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Skype Interviews for Law Librarians: the nitty gritty for the interviewee

August 15, 2014 by

This is a slightly altered version of an article originally published in AALL Spectrum.

You have applied to several law librarian openings, and a member of a search committee has contacted you! She is just as excited to be talking to candidates on her committee’s shortlist as you are to be speaking to her about this exciting job. Oh! And here’s a question for you: would you like to do a telephone interview or a Skype interview? This important question is a politeness formula and does NOT require you to make any choice. You don’t get to decide anything; you just need to give the proper response: you would like to do the Skype interview.

During my job search, I believed that the people who contacted me and asked me this question actually believed that it was a choice; from their perspective, they were letting each candidate choose whether to interview by telephone or Skype. From my perspective, I was being given the opportunity to blunder. If I said “the telephone interview,” then I might be viewed as being uncomfortable with computers, video-conferencing technology, or with my appearance because I chose not to (digitally) face them!

While Professor Penny Hazelton's 2011 Spectrum article suggests that candidates consider choosing the telephone option to avoid the technical issues involved with a Skype interview, I still worry. If you had a choice between candidates to invite for an onsite interview and if everything else were equal (it never is, but this is a hypothetical), would you choose the one person who chose the telephone interview?

The Skype interview is new enough that many recent library school graduates and search committee members will be participating in it for the first time. The Skype interview was not an option when Ronald Wheeler, Nancy Johnson, and Terrance Manion wrote their 2008 Law Library Journal article on hiring in academic libraries. Yet today the Skype interview is almost a standard, and it presents opportunities for the applicant to make many mistakes that are impossible to make during telephone or onsite interviews. The Internet connection can't fail at your end, or you weren't careful enough. The camera must let the committee members see your face, but they don't need to see your pores or inside your nose. You must hear and be heard or you will have to ask the committee members to repeat things too many times and annoy them. The lighting must be perfect; you can't blind the committee members with glare or be a dark silhouette, or you didn't find a suitable place for you interview. In addition, while you may be watching the committee members sitting at a conference table on your small laptop screen, the committee members are likely watching only your face and shoulders, larger-than-life, on a huge, wall-mounted television!

Most of these opportunities to fail in a Skype interview seem most threatening the applicant. If there is any mistake on the search committee's side, then it is an “IT issue;” perhaps there is even an IT staff member there to fix any technical problems that may arise. Worst of all, you know that any problem on the search committee's end is likely to have been out of the committee's control because their parent institution likely places all IT responsibilities with another department, and the search committee will assume that any problem on your end is your fault. This situation actually works pretty well because it's the search committee that gets to decide whether to ask you to an onsite interview, and your reactions to the committee's technical problems might even make them more willing to invite you. For the search committee to look bad enough in a Skype interview for it to affect your response to any future job offer, the committee members would have to be in swimsuits and holding florescent umbrellas while doing squatting exercises and texting their friends. That won't happen, so it's all on you.

When I was preparing for the Skype interview, the trick to me seemed to be making it appear to the search committee that everything just happened to go perfectly: I happened to look fine, heard everything that they said, and maintained some great eye contact. I was a theater major in college, and I had experience in set design, lighting design, and stage management—I knew that the Skype interview could be a strength for me! I also knew that to get the effortless effect that I wanted, the preparation would take much more time than the preparation for a phone interview. Following is what I learned.

General Interview Prep

I did not want to depend on my home Internet connection, and I wanted the uber-fast connection I had access to at work. At the time I was a library fellow at the University of Arizona's Cracchiolo Law Library, and the folks there were up for letting me do the interview in the library. The library had a wireless network, but for the best connection possible (and just in case there was a wireless hiccup that day) I logged in with my name and password and added permission for my laptop to connect to the wired campus network. This took two calls to the campus IT help desk and one day (my laptop didn't get cleared until the campus network updated at midnight).

Takeaway: In many organizations, responsibilities are divided in ways that create individuals and departments with huge amounts of control over resources that many other folks in the organization use. An IT department likely controls the Internet, and asking early (and politely) for assistance you may need from the IT department is key.

My laptop's camera was pretty good. However, for me to be close enough to hear, I would have had to give my interviewers a close-up of my pores or have the volume so high that the software to avoid feedback would interfere with the microphone. To avoid any feedback or extreme close-up issues I used a wireless headset with microphone—I bought the expensive one. (This was something that I had control over, and it had to go well, so I splurged.) The headset let me sit farther back from the camera, have a microphone right next to my mouth, stop any sound from the speakers affecting the microphone, and eliminate any need for the distracting cord of a wired headset swinging around. I looked like an astronaut in it, but I knew that I would be able to hear the committee members perfectly and that the committee members would be able to hear me.

Takeaway: Never lean forward when the camera is focused on your face, and do whatever is necessary to make sure that you can hear and be heard perfectly. (Note: “whatever is necessary” is a slight exaggeration—more accurate might be “whatever is reasonably necessary,” but after law school the word “reasonable” has lost much of its meaning for me, so I like to avoid it.)

