One of our readers, who recently submitted this post sharing their impressions of job-candidates' "cover materials" (i.e. cover letter and CV) as a search-committee member, emailed me the following impressions on interviewing:
I recently interviewed candidates for a position (research assistant, not in philosophy), at a research-intensive European university. I found this a really interesting experience, starting from reading the cover letters (which I found to weigh unexpectedly heavily in my decision) to the final process. As is the custom in European universities, we went straight on campus (with Skype talks for those who could not make it).
Here are some things I've learned. Some of these observations might also be generalized to other kinds of positions.
1. Interviews are precious and scarce things.
Why then, do job candidates not do their homework? The first striking thing I've noticed was that most job candidates had failed to do even the most cursory lookup for this position. This job was a research assistant/postdoc position that required working with a relatively new experimental technique. In their cover letters, all finalists had indicated that they did not have experience with the technique but that they were eager to learn it. However, during the interview, all but 2 of the candidates did not know what the technique involved when they were asked "Can you briefly explain what [technique] is?" Even a simple Wikipedia article would have been sufficient to give a satisfactory answer. I did notice that candidates did their homework about the department and members of the search committee. This is not a bad thing, but the position itself and the work it involves is also important to investigate.
2. Everyone's nervous, and nervousness doesn't seem to harm candidates, but too much nervousness can definitely interfere with your performance on the interview.
Two of our candidates were extremely nervous. When shaking hands at the end of the interview, the hands felt cold and sweaty. One of our candidates was trembling like a leaf. It was perhaps no coincidence that the 2 very nervous candidates did not do well on the interview. They answered questions that weren't asked, fell still in the middle of the sentence, and seemed totally nonplussed by some of the questions.
3. If everyone is interviewing live, Skype may put you at a disadvantage.
One of our candidates could not make the interview, and because we could not find an additional date when everyone of the search committee could be available, we had to use Skype to interview them. All other candidates were interviewed on campus. There were, unfortunately, several glitches in the process. At first, there was no sound, then the image disappeared periodically. The candidate had to ask, almost after every question "Sorry, I did not get your question. Could you repeat it?" After about 15 minutes, the connection was broken, and it took several tries to reconnect. Overall, it certainly did not help the candidate. It made them nervous and less able to answer the questions, and it was a drag for us. We did take it into consideration during our discussion, but with several good in-person interviews, it's hard to say what would have happened if the Skype interviewee had been able to make it in person.
4. A brilliant interview will only get you so far.
I've often heard that the only rationale of your cover letter, CV and other materials is to land you an interview. Then the clock is reset, and your performance on the interview determines to a large extent the outcome of your application. In my experience, a bad interview can certainly harm someone with good cover materials (e.g., PhD from prestigious school, strong pubs). In this search, we had 2 candidates that seemed perfect fits for the position. But both interviewed poorly. They did not do research on the position (see 1), and also did less well on other aspects. However, while a good interview may be a necessary condition, it is not a sufficient condition. We had a brilliant interviewee who had just completed their masters. The candidate seemed motivated and capable. However, we also had a very good interview with someone with a PhD and several publications. Although this position did not require a PhD, it did require some autonomy and writing papers, and probably it would involve co-writing subsequent grant proposals. The person who had earned their PhD and had published articles seemed more likely to be able to do this autonomous research and grant writing than someone with masters degree. It's, unfortunately, a buyer's market.
5. Fit is probably overrated by candidates.
I would never have predicted the outcome of the hiring process based on the shortlist. The person we hired was, among the shortlisted candidates, a bit of a stretch, but the motivation letter convinced us to shortlist them anyway. Yet on the whole this candidate was considered to be the best candidate we interviewed. They had a PhD in the relevant field, and several published articles including as first author. Moreover, they answered all the questions of the interview competently. That the fit was a bit of a stretch was only a minor concern, one we were able to address during the interview. Our "perfect fit candidates" (there were 2 like this) were disappointments on the interview. They seemed to be sabotaging themselves by going into irrelevant details.
I'd like to thank this individual for taking the time to share these impressions, and hope readers find them helpful. I'd also like to invite other search-committee members who are so willing to weigh in on the issue. I expect our readers who are present or future job-candidates would be very appreciative!