How Skype Is Changing the Interview Process

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

March 02, 2011

For years, search committees conducted preliminary job interviews for academic positions by telephone, making it easy for a candidate to sit at home in shorts while answering serious questions.

But times have changed, and Skype is now the preferred method many institutions use to conduct long-distance interviews. Some job listings are even warning candidates that they may have to make an initial appearance before the committee via Webcam.

Skype is an Internet-based video service that started in 2003, its name short for "sky peer-to-peer." It is free to use in its basic version with an easy registration process and has become one of the best-known services of its type. The Chronicle first reported on Skype in the fall of 2003, but the response from the academic community ranged from embracing the simple technology to fearing lawsuits over misuse of copyrighted material.

Only in the past few years has Skype been put into broad use on campuses, for admissions interviews, classroom guest speakers, collaborative distance-learning projects, and search-committee work. Marc Bousquet, writing on The Chronicle's Brainstorm blog, said that Skype was affecting the MLA hiring process, with 12 percent to 18 percent of interviews now conducted via the Internet, bypassing the traditional face-to-face process at the convention. He estimated that Web-based interviewing saved departments $5,000 to $10,000 per search.

Even though I had read about universities using Skype for job interviews, I was unprepared to be so quickly thrust into on-camera performances in front of three different search committees over a period of two weeks. With only a couple days' notice, I had to make my first screen appearance.

After losing a bit of sleep pondering the proper Webcam angle and what to wear, I approached the first meeting with an attitude of trepidation and adventure. Before the interview, I conducted a Skype test run with my daughter to—let's be honest—see how bad I looked. A Webcam isn't the most flattering piece of technology and can make you appear gaunt, overweight, beady-eyed, or narcoleptic. And often you look all those things at the same time.

My best camera angle turned out to be with the Webcam pointed down slightly, so I placed my laptop on an empty cardboard box and tilted the Webcam toward me. Then I turned the laptop so the light wouldn't be behind me (avoiding a shadowy face).

Because the first interview was being done in my home, I cleared out whatever could be seen over my shoulder so the committee wouldn't have to stare at the scuffed shoes sitting on the floor or the dog's toys scattered around the room. I changed into a blue pinstripe oxford, knowing that white is a bad camera color because it reflects too much light and can wash out your facial features.

The first Skype connection took place right on time, but the committee was surprisingly distant from its camera. In order to accommodate all five in the screen, the table they sat behind was set well away from the lens, so I couldn't make out facial details. The little image I saw of myself in the corner of my screen, however, showed a larger-than-life close-up of my face that seemed to distort my features.

The interview itself went surprisingly well. Instead of answering questions over the phone with no reaction on the other end, I could see committee members nodding their heads or taking notes, leading me to believe I had said something that they liked. They may have been grading papers or smiling at my pasty-white winter complexion, but I choose to believe they were reacting positively to my responses.

Only one of the five faculty members didn't seem to want to be there. He appeared on the upper-right corner of the screen, partially cut off from my view, taking no notes and fidgeting in his seat. He looked down all the time, even when he was asking me his lone question. Only later did I discover that he had just been replaced as department chair a month earlier and apparently wanted nothing to do with the hiring process.

After the call ended, I not only felt a sense of relief but also found that I had actually enjoyed the experience. I felt that I got to know them much better than I would have if I had only heard their voices coming from a speakerphone. Instead of the blank uncertainty I had always felt, hanging up after a phone interview, I left the Skype experience feeling that I had made new friends.

It was only a few days later when I had my second Webcam interview—his time in my college office. As a faculty member with heaping shelves of books and messy piles of papers waiting to be filed, I knew I had to clean up the place a bit. After everything behind me got put away (some of it hidden in spots the interviewers couldn't see), I propped my laptop on the empty cardboard box and checked the scene. The lighting in my office was not only dramatically different from my home, but the fluorescent ceiling bulbs added an angelic glow to my hair. I was uncertain if that would help or hurt my chances.

This time the initial connection didn't go quite as well on their end. First the chair had my wrong Skype address, misspelling it by one letter. Then it took the committee members 20 minutes to get their Skype called up, so I anxiously waited, staring at a blank screen, while they used a cellphone to give me updates. Note to search committees using Internet video links: Have someone come early to set up the technology.

Once the interview started, I tried to watch the facial expressions of the four distant people. The members of the group were spread out in a small classroom and had to look way up into a corner to see me on their monitor. With my halo hair and their upward glances, the experience could only be described as celestial.

Everyone smiled, nodded, and took notes—except for the one guy in the upper-right corner who was playing with his laptop and checking his phone for text messages the whole time. He asked one question and made no eye contact. I began to wonder if it is a requirement that every interview must include one committee member who acts like a student who doesn't want to be in class.

By the time I had my third Skype interview the next week, I felt like an old pro. I was happy to have a smiling older professor call me at home. He was seated in a TV studio and was close to the Webcam but was difficult to see because the camera lens pointed up toward some glaring television lights. He said there were three committee members in the room, but the only other person in the picture was a woman sitting 20 feet directly behind him, and I could not make out her face.

The committee chair asked all of the prepared questions, and in the middle of one of my answers, I saw the woman behind him start waving wildly. It looked like she was pointing at something behind me with one hand, trying to signal that I should look. I turned around but had no idea what she was gesturing about.

Then, out of nowhere, a young male head popped in from the left side of the screen. He looked at me for about five seconds, then disappeared—never to be seen again. I assume he was the third member of the committee, but I'm still unsure why neither of the other members said anything during the interview.

I handled most of the questions well, until I suffered the consequences of a very poor preinterview decision on my part. After having no trouble with my dog in my first at-home Skype interview, I had allowed her to once again lounge just off camera. But as this interview was winding down, I heard the dog run to the front window and start to growl. That meant she spotted something, and she was going to make sure everyone knew about it.

In the middle of an eloquent (I thought) answer about my philosophy of teaching, the dog started barking wildly and would not stop. I stared into the Webcam and kept talking with a plastered a smile on my face as I moved my left hand out of view, snapping my fingers to try to get the dog's attention. Nothing would keep her quiet. So with gritted teeth, I pretended that it was totally normal to have a dog barking in the background of a professional interview.

The first two Skype interviews led immediately to campus interviews. The lesson here: A face-to-face preliminary interview turns out to have advantages for both sides. It's easier to have a conversation when you can see how people are responding to your remarks. And even when things go wrong technologically, it's revealing to see how both parties handle the problem. As for that third Skype interview, I heard nothing from the search committee for weeks and blamed that on my pesky pooch. Then one day, I got a call informing me that I was finalist for the position. I decided not to ask whether all of the barking was what led the committee to delay calling me.

But I am now resolved: The next time I have a Skype interview at home, my dog will be safely resting in the windowless laundry room at the other end of the house.

Stephen M. Winzenburg is a professor of communication at Grand View University in Des Moines.