Why Not Skype Interview?


Over the past few years more and more philosophy departments are moving to a model of hiring that ditches the interviewing of candidates at the Eastern Division meeting of the American Philosophical Association and replaces them with interviews over Skype or other video-conferencing technology. The case for doing so seems quite strong. It is less expensive for candidates and for departments, interferes less with people’s holiday travel plans, and the technology is very good now. There are have been two recent discussions about this at the Philosophy Smoker, arguing in favor of using video-interviews rather than in-person ones for the first round, and various previous discussions online. Yet I know that some departments are still planning to interview at the APA. Why?

Please note that I am not asking why candidates, if given the choice between interviewing via Skype or at the APA, should choose one or the other. Rather, I am asking why departments would choose to conduct APA interviews at all.

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Jennifer Frey
7 years ago

I think for some departments the better question is why not? In my experience, these are top departments with plenty of funds, whose members by and large plan to go to the Eastern meeting anyway, for a variety of reasons, and who have been doing things the same way for decades.Report

Tim O'Keefe
7 years ago

Not requiring (often financially strapped) job candidates to spend lots of money flying across the country or overseas and booking a hotel room seems like a good reason why not to conduct APA interviews. That some departments have been doing things that way for decades would explain why they’d continue doing it, but it doesn’t justify it.Report

Jennifer Frey
Reply to  Tim O'Keefe
7 years ago

Absolutely it doesn’t justify it. But I’m pretty sure that’s what is going on in a range of cases.Report

Tim O'Keefe
Reply to  Jennifer Frey
7 years ago

Oh, yeah, inertia is probably the main explanation.Report

Jaded, Ph.D.
7 years ago

Thanks for picking this up. I have started a form that search committees and job candidates can fill out when they have information about first-round interviews. I hope to keep track of search committee interview practices: Skype, Eastern-APA, Skype or Eastern-APA, or no first-round interviews.

The link to the form is here. Please think about filling it out if you have information:

https://docs.google.com/forms/d/1T5f40BhT7vU0l8n12oJ8IWCtteLKj19PMgIFXg8RrXY/viewform?usp=send_form

In the next few months, I’ll also look to collect information from job candidates about their plans to attend the Eastern-APA, why, and how much they are spending to attend.Report

Dan Werner
Dan Werner
7 years ago

Okay, I’ll be in the minority here, but I’ll bite…

My department did APA interviews this past year, and I am very glad that we did. It was not out of inertia, but several considerations:

1. In-person interviews are (on balance) qualitatively better than phone or Skype interviews. You get a better sense of a person, their mannerisms, potential as a colleague/teacher/etc. when meeting them face-to-face. (Such has been my experience, at any rate–I know many of you will disagree!) In particular, the teaching done by our new hire will be in live classrooms with physical students/bodies; it will not be online. So the sorts of qualities that we are looking for are easier to get a sense of in person than via Skype.

2. Much has been said about the obligations we owe toward candidates, but this can cut in different ways. (Moreover, what about our obligations to our home institutions, the ones that are funding the hire?) I know of at least two recent cases–one that relied initially on phone interviews, another that relied on Skype–where candidate X was judged to be promising based on the first-round interview, only to discover (in one case, about 5min after meeting X in person) during the on-campus interview that there was some obvious/major flaw rendering X unhirable. Said flaw would have been easily detected earlier, were in-person interviews done in the first round. So now we have a different kind of injustice: that of bringing an unsuitable candidate to campus, thereby depriving a better candidate the opportunity to come to campus. (Funding on my campus is such that getting permission for more than three on-campus interviews is often difficult.)

3. Although APA interviews do impose large costs on candidates, at least it affords a consistency of experience (in the interviewing conditions). We function in a face-to-face way every day with our students and colleagues; that is the job. Performing well on camera, on the other hand, is a skill possessed by only some candidates, and is a skill that is largely irrelevant to the job.

4. In addition to the performance inequities of #3, there are also the technology inequities to consider. Some candidates will have access to high-speed broadband, while others will not. Owing to a variety of factors, some Skype sessions will be clear and intelligible, while others will be choppy and fuzzy. It is inevitable that hiring committees will sometimes favor (often unconsciously) those candidates whose Skype sessions fall into the former category. I think of it as being similar to the “handwriting bias” that arises when grading hand-written student exams (i.e., the tendency to be more favorable in grading toward those students with better handwriting).

