Sunday, August 10, 2014

On the supposed drawbacks of Skype interviews (an inference built on anecdata)

In light of the previous thread, it seems like a good time for this.

I had four video interviews during the last job season. Three by Skype, and one by another video thing. Adobe something. They were all quite different experiences, which got me to thinking about some of the alleged shortcomings of Skype interviews. (For the record, two Skype-ing schools gave me the option to interview in person at APA, and the others conducted only video interviews.)

1. Non-Skype (no APA). Pain in the ass set-up involving downloading new software and going through a whole rigamarole, with a clunky, non-intuitive interface. Which, everybody has Skype, so why bother? It was no better than Skype in terms of image/sound quality. The chair explicitly asked interviewees to use headphones (supposedly to avoid echo and feedback), so I really couldn't hear myself speaking very well.

The committee sat in a U around a rectangular arrangement of tables, and the camera was at the opposite end of the room (the candidate's end, as it were), so they were all fairly tiny. Because of some glitchiness with the initial connection (no sound, etc.), I was afraid to switch to full screen lest I disturb the delicate balance (plus my camera is on my laptop, so even full screen is not that big), so the tiny Lego people problem was compounded by that. Given how persnickety they were in terms of demands for the candidates, you'd think they could have had a better set-up on their end. As for the interview itself, it was lousy. Boring, bored, rote questions, one per committee member, with no follow-up questions. None. It was like they were going through the motions (and maybe they were. Maybe they just weren't that into me as a candidate to begin with). Results: They sent me a PFO a few weeks later, so I give them marks for punctuality.

2. Skype. (APA option) Very professional set-up with a guy running the camera in a conference room clearly set up for video conferencing. Committee sitting on one side of a long table, facing the camera. Camera zoomed in on each member as s/he spoke, making the whole eye contact thing much easier, and making it feel like more of a conversation. One SC member showed up late, but managed to join the conversation. Friendly SC; chair started off by praising my writing sample (nice!). Good, chatty interview with interesting questions.

This is the right way to do Skype, if you ask me, and not qualitatively worse than an in person interview. But not all schools have this kind of set-up available. Mine sure doesn't. Results: Campus visit.

3. Skype. (APA option) Technical difficulties, with committee actually conducting the interview from APA, on a laptop, all crowded around a hotel table. Technical glitches, fuzzy picture, freezy screen (probably due to typically lousy hotel wifi), hard to hear or see clearly at times, a couple of people slightly off-camera and leaning in (which was kind of funny, and gave the whole thing a more freewheeling feel). Nonetheless, it was a good, engaged, friendly committee asking great questions, and a really good conversation. Everyone cool with the fact that technical problems happen, and sometimes you have to repeat yourself. Results: Campus visit.

(Fourth search was temporarily suspended, so nothing to report, except an uneventful Skype interview that went well, I think.)

So, yeah, the technical issues that can be a problem with Skype happen. Although it seems they can be remedied by having a professional set-up and good connection. But even when you don't have that, and there are glitches, it's still possible to have a good interview. Both of my Skype interviews were, I would say, equally good despite substantial differences in the technical set-up and tech quality. From my limited and admittedly anecdotal experience, and contrary to the conventional wisdom,  I don't think the technical difficulties result in an overall disadvantage for Skypees as compared to in-person interviewees. I infer this from the fact that both schools I Skyped with also did APA interviews. I assume also that getting a fly-out means the Skype interview went well. And given the financial and time costs associated with going to APA, Skype is hands-down the better way to go for job candidates. I appreciated having the option of doing the interviews via Skype. I've had far, far, far worse experiences with in-person interviews at APA.

That said, there's a benefit in doing some extra prep to optimize the Skype experience. My prep: My laptop has a good camera, but I bought a good quality USB microphone for optimal sound (I record videos for my online courses, so I wasn't buying it exclusively for interviews.)  It's possible some schools have decent USB mics available. I asked and mine did not. I interviewed from my office where I have a reliable ethernet connection (recommend this over wifi, b/c Skype is not very forgiving of wifi fluctuations). I brought a small lamp from home and put it on my desk to improve the lighting (overhead fluorescent tubes). I propped my laptop on a thick book to improve the angle, and checked the background (all books), and uncluttered my desk enough to hint that I'm productive, but not a disorganized mess. I cleaned up my office so there wouldn't be a lot of visual junk and stuff behind me. I printed out the names and photos of the committee members, and tacked it to the wall behind my laptop, so I could look at it without noticeably looking away. Also put a few notes for myself up there. I tested the image/sound/background by Skyping with a friend beforehand. And the usual stuff -- dressing as if it was an in-person, maintaining eye contact with the camera (not the screen, which is hard to do!), learning as much as I could about the school, department, and committee, etc. Also, on the assumption that the committees might be doing multiple interviews in a day, I picked interview times that were shortly after lunch, or (second choice) shortly after breakfast, because of this study.

