How to come across well in a PhD interview over Skype?
June 27, 2011 3:03 PM   Subscribe

How to come across well in a PhD interview over Skype?

I have an interview this week for a PhD position in Switzerland. Yippee! Now I am filled with worry and questions. What should I do, and what should I avoid, in order to wow the supervisor?

More details:

The position is for a chemistry/materials science project in a large university in Switzerland. I actually applied for a different project but the supervisor has suggested this one as a better fit for my interests and experience. I agree that it looks interesting.

The project is not particularly close to the job I'm doing at the moment (application chemistry in a tech startup), but it is close to some of the research I did for my MSci. I've learned lots of technical skills here but worry that I've already blocked myself in by getting sidetracked from my preferred area of research. How to combat that impression?

The interview is on Skype, which saves me airfare but brings its own questions. I haven't used Skype before at all. I don't like talking on the telephone; I prefer either email or talking in person where I can scribble notes and diagrams as I go. What should I know about Skype for this interview?

How much will they expect me to know about their research area? What should I ask them about? Is there anything else I should know, especially anything relating to Swiss/German universities?

Thank you!
posted by daisyk to Education (16 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Is this going to be a video chat, or just audio? If it's video, and you haven't used video chat software before, you should expect to be a little uncomfortable with video chatting at first. I found it disconcerting at first.

I would highly recommend video-chatting with a friend and have them tell you all the weird things you do because you're on camera (touching your face, fidgeting, leaning too close, etc.) so you can get them under control before the interview, and so you can get used to feeling of video-chatting.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 3:10 PM on June 27, 2011

This may be the most trivial part, but spend a few minutes thinking about the background that will be visible to them, and make sure it projects the best possible image for you. Try a few test runs with a friend and get their feedback on your lighting, angle, zoom level, etc. too so you'll feel totally confident about how you look (e.g., you're not showing more nose hair than eye contact, and you can't see your litter box in the shot)... and can just focus on what you're saying.

(On preview, what Salvor Hardin said, too!)

I would still feel free to respectfully scribble while it's going on, by the way, especially when they are answering your questions. Just nod thoughtfully and look up often while you do.

Break a leg!
posted by mauvest at 3:13 PM on June 27, 2011

You mentioned scribbling diagrams, and I'm not sure whether you meant for yourself or to demonstrate something to the interviewer. If it's the latter, I've actually had reasonably good luck using Skype video chat and a whiteboard -- temporarily point the camera at the board and scribble away. You'll definitely need to test this with someone first if you think you'll want to do it, though, as it took a bit of fiddling to get the setup right the first time.

Also, I would definitely second the other recommendations to do a few Skype calls with friends beforehand to get the software figured out, and to figure out good video settings.
posted by duien at 3:21 PM on June 27, 2011

Don't be afraid to tell the interviewer that you've never done an interview in this way before and that you're nervous -- once.
posted by Etrigan at 3:29 PM on June 27, 2011 [3 favorites]

I have interviewed people via Skype, here are some general suggestions:

Try to appear like you are looking at the people, not somewhere else. A lot of people appear to be looking into the distance, it is odd.

Dress well and be well groomed, at least from the waist up. It does make a difference.

Try to sit infront of something that is bland and not distracting.

Practice a few times with friends or family.

It is ok to take notes, but don't appear to be overly involved in what you are writing.

If you have children, family, or workmates around while you are doing the interview, try to get them to go away and leave you alone for a while. Screaming children in the background are cute for about 2 seconds, after that not so much.
posted by wandering_not_lost at 3:35 PM on June 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Rather than making the interviewer's image as large as possible or filling the screen with it, make it as small as you can without having to squint at them, then position the window as close to the lens of your camera as possible. This will help you simulate eye contact instead of constantly looking way below the camera lens at the image of their eyes.
posted by contraption at 3:40 PM on June 27, 2011 [5 favorites]

In addition to looking into the camera as much as possible, and choosing a suitable background, test your various clothing articles on camera with friends while you work the kinks out of Skype. If you are going to wear a tie, I'd suggest something simple such as a single color tie, or a conservative striped patter. Don't wear anything that creates a moiré pattern on your viewer's screen. If possible, set up your interview during a time when you can get a lot of indirect soft natural light so you aren't harshly illuminated.
posted by Hylas at 3:51 PM on June 27, 2011

- You should know their research area, at least some of the major pubs they have
- You should know why you want to join THEIR research group
- You should know FOR YOUR OWN GOOD why you want to persue a PhD.