I certainly respect those who are pushing for Skype interviews, and I am very sensitive to the costs that we are imposing on candidates with APA interviews. But I am also sensitive to the other sorts of costs borne by both candidates and my university when an inappropriate person is brought to campus, especially in a small department such as my own. (I should add that our opportunities to hire new colleagues are very rare.)Report

Anonymous Joe
Anonymous Joe
Reply to  Dan Werner
7 years ago

“I know of at least two recent cases–one that relied initially on phone interviews, another that relied on Skype–where candidate X was judged to be promising based on the first-round interview, only to discover (in one case, about 5min after meeting X in person) during the on-campus interview that there was some obvious/major flaw rendering X unhirable.”

Did X go around bottomless? Otherwise, colour me sceptical.Report

Dan Werner
Dan Werner
Reply to  Anonymous Joe
7 years ago

No, not bottomless. Rather, X had certain personal characteristics (relating to tone, collegiality, self-importance, etc.) that did not come across in the initial interview but were more readily detectable in person.Report

DCH
DCH
Reply to  Dan Werner
7 years ago

I find every single one of these points at least dubious, and in some cases spurious. In turn:

1) Collegiality is important. I’m not so sure “mannerisms” are. Even if they are, what you haven’t shown are the following: 1) that it is easier to judge such qualities in person than over the internet; and 2) that interview behaviour is a reliable indicator of these qualities. You’ve asserted (1) without arguing for it. You’ve ignored (2).

2) If there is some quality so appalling that it takes mere minutes to disqualify someone, then I am not sure why it would be evident only in person and not over Skype. To put this another way, if the candidate was able to hide it in a Skype interview, why wouldn’t she or he have been able to hide it in the ballroom at the APA? I find your position entirely implausible in the absence of further detail, and it’s hard to imagine what detail would make it plausible.

3) You’re right that performing well on camera is not a part of our job. Neither is being interviewed. Why does being interviewed on camera therefore provide a poorer picture of a candidate’s suitability for a job than does an in-person interview? Some premises are clearly missing.

4) Everyone who studies at a PhD-granting institution has access to high-speed internet. Even those who have left the academy and are still pursuing jobs have access to it. I’ll grant you that it may be more difficult to come by for the latter, but it is not more difficult to come by than the money it takes to attend the APA. This argument is pathetic.Report

Dan Werner
Dan Werner
Reply to  DCH
7 years ago

1. Mannerisms are definitely important, at least some of them. Consider a candidate who mumbles most sentences; or who avoids eye contact and stares off into distant space; or who fidgets uncontrollably (all things that I have encountered in interviews). These are definite negatives—would it be rational to ignore them, and not prefer other candidates who lack them? Regarding your two points, you are right that I have not argued for (1); my belief in (1) is simply based on experience. (If you are going to insist that all claims be defended by arguments, then you have a greater faith in reason than I do.) As for (2), I am not claiming that interview behavior is necessarily or completely predictive of a person’s collegiality or “real” self, but neither is it completely un-predictive. And (again) if a negative quality (such as those above) manifests itself in an interview, wouldn’t it be irrational to ignore it as part of the evaluation of the candidate? If your claim is that interviews have no predictive value whatsoever, then we might as well do away with them entirely, and just hire people based on their writings.

2. I grant that candidates could very well mask negative characteristics in a live setting, as they could in a Skype setting. My point is that it’s less likely that they’ll generally be successful in doing so in a live setting.

3. True, being interviewed is not part of the job, but my point is that an in-person interview much more closely resembles the job than does a camera performance. (I grant of course that all interviews involve a kind of performance.) Teaching is the bulk of the job, and I can get a better sense of a candidate’s teaching persona in a live setting as opposed to a Skype setting. (When we ask a candidate about his/her dissertation, e.g., we are looking for him/her to explain it to us—to teach us about it—in a clear and non-technical way.)

4. Let’s pretend that all applicants—including post-PhD adjuncts with no institutional support, those living in remote/rural areas, etc.—have easy access to broadband, as well as use of that broadband in a quiet space that will not be disturbed. Even if that’s true (which it isn’t), it still doesn’t address the fact that the quality of the Skype connection/session can vary considerably, and hence leaves in place inequities in the interviewing conditions. The only potential way to avoid this is to pursue the video-conferencing option mentioned by Anon 4:57 below.Report

Anonymous
Anonymous
7 years ago

There were a lot of reasons mentioned in the Smoker blog that purport to justify a preference for in-person interviews or, at least, that mention the drawbacks of Skype. Of all of those, I think the only ones that really seem to hold water are those having to do with technical difficulties or the vagueries of internet connections and their effects on the interviewing environment.

For example, those of us who have used Skype (and I can’t assume, many of my current colleagues have never used it…or even heard of it), know that call quality can drop unexpectedly, that lighting can be terrible, that audio quality can be horrific (either because everyone is crowding around one laptop microphone or because the speakers on said laptop are also fairly crappy), etc. Further, calls can drop unexpectedly for various technical (and not so technical) reasons. Given the varying levels of computer competency (on both the candidate and committee ends of the interview), these glitches can be hard to recover from and can bias committee against the glitchy candidate. I think these are fairly decisive reasons that speak against using Skype.