I suspect, and hope, that more and more interviews will be conducted via Skype or somesuch (but not that Adobe crap), which is a good thing. Chime in here if you have anecdotes of your own.



Anonymous said...

Honestly, as someone who's interviewed several rounds of candidates using both Skype and in-person interviews, there's just no comparison (for me): In-person interviews are dramatically less awkward, less stilted, and much more informative. All other things being equal, I'd strongly prefer interviewing candidates in person.

But I'm nevertheless convinced that Skype is the way to go for first-round interviews. It just doesn't seem necessary for those advocating the move to first-round Skype interviews to establish that there aren't real drawbacks to Skype. Even granting that there are drawbacks and that in-person interviews are preferable all other things being equal, all other things are not equal. The advantages of moving from in-person interviews at the APA to Skype interviews outweigh the drawbacks of Skype.

It's going to take a lot of convincing for folks like me to concede that we aren't losing something in the move to Skype. But it shouldn't be necessary to do so. Easing the financial burden on job candidates trumps getting a better "feel" for the candidates during the first-round interviews. I don't have any real doubts on that score.

I'm laboring the point because I don't think that the debate between Skype and In-Person APA interviews turns on whether the drawbacks of Skype are real or imagined.

Anonymous said...

I interviewed for a job on Skype once, and it was a disaster. The committee was completely unprepared for technical difficulties, and they ended up having to cut the video feed on their end, so they could see me but I couldn't see them. It was awful, because at times there were pauses and I had no idea what they were doing, and no ability to judge body language when replying to their questions.

I like the idea of Skype, but I think it only works if all the tech is operating properly on both ends.

Anonymous said...

Skype interviews are the least good option. People complain about the artificiality of APA interviews, the awkwardness of navigating the smoker, and the bad information gained in both. All of which are true of the Skype interview, with the sole advantage of cost savings (for some) over traveling to the APA. Whoopde-friggin'-doo.

Even setting the costs aside, the reasons not to have APA first-round interviews are reasons *not to have first-round interviews* whether in person, on the phone or by Skype.

Read the damned applications. Like, actually read the effing things. Come up with a shortlist. Fly out some candidates. If your department can't afford that, then how in the hell can you afford the salary of a new hire?

zombie said...

Some schools do go straight to fly-outs, without first-round interviews. I've had two of those myself. So, it can be done, obviously.

APA interviews plus fly-outs are the way things have been done for a long time, and the way many SCs are accustomed to working. That doesn't mean it's the best way, but it is not unreasonable to want to interview broadly in order to narrow down the pool to a few finalists, especially if the candidates are, on paper, more or less equal. Skype is a relatively new tech that has the possibility of replacing APA interviews, but there are some drawbacks. (There are also drawbacks to APA interviews.) Given that both ways of interviewing have drawbacks, and the benefits/costs are different for the two groups (candidates and SCs) affected, there is a reasonable discussion about how those benefits and costs are distributed, which includes some considerations of equity and justice. (And there is reasonable disagreement about whether there IS an equity/justice issue.) If there was no Skype, then maybe the discussion would be about APA vs. direct-to-flyout, given the economic realities of a paucity of jobs and a surfeit of applicants. But there IS Skype, and there's no point pretending there isn't. So there is a reason to discuss the distribution of benefits/costs associated with APA vs. Skype, including whether or not there are important considerations concerning justice and equity.

There has been, for a long time, the option of interviewing candidates by conference phone call instead of in-person, but it seems that SCs prefer an option where they can have a look at the candidates. (Plus conference calls are crap.) Whether Skype serves that purpose well enough is a matter of debate. Whether that's really necessary is another matter for debate. But the debate here, at least, is about whether Skype serves that purpose well enough to overcome the drawbacks, and tip the balance in favor of saving the cadidates the costs of an expensive trip to APA.

zombie said...

In any case, my original point had to do with addressing the supposed drawbacks of Skype interviews for candidates, not SCs. In particular, others have raised concerns that when SCs do a combination of in-person and Skype interviews, the Skypees are at a disadvantage because they don't come off as well as those who interview in-person. In my experience, that's not the case.

