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Don’t Flub The Phone Screen (8 Expert Tips For PhDs)

I don’t think I’m alone when I say I dread phone calls.

I’m willing to spend hours online trying to fix a problem just to avoid the 5-to-10-minute phone conversation it would require to solve it.   

If this sounds familiar, I have some bad news: phone calls are unavoidable during your industry job search.

In fact, its common for the first interaction between a job candidate and an employer to take place over the phone. This is called the phone screen.

When I started my industry job search, I had no idea that phone screens were part of the process.

The first time a recruiter called me to say “Congrats! Company XYZ was impressed with your resume. Would you be available for a phone call this afternoon?” I panicked.

This wasn’t part of the plan!

I had no idea what to expect from this phone call. I was ill-prepared, and it showed. Needless to say, I didn’t get offered a second interview.  

So, in your industry job search, prepare for this necessary evil. A phone screen is the one opportunity you have to make a good first impression.

You don’t want to blow it like I did.

One Cheeky Scientist member shares what worked for them during a recent phone screen:

“I recently had a phone screen with HR for an industry position. The conversation went well and resulted in a second interview, so I thought I would share my experience.

I was asked some standard questions regarding my background, my research experience and how it pertains to the position. Then, after describing the company culture, she asked me what I know about the company.

I did the research according to Cheeky’s suggestion. I told her everything I knew about the company. I followed up by asking her if there’s anything else I should know.

Later in the conversation, she asked about my salary expectations. I used the Cheeky gold standard sentence “I will consider all reasonable offers”.

Towards the end, I asked a couple of my own questions. Afterwards, I sent a ‘Thank You’ email.

Thank you Cheeky for the helpful information – I have learned a lot from this platform!”

A Poor Phone Screen Performance Will Tank Your Candidacy

On average, 250 resumes are submitted for every publicly posted job opening. Yet, only  4 to 6 applicants make it to the next stage: the phone screen.

That means only around 2-5% of applicants ever get a chance to talk to someone at the company.  

So, if you get a phone screen, realize that you’re 1 of only a few hand-selected candidates.

And while this should feel great, realize that it’s not yet time to let your guard down. You still have work to do.

A phone screen is a critical part of the interview process – it should never be taken lightly.

The key to a successful phone screen is preparation, preparation, preparation.

Phone screens can happen at a moment’s notice. You may have very little time to gather yourself – even as little as an hour. It’s critical to have a plan in place.

And while not all phone screens are alike, many do share a common goal: to check your credibility.

In other words, companies want to make sure you’re worth investing in before they spend any more time and/or money on you.

The harsh reality is that your candidacy can end as soon as it starts. If your phone screen goes poorly, don’t expect to get a second chance.

8 Expert Phone Screen Tips For PhDs

Phones screens are challenging and painful for most. And for good reason.

Around 70% of normal communication is nonverbal, yet all you’re left with during a phone screen are your words.

It can feel like going into battle without a weapon.

That’s why so many PhDs fail to make it past this initial stage – they’re unarmed. They lack the methods and skills needed to successfully convey their value to potential employers.

So today, I want to share 8 methods proven to make an amazing first impression, confirm your credibility, and guarantee your spot in the next stage of hiring.  

1. Learn everything you can about the company.

Before you even submit your resume, you should have a basic understanding of the company you’re applying to.

What market are they in? Who are their competitors? How big is the company?

Much of this information can be found on their company website.

You’ll also be able to gather information regarding their mission and values. Ask yourself, ‘How will I help the company reach their goals?’ and, ‘How do my values align with those of the company?’

Keep your responses to these questions in mind when preparing for your phone screen. You want to show them that your core values align with the mission and values of the company.

You also want a clear picture of the company’s recent history. Have they undergone any mergers or acquisitions? These types of business moves may be the reason the position is open.

Overall, demonstrating that you’ve done your research on the company – it’s history and where it’s headed in the future – is certain to leave a lasting impression.

2. Prepare answers to popular interview questions.

Most phone screens are conducted by a hiring manager.

Hiring managers don’t typically have the background required to assess your technical qualities, which means it’s rare to get overly technical questions at this stage.

Their only goal is to assess the quality of your candidacy.  

To set your phone screen up for success, prepare and practice your answers to commonly asked questions.

Some of the first questions you may get include: ‘Can you tell me a little about yourself?’, ‘What interests you about the job?’ and ‘What do you know about our company?’

Some other frequently asked questions include: ‘Why should we hire you for this role?’, ‘What are your strengths and weaknesses?’, ‘What is your greatest achievement so far?’ and, ‘Where do you see yourself in 5 years?’  

One question in particular – the ‘Tell me a little about yourself’ one – trips up a lot of PhDs. Set yourself apart by having a well-practiced elevator pitch at the ready.

For the other topically-based questions, prepare a few major talking points for each.

Be prepared to speak to your experience and demonstrate how your skills align well with those outlined in the job description.

3. Find a clean and quiet space for the phone screen.

Before a phone screen, find a quiet space to take the call. There’s nothing more disruptive than a barrage of uninvited noise.

If your office has a lock – use it. Ask other members of the household to keep it down. Also make sure there’s no mechanical or traffic-related noise nearby.

Second, make certain you have adequate reception. And if you’re using headphones, confirm that people on the other end can hear you clearly.

The flow of a conversation can be easily derailed by a bad connection.

Third, clear your workspace of clutter.

You want a clean area where you can spread out your resources for the interview (I’ll cover things you should have handy in the next section).

Doing this is a win-win; it provides you with the space you need while also clearing your mind of clutter.

