Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Got any advice for people facing a phone interview?

A correspondent asked if I have any advice for phone interviews. Surprisingly, I do not, although this post expresses some advice that I'm going to repeat below. So, without further ado, a few tips for those facing phone interviews:
1. Be a confident version of yourself.
2. Go over all the documents you've given them, be familiar with them.
3. Do some research on the people you've been talking to. (SciFinder searches are helpful for that.)
4. Find a private, quiet place to have the conversation.
5. Use a landline.
Typical questions for phone interviews are the classic "tell me a little about yourself", "tell me about some science you've done" or "what is your favorite animal?" (kidding)

Readers, any other tips?

UPDATE: See Arr Oh has great advice; I like his idea of a "gap analysis." I also like SJ's thoughts in the comments.

UPDATE 2: The correspondent notes that it's important to get time zones correct. Makes sense. 

29 comments:

  1. Stand up while talking on the phone. Pace if needed, it helps with nerves.

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    1. I agree. It helps a lot. Your voice will carry better, pacing can calm the nerves, and the energy level is higher (Think of the difference between when a speaker is seated or standing for a presentation.)

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    2. Also, smile. I've read that smiling on the phone makes your attitude seem more pleasant.

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  2. Ask some simple questions about the company, such as which division the job opening is in, how many people work at the site, what types of backgrounds do they have. It shows that you're interested in the position, and it gives the interviewer something concrete to talk about.

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  3. For each achievement/stage on your resume write a 3-5 sentence story for 20-30 sec mini-talk. This mini-talk needs to include:

    - what was the goal
    - what was done
    - what was my role in it
    - what was the net positive effect for the previous employer
    - optional (risky!) what went wrong and how I reacted to it.

    Write them on separate cards and practice until you can recite them in your sleep. The goal of this exercise is threefold:
    - work out any anxiety about what to say (scripts become automatic even when all reason momentarily leaves us)
    - get your self-promotion going
    - present good oral communication skills during the interview.

    All this sounds really corny - because it is. And it works every time.

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  4. In my experience, there are two types of phone interviews: "screening", with HR folks going over details of your resume and asking some questions - maybe a couple "behavioral interviewing" types (and once this discussion even went into compensation - they wanted to see if the range would be agreeable before proceeding - I think this is probably rare from what I have heard and read), or it may be the first interview with the hiring manager and possibly one or two other people (e.g. their superior or a potential peer).

    A couple times, I even dressed up for the phone interview (even though no one would see me), just to help put me in the right frame of mind.

    Something that I would highly recommend, apart from the excellent suggestions of others - know some things about the company. Sometimes - either from HR or the hiring manager - they'll ask what you know about the company (leaving it open ended to see what you come up with). It really makes an impression when you know some things about the history of the company, their markets, and anything current (e.g from press releases).

    The advice about standing, having some questions for the interviewer, and having a "mini talk" or talking points are really good. Regardless of whether it's with HR or with the hiring manager, these will really help.

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  5. I thought about this a bit, and came up with my own list. Some of what I have invariably repeats your commenters' points (which are all really good!): http://justlikecooking.blogspot.com/2015/06/scientific-phone-interview-101.html

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  6. I have been asked what my favorite animal or element is. Just make sure that you have well reasoned answers for those questions.

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    1. A friend of mine was asked what animal he most related to and why. That's a good one too (If you don't know, it's probably better to say "beaver" than "three-toed sloth").

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    2. Chuckle... yes, beaver's a good answer for several reasons...

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    3. ... not least of which is that my response to most things is, "DAM IT!"

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    4. When my high school chemistry teacher was on her uni interview, the prof asked her what her favourite element was. She had been told to back up everything she said with rationale, so she replied "carbon, because it can form rings and chains, and fascinating organic structures". The prof sat back in his chair and announced, "mine's molybdenum!". When my teacher asked why, he replied with a twinkle in his eye, "it just sounds funny. It's got a nice ring to it. Molybdenum. ...Molybdenum. Molybdenum. I like that!".

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  7. A variant on this that I've run into is the "surprise phone interview." This is where the applicant fields a surprise phone call that may or may not be the actual interview.
    In one of these, I was informed that the company in question was merely contacting applicants of interest, to confirm their contact information. I was then asked if I had any questions about the position. Caught off-guard early in the morning, away from my notes (and admittedly narked by a question I thought should have been asked in a formally scheduled interview), I replied, "Not yet." That was the sum total of my interview.

    In another, I received a phone call that may have been for a position for which I had not applied. The caller was extremely cagey about who they were, who they represented and what exactly might or might not have been on offer. Possibly it was short-sighted, but I found the secrecy to be unnecessary and irritating and eventually felt goaded into rising to the occasion.

    I really don't know what one is meant to do in such situations. I'm not sure there's any way to really prepare for them. Every once in a while, though, they do come up.

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    1. If a company rep can't even tell you what the job entails, or what their company markets, then then it is scam, or at the very least a commission-based position selling e.g., insurance, bogus college degrees or snake oil. Extremely poor quality English, a heavy foreign accent and a scratchy phone connection are also dead give ways.

