Some tips for an academic job talk over Skype…

I recently had the experience of applying for a postdoctoral position at A Very Important University and made the shortlist to be interviewed.  Now, let’s face it, that’s a pretty terrifying thing to start with;  it wasn’t made better by the fact that I was doing it over Skype to a location most of the way around the world.  Visions of technical glitches, bad sound quality, and an overall horrible experience both interviewers and interviewed haunted me.  So, I spent several days polishing my talk, thinking up ways to make the Skype process smoother, and even reached out to Twitter for advice.  And boy, did I get it!  There were some great suggestions out there, a few of which really saved my bacon.  Thus, to save you the trouble of figuring all of this out for yourself, I’m going to share what I learned with you.

Before the day, I reached out for advice on Twitter, and here’s what I got:

The day of the talk, I hauled my lab iMac down to the conference room, perched it precariously on a stack of books, and set it up at roughly eye height so that I could look straight into the camera and present normally.  I also brought along my battered-looking Macbook, and as a complete last resort, my iPad:

Plan A (which worked beautifully) was screen-sharing over Skype.  That required that I lay down $5 to purchase an upgraded Skype Premium account for a month, but it meant that I could choose the window with my slides and share it directly to the Skype video call while the webcam stream remained as a picture-in-picture box in the corner.  Here’s some help specific to OS X and Keynote (and probably Powerpoint / Preview as well, though I didn’t try it);  as of this writing, if you do this in something like Keynote you won’t be able to play your slides full screen, i.e. by ‘playing’ your slideshow.  Every time you do, Skype will drop the screen sharing and just show the video from the webcam.  To get around this, I kept the slides in the editing window and just turned off all of the sidebars and menus (View->Slide onlyView->Inspector->Show InspectorView->Hide Presenter Notes, etc.).  Now when you share to Skype, the slides will be the only thing that show up.  The biggest problem with this is that you now lose the keyboard commands that you have when you’re in slideshow view, and in fact have to use the menu bar to navigate your slides.  You can fix this, however, by utilizing a little-known trick in OS X.  Go to your System Preferences, select the Keyboard preference pane, and choose the Shortcuts tab.  Here, you can define application-specific keyboard shortcuts that will allow you to advance / go back in your slides via keyboard command.  You do this by assigning keys to the menu items ‘Next Slide‘, ‘Previous Slide‘, and optionally ‘First Slide‘.  To do this, click the App Shortcuts item from the list in the Shortcuts tab, and in the resulting dialog box, select Keynote from the application dropdown menu, type the menu item in exactly as I’ve spelled it here (capitalization matters!), and then select your key combination.

Keyboard shortcut screenshot

Adding a keyboard shortcut to Keynote..

Once you’ve done that, you can control your slides in Skype’s screen-sharing mode as if you were playing the slideshow.

The advantage to Plan A is that your slides show up nice and crisp, but the audience can still see you through the magic of picture-in-picture.  Plan B, which was less elegant, was to project the slides on the screen behind me using the conference room’s projector.  In tests I did before the talk, I found this to be an undesirable solution. The slides were washed out and difficult to read, I was standing in the way of them as I moved back and forth to talk, and the light of the projector lit up that shiny tract of land I call my forehead like a Christmas tree.  It wasn’t great.  I would have used it if the screen-sharing had failed me, but I would have been very unhappy about it.  If I was forced to go this way, I had the laptop set up to drive the slides so that I could place it in a position where I could advance them without having to move too far out of camera;  I would normally use a remote clicker with my laptop for this, but of course mine broke that day and I haven’t had time to find a new one yet.

Plan C, if the iMac caught on fire and I had to sacrifice the laptop to put out the flames, was to talk on Skype with the iPad.  This would have been a complete last resort, and not something I would recommend.  It’s difficult to find a good way to hold or prop the iPad for something like this, I don’t know if my headset would have worked, and I still would have had to project the slides as in Plan B.  With that said, it never hurts to have multiple redundancies (though I would have preferred to upload a YouTube video instead as Brian suggested if it had come to that).

What about the actual interview, you ask?  Well, any advice that I can give here would be largely the same as you can find with a quick Googling.  The aspects specific to academia start to shade over more into opinion than fact, so I’ll give a few of my opinions and let everyone else speak up in the comments below.

  • @osuc_curator had some great points above.  Make sure that you’ve given thought to the job itself, how you fill the role (why should they hire you for it?), your research directions, and so on.  Be prepared to talk smoothly and confidently about these things.
  • Some of the questions that the panel asks may be designed to push your knowledge to its limits.  Just as in an oral defence, do not bull@#$@.  If you don’t know the answer to a question, say so.  Then, follow it up with evidence that you can think on your feet:  ‘Huh.  That’s a great question, but I don’t know.  But if I were to take a shot at it, I might say [fill in blank here with your best guess]”.  If the panel catches you making stuff up, you’re done;  if you can instead admit your limitations and recover gracefully from them, you’ll look a lot better.
  • Make sure you understand the question, and don’t be afraid to repeat it.  Ask for clarification if necessary.  People are usually happy to rephrase.
  • Humour is great, if you can carry it off.  If you can’t, though, for the love of whatever you hold holy don’t force it.  Nothing says ‘do we really want to work with this guy / girl?’ better than a series of lame jokes followed by increasingly awkward pauses.  And sometimes, even if you’re good at cracking jokes in situations like this, the room just doesn’t have the right energy.  If you try something simple early on and it doesn’t get a laugh, read the room and adapt;  you’ll want to play it straight from then on.

There’s some of the things that I learned the hard way over the last week or so.  If you’ve gone through the process, feel free to add more or correct me in the comments;  if you haven’t, and have questions, let me know and I’ll see if I can help or find you an answer.