4. Have a printed copy of your resume on hand.    

Hiring managers have already read your resume – they know the basics of your work history and are familiar with your skillset.

Despite this, you’ll be asked to describe your experience during the phone call. This is part of the credibility test.

What they’re looking for is consistency. They’re asking themselves ‘Does this person provide answers that reflect what they put on their resume?’

They will have a copy of your resume in front of them and so should you.

Make sure it’s a printed copy.

You never want to use your computer for a phone screen – no matter how quiet you think you’re being, the person on the other end can hear you typing and clicking.

Any other documents you want to reference should also be printed.

This includes information on the company, a list of 2 to 3 questions you want to ask them, a list of your greatest achievements, and anything else you deem pertinent.

Before the call, arrange the documents for easy access. Just as you don’t want to be typing away on your computer, you also don’t want to be shuffling or crinkling papers during the call.  

5. Speak clearly and listen carefully.

Chances are, you’re going to feel a bit nervous. Your mind will be going a mile a minute and your mouth may want to follow suit.

Try and resist this tendency.

If you think you’re going to struggle with this, change your body position.

Sometimes that’s all it takes to slow your tempo. Sounds strange, but some people lay down during a phone screen. It’s hard to speak fast when you’re in a prone position.

When answering the interviewer’s questions, keep your responses succinct. You don’t want to ramble on or repeat yourself.

Some interviewers purposefully insert uncomfortable pauses to test you. They want to see if you keep talking just to alleviate the discomfort of silence.

Don’t fall for this. Keep your answers concise and embrace the momentary silence.

One tactic is to say something that indicates you’re done answering; something like ‘Does this make sense?’ or ‘I hope that was clear’.

This forces you to stop talking and provides the interviewer with something to respond to.

You can also apply your own momentary pause to ensure you don’t interrupt the interviewer.

Phone conversations can be awkward due to the delay – it’s always good to avoid hasty responses.

6. Remain professional and positive (and don’t forget to smile!)

The phone screen is often more casual than other types of interviews. However, it’s important to remain professional throughout.

In other words, treat the phone screen as you would an in-person interview. Would you walk into an interview super casual, unsmiling, and carrying a negative attitude? I would hope not.

People can tell when you’re smiling just by the sound of your voice – it comes across in your intonation. When you smile, they hear a happy and competent person on the other end of the line.

Smiling naturally puts you in a better mood.

And a good mood is critical for a good phone screen. You want to remain upbeat, energized, and engaged throughout the entire conversation.  

Just as they’ll know when you’re smiling, they’ll also know if you’re in a bad mood, feeling tired, or disengaged.

Do something ahead of the screen to get yourself into the right mindset.

Do jumping jacks, listen to your favorite (upbeat) song, watch something funny. Anything to put you in a good mood.

7. End the phone screen on a positive note.

Towards the end of the call, the interviewer will often ask you if you have any questions for them.

As I mentioned earlier, it’s good to have 2 to 3 questions you want to ask written down.

Don’t make the questions overly complex and don’t ask too many questions. If all goes well, you’ll have plenty of other opportunities to ask more questions.

Also make sure you’ve established the next steps before hanging up the phone.

When will you hear back? What is the next step in the process? These are all things you should know.

It helps you to act accordingly and sets an expectation on their end.

Wrap up the call by showing your appreciation for their time. When thanking them, use their name.

Using their name helps build rapport. Just don’t overdo it – say their name too many times and you’ll start to sound like a salesperson.  

8. Use proper follow-up etiquette.

Many PhDs feel lost when it comes to follow-up etiquette.

After a phone screen, should you send a thank you? What if you remember something you wanted to mention afterwards – should you phone back?

The key here is to keep it simple.

If you suddenly remember a better answer to one of their questions, do not call them back! The conversation is closed.

One goal of the phone screen is to see how well you think on your feet – they don’t care to hear your perfectly crafted answer after the fact.

If you have their email address, refrain from sending a lengthy message. A simple ‘Thank you for your time’ and a short message indicating your enthusiasm for the position and the company.

That’s it.

You won’t come off as needy and they’ll appreciate the extra effort.

Concluding Remarks

Phone screens are a critical part of the interview process- they should never be taken lightly. The key to a successful phone screen is preparation. Beforehand, learn about the company; anticipate the questions you’ll be asked and prepare concise answers; find a quiet space to take the call. During the interview, make sure to have your resume on hand. Go in with a positive attitude and remain professional throughout the conversation – and don’t forget to smile. Treat the phone screen as you would an in-person interview and act accordingly. Overall, the goal of a phone screen is to determine if you’re a credible applicant. Apply these 8 tips to your next phone screen and you’ll not only prove your credibility, but you’ll also guarantee your spot in the next stage of the hiring process.  

If you’re ready to start your transition into industry, you can apply to book a free Transition Call with our founder Isaiah Hankel, PhD or one of our Transition Specialists. Apply to book a Transition Call here.

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Dr. Isaiah Hankel is the Founder and CEO of Cheeky Scientist. His articles, podcasts and trainings are consumed annually by millions of PhDs and other professionals in hundreds of different countries. He has helped PhDs transition into top companies like Amazon, Google, Apple, Intel, Dow Chemical, BASF, Merck, Genentech, Home Depot, Nestle, Hilton, SpaceX, Tesla, Syngenta, the CDC, UN and Ford Foundation.

Dr. Hankel has published 3X bestselling books and his latest book, The Power of a PhD, debuted on the Barnes & Noble bestseller list. His methods for getting PhDs hired have been featured in the Harvard Business Review, Nature, Forbes, The Guardian, Fast Company, Entrepreneur Magazine and Success Magazine.

Isaiah Hankel, PhD

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