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    2. That happens too, but the two instances I listed are cases where a company has decided that this is actually a sound approach to interviewing. The first instance involved a university, and the second was a recruiter for a local engineering company. In any case, I view such tactics as dishonest, when it is not transparent that an interview is taking place.

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    3. If the company/school wants to test whether you can successfully survive entrapment they may be trying to tell you something. For example, how well can you swim in a shark tank? Because this is what it takes to survive there.

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  8. The ultimate answer to the 'Your favorite animal" question: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CMNry4PE93Y

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    1. The answer I wish I could give:

      http://a1.a4w.ro/assets/yoda/2014/12/08/image_galleries/19920/grumpy-cat-a-produs-o-avere-in-ultimii-doi-ani-suma-uriasa-incasata-de-cea-mai-suparata-pisica-de-pe-internet.jpg

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    2. The answer I'm sure the interviewer wants to hear:

      https://yourrecruiter.files.wordpress.com/2014/11/purple-squirrel.jpg

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  9. One thing I would add: Don't fib. If they ask you how would you do something you have no experience with, just tell them you have not done this yet. But you did work on such and such project (in which your team got impressive results, bla-bla, and you hope you could use your methodology experience to quickly become proficient in whatever it is they want you to work on.)

    The main impression is that while you are modest, pleasant and hard working guy, you are also experienced and have enough initiative, motivation and common sense that you won't need too much hand-holding to get on with your new job.

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  10. How do you answer the "where do you see yourself in 5 years?" question? I hate that question and have been asked it twice recently. I am obviously looking for a job and am at a crossroads professionally. I honestly do not know. I usually end up saying, "well, it depends on a lot of factors but I see myself heavily involved in whatever I am doing."

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    1. That's a great answer, about the best I can imagine.

      I think I would have to answer the "5 year "question quite honestly: Unemployed. If you are working in a start-up, or an academic lab with an uncertain future, that is about the only honest answer you can give.

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    2. There are certain levels of honesty that you need to consider when answering questions like this. Brutal honesty, like your answer, is probably not the best approach. If I were a hiring manager and you answered that question with your response, I wouldn't hire you. If you are going to be negative in a job interview, a hiring manager can pretty much assume that you'll be a negative person in general, and unless your skill set is so superior, you're not going to land that job.

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    3. Of course, the "correctness" of the answer depends substantially on the interviewer. I've had a number of interviews where I got the distinct impression the answer should involve working at the same position for which I was being interviewed.

      I was asked this at Cornell once. I gave my answer, and then the interviewer, in a fairly kind and subtle way, pointed out a few aspects to my reply that I was unaware of - i.e. I learned some "inside dope" on a company I had mentioned, and I learned that intra-region competition in my particular area was more significant than I had previously thought - a positive learning experience (no, I didn't get the position).

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    4. If they bring the dumb HR question “where do you want to be in 5 years”, the best answer is “I would like to have my compound in the clinic. “ – and, now the modesty part – “I know that only few people get lucky like this but it would be very good to work on a project where I could actually make a difference, for example starting from a weak potency screening hit and learn from my colleagues how to optimize the compound all the way to a clinical candidate”.

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  11. Unfortunately, phone interviews are a problem for those of us who have issues with sound quality of phone calls due to hearing issues. This occurs even with landlines, but is much exacerbated by use of speakerphone by the interviewing committee. I am sure that I have lost some opportunities because of poor performance in phone interviews due to this reason.

    If this is a problem that you face, I encourage you to be upfront about this. Ask if there is another format in which to conduct the interview. Ask if there is a way to be given a list of questions (by email perhaps) at the beginning of the interview to reference. If nothing else, ask if the interviewers can speak to you one-on-one directly into the headset, if that is something that helps you.

    Unfortunately, these requests will possibly turn off some interviewers due to the effort involved. However, it's important to be on a level playing field with the other interviewees competing for a position, so start a conversation with the interviewer well before your scheduled interview to see what options are available.

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    1. To add to this, our department (possible due to my concerns) does not do group phone interviews anymore. In fact, it is rare for us to conduct a phone "interview" at all. We call a candidate to discuss the position with the intent of bringing them to campus unless they decide they do not want to come.

      This means we must spend much more effort vetting the candidates before the on campus interview (which does mean more work for us obviously). If we have too many interesting candidates to invite, we can email them with questions (which we can make identical for each candidate and makes it very easy to compare answers). This makes it easier for us with respect to scheduling. I think this method is superior to a phone interview.

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    2. Out of interest (not that I am an employer yet!), would a high-quality Skype conversation help with this, or no?

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  12. The last question at one of my phone interviews was "Please summarize everything you learned about our company and this position from talking to us today" ...so take good notes! Also, I would recommend practicing your answer to "so tell us about yourself" enough to say it without thinking, so that you can get through those first few nerve-wracking minutes. Knowing you started off on the right foot will help your confidence throughout the rest of the interview.

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