On the other hand, I also think that Eastern APA interviews are morally objectionable. They place a far too lopsided demand on candidates who are likely to shell out a thousand dollars (or more) for a single interview. They also place unfair demands on everyone (who must spend the week between Christmas and New Year away from their families/loved ones). I think, however, that there is a reasonable solution to this dilemma.

When I was interviewing for jobs (I was on the market for four years roughly from 2008-2012), I had a couple of interviews that used professional videoconferencing suites for both ends of the conversation. Although I had to travel to a location with suitable facilities this was, in effect, a 15-minute drive for me instead of a 5-hour flight. Furthermore, one-hour of professional videoconferencing suites cost about $100 (which was always reimbursed by the interviewing university). This set-up had significant advantages over Skype.

Professional videoconferencing retains ALL of the moral (and monetary) advantages of Skype while negating ALL of the Skype drawbacks. Technical problems were nonexistent (and a technician was on-site just in case they arose), video quality was amazing (HD quality and the committee was projected nearly life-size on the wall of my suite). Audio quality was similarly great on both ends. Even faculty fairly unfamiliar with online videoconferencing found the process easy. I certainly thought the conversations were fairly natural. This kind of interview set-up is, I think, the best possible compromise between in-person and Skype interviews. Unlike in-person interviews, everyone involved can adopt a more relaxed schedule (candidates don’t all have to be interviewed in a 1 or 2 day flurry and candidates don’t have to schlep across the country in the Winter). The audio/visual quality of this format is also such that many of the small interpersonal cues that many take to be important to an advantage of the in-person interview process are preserved.

Interviewing 10 candidates in this way would set a department back about $2,000. This is far less than flying three (or more) academics to the East Coast and setting them up in a hotel. It also ends up rectifying financial injustices currently levied against candidates.

Why aren’t we all doing this?Report

Anonymous
Anonymous
7 years ago

I concede that for the hiring department, there are some advantages to doing interviews at the APA Eastern. As Dan mentions, it is easier to get a sense for the personal characteristics of candidates this way. Moreover, I suspect that some members of hiring committees are uncomfortable with Skype or, as some have mentioned, aren’t even aware of it. And because the market is so tight, hiring committees can call the shots.

On the other hand, I don’t think the advantages for the hiring committees come anywhere close to compensating for the financial and personal burden of APA interviews on candidates. Candidates are often traveling to the Eastern meeting for a single interview, and they are often doing this for several years. This is an enormous investment of time and money for people who are busy and not well-paid. I, for one, have gotten pretty fed up with this arrangement. In fact, I’m starting to come to the view that requiring APA interviews for the first round reflects such a profound disrespect for candidates, that I wouldn’t want to work in that kind of department anyway.Report

David Boonin
David Boonin
7 years ago

Assuming that you are looking for an explanation and not a justification, I would also point to risk aversion as a significant factor. It’s related to (and perhaps a cause of) but distinct from, mere inertia. Any department that feels that it has made strong hires using the standard APA interview model is likely to think along the following lines: “We know that the traditional model has worked very well for us. There is no particular reason to think that the Skype model would work even better — after all, we are extremely happy with the hires we have made in the past and so find it hard to believe that any alternative approach would have been better for us — and there’s at least some reason to think the Skype model might not work as well (some of which have been alluded to in some of the other comments). Why should we risk making things worse when the status quo seems to be working so well and when there seems so little chance that change would make things even better?” This kind of thinking can reflect a kind of cavalier indifference to the interests of the job candidates, and as someone who was on the market three years in a row at the start of his career I find myself overall wanting to favor the Skype approach for that reason, but I think it’s important to keep in mind that it can also reflect a recognition on the part of the search committee that hiring decisions are one of the most important decisions that departments can make. Because the decision is so important, they may feel unwilling to run the risk of making a change to a system that seems to them to have been very successful. To the extent that they view their primary obligation as that of doing the best they can to find the candidate who will best contribute to their particular mission, and to the extent that they feel satisfied with the status quo system, I think that risk aversion makes their reluctance to change understandable even if not all things considered justified.Report

Laura Grams
Laura Grams
7 years ago

This summer I had two very positive experiences interviewing candidates remotely on live video. One interview was on Skype and the others were through a commercial product called BlueJean. I don’t know how expensive the latter is to use, but my institution’s library already had the account and made the arrangements, so perhaps this would be true at other schools. Considerable time and expense was spared and I felt the online interviews were almost as good as an in-person interview, for the purpose of narrowing the list to a round of on-campus interviews.Report