Yoyo_nyc, PhD
posted by yoyo_nyc at 3:56 PM on June 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

ASK THEM ABOUT MONEY, how are they going to pay your stipend/salary? What pot of money does that come out of? Is it a different pot than your tuition? How solid is that (are both) pot(s)? Have they ever had a student leave due to lack of funding?

If they get weaselly about any of it, don't go. Make sure they can promise to pay you and keep that promise.

Also Skype does have lots of unpredictable issues with new computers, n'thing setting yours up well in advance and testing it well in advance. I would also suggest not underestimating the usefulness of Skype professionally in other areas, almost all of the P.I.s I know have an account. I was able to write an awesome review working with collaborators across the world almost exclusively using Skype to communicate.
posted by Blasdelb at 4:15 PM on June 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Several suggestions in addition to the excellent ones already posted. Do at least 3-4 video chats before the interview. Get used to the time delay in sending and receiving video/audio inputs/outputs. Conversations can be quite natural if you understand there will be a brief time delay between input/reception by both parties. When they do not respond immediately it just means they are receiving the message with a second or two delay. Also, if you are at all prone to rambling or long sentences--don't! If doing video make sure you have as much bandwidth available as is possible given your connection.
posted by rmhsinc at 4:22 PM on June 27, 2011

Initial professional encounters in Switzerland are extremely formal. Your interview will be impersonal, brisk, focused, and task-oriented. The Swiss tend to get right down to business--no banter, no chit chat.

Don't ask (personal) questions about age, marital status, religion, hobbies, basically anything having to do with life outside of work. The Swiss tend to value privacy a great deal more than Americans. Asking about personal matters would be considered an invasion of privacy

At first always address someone first by his or her professional title and family name. No first names until invited to use them.

Any visuals/anything you might put on a whiteboard/posterboard--make it's orderly, well-prepared, concise, detailed, and NOT hand-written. Use Kinko's or some other professional printing service for anything you intend to use during the call. Also, if/when you need to point at something (on the whiteboard, to indicate a person, etc) use your whole hand. Pointing with the index finger is considered obscene.

I would not recommend saying anything about being nervous and/or this being your first type interviewing on SKYPE--unless your interviewer(s) bring the subject up. Your feelings/state of mind about anything apart from why you're being interviewed aren't appropriate subjects for business conversation. Being 'nervous' or discomfited by SKYPE would probably be taken as a lack of preparedness.

good luck
posted by BadgerDoctor at 4:23 PM on June 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

I've interviewed a lot of people for PhD internships, and here are my big takeaways:

- Do not ramble on about your research for 5-10 minute stretches. Listen to the questions the interviewer is asking and answer them clearly but relatively succinctly. Google "academic interviews" and have basic answers to questions like "tell me about your MA thesis" ready.

- Seem enthusiastic about the job and the collaborators. Know their work at least a little bit (at the very least, don't get it terribly wrong). You should read the main papers they've written enough to ask some questions.

- This might matter more in the humanities/social sciences, but be able to answer questions about your intellectual influences. Definitely know the prospective project and why you find it interesting.

- If they ask a question you don't know the answer to, problem-solve out loud. Often I just want to hear how a candidate thinks and problem-solves.

- Have some smart questions to ask of the interviewer. Things like: what would my responsibilities be, how do you see the first semester of this position unfolding, what skills would the ideal candidate have, etc.

- Do NOT call yourself unorganized, seem bored or irritated by the whole process, or pretend you are too good for the job (all things I've seen).

I would never hold it against a candidate if Skype didn't work. I like Skype interviews & think they reveal a lot about personality and work style that doesn't come across over the phone.
posted by alicetiara at 4:24 PM on June 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

If you're using a laptop, make sure that your camera is level with your face- it looks awkward if you're looking down. As mentioned above, look at the camera, not at the screen- it's ok to glance down, but if you look at the screen too much it looks like you're looking at something interesting on your computer, not your interviewers. Keep the camera far enough away that they can see your upper body and not just your face, as well.
posted by kro at 10:13 PM on June 27, 2011

If it isnt a videoconference then I recommend standing up while you talk. It makes it feel more like giving a talk which is somewhat like what a PhD interview is about anyways and will make you sound more confident.
posted by koolkat at 2:23 AM on June 28, 2011

So... how'd it go?
posted by mauvest at 7:12 PM on July 1, 2011

Thank you, everyone! Your advice really helped with the Skype interview (both technically and for making me feel more in control of it), they asked me back for an in-person interview, and this week they told me I got the position!

Expect lots of further AskMe questions along the lines of "How do I Zurich?" ;)
posted by daisyk at 10:56 AM on July 22, 2011

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