But I'm certainly interesting in knowing how SCs feel about it as well.

Anonymous said...

"Skype interviews are the least good option. People complain about the artificiality of APA interviews, the awkwardness of navigating the smoker, and the bad information gained in both. All of which are true of the Skype interview, with the sole advantage of cost savings (for some) over traveling to the APA. Whoopde-friggin'-doo."

Except that with skype interviews, the need to awkwardly navigate the smoker does not arise in principle.

Janus said...

I've been on both sides of this in recent years - as a candidate and an SC member (and I've done both skype and in-person interviews in each of those capacities).

There are some real drawbacks to Skype. Some have already been noted, having to do with technology failure. But I think a more basic problem is intrinsic to the medium. Skype doesn't allow the normal tiny interpersonal cues that we are used to from face-to-face conversation. You can't dynamically moderate your tone, volume, pitch, posture, etc. as we ordinarily do in response to the tiny cues of attentiveness revealed in facial expression or body language. Skype just doesn't have the viewing resolution to make that possible.

Worse, to the SC skype gives the illusion of normal conversation. They can usually see the candidate much better than the candidate can see them. You tacitly expect the candidate to respond *as if* they were reading your facial expression, but of course they can't. You probably aren't consciously aware of this, but unconsciously it will register as something 'off' about the candidate.

I disagree with those who claim that in-person interviews are more informative. But I agree that Skype interviews are much more awkward, and that this can harm skype candidates when their competitors do in-person interviews. The worst is when members of the SC misattribute the awkwardness of skype to the candidate's personality.

Here is an example from my SC experience. We interviewed several candidates, nearly all in person. One was by skype. This candidate was extremely impressive on paper: great publication record and letters, great pedigree, interesting research. But we had a lot of doubts about whether or not ze really wanted the job. (The cover letter was totally generic, and it wasn't at all clear how hir research related to our advertised focus.) Unfortunately, in the interview the candidate came across as unenthusiastic, going through the motions, etc. Possibly this is exactly what was happening - maybe we were right that this candidate didn't really want the job. Or possibly this was just skype awkwardness getting in the way of expressing enthusiasm. We'll never know. But we had candidates (interviewed in person) who made their enthusiasm much more apparent, and that played at least some role in their making it to the next step instead of this candidate.

One last thing to keep in mind. The readership here skews web-savvy. Remember that not every SC member has used skype before! This makes a big difference, especially if only one candidate does a skype interview. Remember the very first time you used skype? It is not intuitive, and the technical glitches are frustrating. Those of us who use it all the time with family and friends get used to this stuff and come to automatically account for it. But if you've never used skype before, and your very first experience is with the sole candidate who isn't doing an in-person interview... it's very likely you will not come out with a good impression of that candidate.

None of this is meant as an argument against skype interviews. As I said, I've been a candidate recently as well, and despite my SC experiences I still prefer the saved expense of a Skype interview over an in-person APA interview. But there are genuine and non-negligible drawbacks to skype, especially if only some candidates are using it while other are interviewed in-person. It is good for candidates to be aware of these drawbacks, and even better for SC members to think about them.

Anonymous said...

On the previous post about the morality of conference interview: did anyone notice Leiter's snide Twitter reply?

He called it evidence of Ayer's theory of moral language. The snideness didn't surprise me, but perhaps the broader implications do. He's often quite moral--or political in a very moral way--in his own language. Does he think the same of his own, often very passionate and seemingly sincere, moral claims?

Anonymous said...

I commented in the other thread about APA interviews and about how to get around the technological problems that many have claimed are associated with Skype interviews. My comment did not really get much of a response and everyone seemed content to keep on pointing out the problems with Skype. I want to reiterate my point (since I think it suggests an alternative that solves just about all of the problems mentioned) and solicit feedback.

There are two broad categories of complaints people have with Skype: technological and interpersonal. Technological complaints are due to the fact that the technology (cameras, internet connections, software, etc) are not standardized and operated (mostly) by technological novices (i.e.: search committee members and job candidates). Interpersonal problems stem partially from the technological (bad video adds to the unnaturalnes of the experience) but can also arise from the medium itself (small video screens, poor audio from computer speakers, etc). Luckily, there is a solution to BOTH of these problems.

