really appreciated the helpful advice I got from twitter when I got offered a phone interview the best piece of advice was from my mum. She insisted that I ask for a face-to-face interview and offered to pay for my flight down to Melbourne.

    I had assumed that they were offering me a phone interview because a face-to-face interview wasn’t an option. When I emailed HR to ask they were very happy to have me do a face-to-face interview. I addition to side stepping all the difficult phone interview challenges it also gave me the opportunity to actually visit the university I was applying to.

    I was offered the job (and start in September!) but I would have felt much more reticent about accepting if I hadn’t actually seen the place.


    • That’s so true about visiting the place that is potentially where you’ll be working. Very glad it worked out so well! And than you for inspiring this post – it has been one of the fastest ones to write in recent times! 😉


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