I am a postdoctoral researcher studying retinal diseases and was recently awarded a career transition grant to start my own lab. My search for a faculty position was hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. I started sending out applications in January 2020, and found out in March that my planned interviews across several US states coincided with campus closures. The interviews were postponed indefinitely.
I reached out to four potential employers, and we agreed to conduct online interviews. Conducting a full-day interview online was new both to me and to the interviewers, but over the past eight weeks, I’ve got lots of hands-on experience. Here’s what I learnt.
Ask for an itinerary. Just as with an in-person interview, it’s important to have a sense of what your day is going to look like. I made sure I knew who I would be meeting and what they were planning to go over. Your potential employer will probably send a series of links to connect to the scheduled meetings.
I made sure I had room in my itinerary to disconnect, reconnect and troubleshoot technical glitches between meetings. I also scheduled breaks throughout the day, and a long break for lunch to mentally disengage and stretch out. In practice, this meant I had 5 minutes between every ‘back-to-back’ meeting, plus 15-minute breaks every couple of hours, and an hour for lunch.
Test the connection. Before the interviews, I asked my potential employers what videoconferencing tool they were using, and downloaded the program to my computer (often there is a web version but, in my experience, the downloadable app tends to be more stable and come with more options). I familiarized myself with it by setting up a call with a friend so I could explore the program’s features and get input. I also asked the meeting administrator for a test session a few days before the actual interview to make sure I could share my audio, video and seminar slides properly.
Set up your meeting room. I was going to be sitting in the same spot for the whole interview, so I made sure to choose a quiet, well-lit room.
As lockdowns ease, you might be able to conduct the interview from your lab, but if you are still at home, ask those you live with to be quiet and respect your space for the day. If you go into the office or are in a shared living space, put a sign on the doorknob making it clear that you shouldn’t be disturbed. If you have children or pets that might make noise, let your interviewers know ahead of time. Try not to let it worry you — we’re all getting used to background noises under lockdown and your interviewers are not going to judge you on your children’s ability to keep quiet. In my case, I headed into my lab, following social- distancing guidelines, and informed my colleagues of the interview beforehand.
Prepare your environment. I was careful to adjust the camera to be at my eye level. Some meeting programs provide a virtual background or let you upload one from your desktop, but I used the neutral wall in my lab because it felt more natural. I also chose to face the door to anticipate any surprise entrances. Make sure you have what you need next to you, such as your itinerary, a pen and paper, and your CV.
Embrace Murphy’s law: ‘Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong.’ In my case, it was the Wi-Fi signal. Halfway into a seminar, I had to move to another room to find an ethernet cable and continue my presentation. It was disruptive, but I hope the interviewers took it as a sign of resilience and working through unusual circumstances. If it’s an option, a back-up technical plan and computer is a good idea.
Dress up. In an online interview, you do not have personal interaction, and therefore you want to give the best impression possible through your tiny computer camera. I made sure I dressed as if I was going to meet my prospective employer in person. Professional attire has a positive impact and helped to remind me to behave in a polished manner — I’ve found it too easy to drop the professionalism in front of a webcam, because you don’t feel the same social pressure you might in a face-to-face interview. Dress well from top to bottom and do not rely on the fact that the camera shows only your upper body. You might need to stand up or walk with your laptop from one room to another, as I did.
Communicate clearly. When I faced connection problems during my conversations and seminar, I tried to explain in a calm and timely manner. I had a mobile phone on hand, and had exchanged numbers with the meeting administrator in case I needed to troubleshoot problems. I tried to pause at appropriate points during my seminar, to make sure everyone was following and connected. In one of the sessions, I was talking to two faculty members who could see me and each other, but I could not see them owing to a software glitch. I made sure to check they were still available, and let them know that I could only hear them. There were other clumsy moments — often it felt like a choice between interrupting an interviewer or letting dead silence fill the air for a moment. In these moments, I made sure to keep a big smile on my face and talked only after the other side had completely finished and paused for couple of seconds.
Before I accept a job offer, I hope I will eventually be able to visit the facilities and lab space in-person — an important consideration that can’t be solved by videoconferencing. But overall, I found online interviewing much less tiring and stressful than onsite visits. I had many more opportunities to rest outside individual meetings, which I wouldn’t have had in the ‘real world’. And I had none of the travel commitments that might have been burdensome before lockdown.
Be prepared to be told that your potential employer will not be hiring until COVID-19 loosens its grip. Be patient, positive and understanding. Remember that this is a difficult time for everyone — and your potential employers will probably do the same for you.