By far the best remote interview experience I have had did not use Skype (I would imagine for the very reasons cited in the paragraph above). Instead the search committee used a professional videoconference suite and they asked me to travel to the nearest videoconference facility on my own end. I live(d) in a big city and so there were many such facilities around me. The use of such facilities on both ends of a remote interview effectively solved or mitigated all of the problems mentioned that pertain to Skype.

ALL technological issues that have been mentioned thus far would be negated with such a set-up. Were any such issues to arise, teleconference facilities have a trained technician on-staff who will fix them (there is no need to depend on the search committee or the candidate to fiddle around with technology in the hopes that it will work). Site-to-site internet connections using such a set-up are guaranteed to be superior to that between home and campus networks. Audio is routed through professional speakers instead of laptops.

Furthermore, the video and audio quality, as a result (and at least in my experience) are fantastic. The search committee in my interview was displayed against a wall in my videoconference room. They were displated at nearly life-size. The entire committee was on-screen all at once so the familiar problem of hearing a voice but not seeing the person speaking was never a concern. Video was smooth without any time-delays or lag. Conversations were natural (as natural as possible given the interview situation). Subtle facial expression and other bodily cues were obvious and actually played a role in my interview (this made sense given my research area). Anyone who has seen an episode of Star Trek can visualize what this set-up was like. Were it not for the stress of the interview itself, I would say that the whole experience was pretty awesome actually (and I didn't even get a campus visit).

The cost for all of this technological wizardry? A little less than $100 (I was reimbursed for the full amount). In my opinion this is the ideal format for first round interviews. The cost of sending even three members of a search committee to the Eastern APA can easily approach $4,000-$5,000. The cost of interviewing 10 candidates using this system (assuming that the university conducting the search fully reimburses all candidates)is about half the cost, at $2,000.

Given that the use of professional videoconferencing suites solves all of the technical problems associated with Skype and solves almost all of the interpersonal drawbacks of Skype, I think it is an ideal solution. It is more cost effective (by miles and miles) than sending a committee to the APA, it lacks the immorality that placing an unjust burden on candidates for interviewing at the APA constitutes, and the experience itself minimizes the differences in feel between a Skype vs. an in-person interview as much as I believe feasible possible.

Why aren't more departments doing this?

Anonymous said...

One reason for preferring phone interviews to skype interviews is that the former aren't subject to implicit bias vis-a-vis physical attractiveness in the way the latter are.

Anonymous said...


Assuming that different people find different features/traits/etc. attractive, doesn't this wash out?

Or are we assuming that all members of a search committee will always find the same applicants equally attractive?

Anonymous said...

@ 8:08, re: the broader implications. Have you noticed that when it comes to his own conduct, Leiter can't think straight?

Anonymous said...

Hi 7:57,

I'm no expert, but I think there's a fair bit of evidence for bias in favor of conventionally attractive people and against conventionally unattractive people -- e.g., against obese people. I assume there are widely shared norms of physical attractiveness despite variations of individual preference

zombie said...

I can say without qualification that as a candidate, I do not find all SC members equally attractive.

In any case, I suspect that other biases might filter through in phone calls: accents, gendered voices, etc.

(Back when I used to be a reporter, I remember a phone call in which I interviewed someone who had quite a high voice. It was only after asking for a spelling of the name that I realized I was speaking to a man. (Apparently the cognitive dissonance of the spoken name plus the high voice made it impossible for me to understand the name until it was spelled out.))

Anonymous said...

"Skype doesn't allow the normal tiny interpersonal cues that we are used to from face-to-face conversation"

This is especially true, given that the proper way to speak in a Skype interview is to the camera, rather than to the images of the SC members. I have found this to be terribly disorienting. You have to make a comment and then look down in order to gauge the responses--or just forge ahead, hoping that the visual responses were positive.

cogitated said...

"You have to make a comment and then look down in order to gauge the responses--or just forge ahead, hoping that the visual responses were positive"

The only way to do it is to forge ahead. For the interviewer the Skype interview is barely better than a phone interview since one has to always look at the camera.

Anonymous said...

Dear 3:52 PM:

There's a fairly easy fix to this problem: set the screen at a bit more of a distance from yourself. The greater the distance, the less the angle of incidence between pointing your eyes at the camera vs. pointing them at the facial images of the interviewers. I'm always able to position my screen far enough that looking at their images appears to them as if I'm looking straight at the camera, yet close enough that I can still see + hear them and they can still see + hear me.

Anonymous said...

another skype interview tip: put up a corkboard behind the computer with your spiel in outline form plus whatever else might be helpful.