I had to find a place for the interview with good lighting, but for me it had to be better than normal-good lighting—I needed Oprah-good lighting. I am bald, and so the pixels are blown-out (i.e., the glare is too bright to be processed and the pixels just show as bright white) if lights come from above and in front of me. Unfortunately, high front-light avoids face shadows best, and the high side-light that I needed would have me looking like I was in a detective movie with big shadows across my face. I needed high side-light, but I had to fill in those shadows. I got to use the office of a very generous librarian with a large window with great indirect sunlight to my left, and I filled the shadows on the right side of my face with a light reflector (those big things that look like hula-hoops covered in the white fabric) that I borrowed from the College of Law's staff photographer. I took any perspiration off my forehead and nose before the interview started to have as little glare as possible. (I could have gone with some powder that would have worked better, but it might have been visible and I didn't want to appear to be trying too hard. My goal was that it would seem like the image just happened to look great.)

Takeaway: The effort it takes to make you look like yourself in a Skype interview should not be underestimated. There is also always the lingering suspicion that if you don't make the effort, then someone else's Skype interview will (for no reason the committee can quite articulate) just seem to go better, and that someone else will get the call instead of you.

Note the absurd amount of preparation above? Even if you consider the issues involved in all of that, you still have to research the library, its parent organization, and the committee members. You still have to see what each committee member has written, check any student publications (if it's a school's library) and local publications to see if there is any mention of the library or its parent organization, and do everything else that you typically do before any other interview.

The Practice Skype Interview

I only did the practice Skype interview once, but it was key in helping me prepare. At Cracchiolo Law Library, Professor Chiorazzi and almost all of the librarians sat upstairs in the conference room while I was downstairs in the fellows' office. They pretended to be the search committee and interviewed me. I tried to be a charming and fairly polished version of myself, but I only had so much to work with – it seems like we should all try to be a really a good version of ourselves in an interview.

Takeaway: Good mentors are awesome. We all know this already, but ask some good mentor librarians to help you by pretending to be your search committee—especially ones who have been on search committees themselves.

The whole thing started with giggling, which made me feel less anxious. The librarians upstairs were having a bit of fun chatting in the conference room and getting ready to do the practice interview, and I found that I couldn't quite follow what they were saying. I had the headphones, but it didn't seem to matter; if more than one of them spoke at a time it was hard to understand them, and any laughter made it almost impossible to understand anybody. I reacted (without realizing it) as if I were with them in person, and I leaned forward with that I-am-concentrating frown on my face as I tried understand. (Note that by leaning forward I was also giving them that extreme close-up on their large, wall-mounted television and looking slightly ridiculous and puzzled before the interview even started.) In addition, I had thought to sit up straight, but because the camera was slightly above me this made it look like I was always leaning into the camera: it was best for me to sit back against the chair in a more relaxed posture.

Takeaway: A Skype interview is different than a Skype call to a friend. It feels more formal and the stakes are higher, so please do make a practice interview happen. Also, put the camera slightly above you so that you can lean back into the chair without appearing to slouch—this also helps you avoid any nostril shots.

Eye contact is tough in an interview: you can't stare at someone's eyes constantly, but you need to look focused and maintain enough eye-contact without it being too much. Good eye-contact is hard to achieve, and achieving it during a job interview is harder because we tend to get anxious. Eye contact is impossible in a Skype interview: if you are all looking at the images of each other (not at the camera), then you all appear to be constantly looking away from each other. This is a bit disconcerting, because we are all used to newscasters and commercial actors having absolutely perfect eye-contact with us because they look directly at the camera. Bill McGowan (a former news anchor) trains people to go on camera, and when Dr. Barbara Kiviat interviewed him on Time Magazine's website, he offered some suggestions. Two seem particularly useful: look at the interviewers while they are talking, but when you speak you should simulate eye contact by looking at the webcam; if simulating eye contact feels weird, then cheat by getting a photograph of a friend to tape on the web cam with a hole for the camera. I talked about options with the librarians after my prep interview, and I decided to simulate eye contact for the search committee: I pretended that the camera was their eyes. I looked at their images as they introduced themselves at the beginning of the interview, and I tried never to look directly at the monitor again. I hoped that the search committee members would feel that the whole thing seemed natural from their side (they were hopefully looking at the image of me on the screen and thinking that we were making eye contact once in a while, but I only saw them in my peripheral vision).

Takeaway: Eye contact in a Skype interview may surprise you, and the practice interview can help with that. Make whatever choice you feel comfortable with, but remember that trustworthiness is associated with good eye contact, even if it's just simulated. (You can check the importance of simulating eye contact for yourself by watching one of those insurance commercials with the clean-cut, credible announcer who looks right at you with such sincere concern—and you know that those companies must spend gobs to find out the best way to look credible and sincere.)

I had asked the librarians in advance to try to be mean to me during the practice interview. (I thought that it would make it tougher and more helpful for me.) Thankfully, one of them took me seriously, and she called me out on not knowing about a fairly important program at the law school that involved the library and for missing a recent article in their school's student newspaper that mentioned the library (which hadn't yet been indexed by Google).

Takeaway: When it is important, even a database or a research platform whose business is to be as comprehensive as possible should be just one of the resources you use. You know the institution, so manually check its website for any useful content. (Note: The site-search feature on Google shouldn't count as looking for yourself—it got me in trouble.)

The Disaster

One thing that a practice interview probably won't help you with is what to do if, despite your best efforts, the disaster happens: Skype fails. Perhaps the video goes out; perhaps the audio has too much static to hear; perhaps a tree doesn't get trimmed, the heat makes a power line sag, and, just like that, the power that should be going to the west side of the country cuts off because too much electricity went to the ground in a beautiful Montana field. What would you do? I have no idea what would work best (though I have a hunch that it wouldn't be the same for all of us), but planning for this possibility certainly sounds reasonable. Choosing to ignore the problem and continue with the interview, leaving it up to the committee members to address the problem if they wish, is a valid choice. However, because the disaster you were trying to avoid has already happened, avoiding it is no longer really a possibility. Acknowledging the problem in a way that does not imply blame sounds reasonable. If it's your fault, then you could apologize. Note that because the disaster has already happened, it is never referred to as a disaster: it is only a “problem.” Next, you could ask the committee members if they would like to continue the interview with Skype or if they would like to call you on the landline telephone you happen to have made sure to be near just in case. For an applicant to take control of an interview like this would take chutzpah, and for it to come off well would take a significant amount of charm. Hopefully, by the time the problem occurs you will know whether or not the committee members might appreciate chutzpah and charm in a future colleague. You might also take a guess at whether you would just come off as too cocky. Another option is to acknowledge the problem and ask the committee members what they would prefer to do (e.g., use the telephone, set another time and date to continue, take a 10-minute break and try again, etc.).

Takeaway: Have a backup plan—or at least consider what options you might feel least uncomfortable with if Skype fails. Telling the committee before the interview a telephone number where you can be reached just in case certainly sounds prudent.

The Results

As far as I could tell, my Skype interviews went well. The librarians at Cracchiolo had even helped me develop an opening joke about my spaceman headset that let me make the search committees laugh a little and showed that I was making sure that I could hear them well. All that prep ended up (I think) making it look to the search committees like there were no problems: they could see me well, they could hear me well, and I gave them no extreme close-ups. What they couldn't see was the very high chair that I was sitting in putting me in the full, indirect sunlight from the window on my left and letting the camera capture a nice grouping of books on the book shelves behind me and not the dusty book carts below. They couldn't see the large circular light reflector balanced on a chair to my right or the bottle of water balanced on that chair's armrest within easy reach if I got thirsty. They couldn't see the paper taped just below camera with the very largely printed acronym for the Outreach and Faculty Services model that I wanted to appear to remember perfectly. All they saw was a Skype interview that went well. (Note that this has nothing to do with the substance of the interview question-and-answer. For all I know they could have been severely underwhelmed, but that's more subjective than asking them to repeat themselves all the time because you can't hear the questions, having your face too shiny, and looking untrustworthy by avoiding all (simulated) eye contact.)

It was worth it to me to make sure that everything I had control over would go well for the Skype interview—there were enough things that didn't go well (e.g., those interview questions folks ask that seem to be impossible to answer but are intended to tell the search committee members something about the candidate as she tries desperately to answer them anyway). Still, the whole process did make me question: were the concerns and skills that I demonstrated preparing for the Skype interview the same concerns and skills that search committees valued in new librarians? My best guess (as someone who has never served on a search committee) is that they were. I am betting that search committees expect recent graduates to be very comfortable with computers and Internet technologies—we have just had the opportunity as students to take classes or whole programs focused on Internet technologies, and we (usually) can't say that we bring the same on-the-job experience that lateral candidates offer.

In the end, I got a job, and I like it! A part of my work has been increasing access to justice for the people of New Mexico by setting up Skype conference centers at Legal Fairs and in rural libraries so that as many people as possible can meet with a lawyer for free advice no matter where the legal fair is held. However, if candidates were not being evaluated by the search committee on their computer and Internet technology-related skills, then it's possible that my conclusion would be different—perhaps the skills demonstrated by candidates in the Skype interview wouldn't be the ones the search committees sought in ideal candidates, and perhaps asking candidates whether they would like to do a telephone interview or a Skype interview would be less advisable. This is all beside the point for applicants, of course, because if you ever get asked the important question, then you can respond immediately: you would like to do the Skype interview.

Hat tip to Ashley St. John (Marketing & Communications Manager, American Association of Law Libraries) and Catherine A. Lemmer (AALL Spectrum Editorial Director) for all their help.

Thanks to Professor Michael Chiorazzi for a very helpful discussion and his editing.

Last Updated: August 15, 2014


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