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My First Interview Phone Screen Was At 1AM My Time. Here’s What Happened.

Written by: Jeanette McConnell, Ph.D.

My first ever phone screen was at 1am.

I was living in Australia, but looking for jobs in the US.

This particular phone interview was with someone in New York, which is a pretty terrible time difference.

But, I was so excited to have gotten the phone interview that the time didn’t really matter.

I had 2 days advance notice of the phone interview.

I spent some time looking at the company’s website and reading some of their publications.

But, at this point I was still writing up my thesis and my energy was mainly focused on that.

It was just a phone interview anyway, I thought.

I didn’t think I needed to be extensively prepared for the phone interview.

They would probably just ask me some simple questions and we could schedule a Skype interview or even an in-person interview.

I was very wrong.

This was the interview.

It was a full-blown interview, complete with in-depth questions and a multi-person interviewing committee.

I was on the phone for an hour.

I was not prepared for this.

Looking back, I can’t believe that I thought the phone interview was such a trivial thing.

Although I did not “bomb” the phone interview, it didn’t go as well as it could have.

And ultimately, I didn’t get the job.

But, I learned.

I learned to take my next phone interview seriously.

Because nailing that first phone interview is the only way to get a second interview, and to eventually get a job offer.

The company had taken the time out of their busy day to talk with me.

I was valuable enough for them to spend an hour with me.

So, it makes sense that I also bring value to the interview by preparing well and demonstrating clearly why I am the candidate they should hire.

Why You Can’t Just “Wing It” On A Phone Interview

A phone screen is an important first step in the interview process.

It is not just a formality.

It is an interview.

You are being judged.

You must take a phone screen or phone interview as seriously as you would an in-person interview.

If you don’t do well in the phone interview, you will never get an in-person interview.

While a phone interview may not seem as important as an in-person interview, very few people actually make it to this stage.

As reported by Workopolis, 98% of candidates are eliminated by the initial resume screen.

(Which, by the way, is why having a referral is so important.)

If you have earned a phone interview, it means you are in the top pool of candidates.

Now, it’s up to you to prove that you deserve to move on to the next step.

Careerbuilder reported that 49% of interviewers know within 5 minutes if a candidate is a good fit, and only 8% needed longer than 30 minutes to make this judgement.

So, as soon as your phone interview starts, you need to be at the top of your game.

You need to show that you are the right candidate.

You need to feel confident.

And, that all comes down to being well-prepared.

10 Tips To Ensure Your Initial Phone Screen Lands You An In-Person Interview

Your good networking got you a referral.

And, that referral got you passed ATS software and earned you a phone screen.

Now, how do you nail that phone screen so you can move on to an in-person interview?

The phone screen is the first step towards securing that job offer. Here are 10 tips to make sure you nail the phone screen and get one step closer to the job offer…

1. This is not just a casual conversation.

Don’t be fooled — a phone screen is an interview.

Even if the email you received says, “I’d love to jump on a call with you for a quick conversation” this does not mean it is casual — it is still an interview.

You will not just be shooting the breeze.

Remember, the person you speak with on a phone screen is deciding if you move on to the next step of the interview process.

They are deciding if you are a good fit for the position.

So, treat this conversation like the interview that it is.

Prepare thoroughly and be professional.

2. You are not guaranteed advance notice of a phone screen.

A phone screen can happen fast.

You may get a call the same day that your connection handed in the referral.

You might not even get an email scheduling the phone call.

It is essential that you prepare in advance for a phone screen.

Prepare how to answer commonly asked interview questions.

They are going to ask you, “Can you tell me a little about yourself?” or “Why are you a good fit for the position?”

Be ready.

Also, prepare questions to ask them.

Research the company’s products or services, their collaborators, and their competitors.

And, if you are speaking with an internal recruiter or the hiring manager, ask these questions.

If you are speaking with an external recruiter, you can ask questions about the role to learn more.

The more you learn about what the company is looking for, the better you can prepare yourself for the later stages of the interview process.

3. You cannot afford to ignore your audience’s personality or personal preferences.

Unless you are interviewing at a very small company, the person conducting your phone screen is not going to have a technical background.

Most likely, your initial phone screen will be with a recruiter or a hiring manager whose job deals with human resources, not the technical side of things.

Remember who your audience is during your phone call.

Do not dive into some super technical explanation of your research when the person asks, “Tell me about yourself”.

Bad move.

  1. They don’t understand the technical jargon.
  2. They don’t really care about the technical stuff (you have a PhD, the “technically qualified” box is already checked).
  3. You’ve now demonstrated that you don’t know how to talk to a general audience about your work.

Phone interview ruined.

Instead of ruining the interview by not recognizing who you are talking to, focus on your transferable skills and your interpersonal skills.

In the initial phone screen, give a broad picture of your technical background and how it is relevant to the position, but focus mainly on why you are a good fit for the company.

4. You won’t get a chance to make up for a bad, gloomy, or unhappy first impression.

Since you cannot see body language when having an audio conversation over the phone, your tone of voice becomes super important.

When talking on the phone, your tone of voice is how you will convey your emotion.

And, you want to sound confident and happy.

But, you need help determining if this is how you sound.

Even if you record yourself, it’s very hard to objectively evaluate your own voice.

So, ask a friend to do a mock interview with you.

You can ask them what they think of your answers, but most importantly, ask them what your tone is conveying.

Make adjustments based on what they say and then do another mock interview with someone else.

Practice makes perfect.

5. You won’t get a chance to answer the same question twice.

While your phone screen is not going to be a comprehensive interview, you will be asked basic interview questions.

And, you need to be ready.

Research common interview questions and then write out your answers.

This physical act of writing down your answers is important.

Write answers, based on the STAR method, to questions such as…

  • Why are you leaving academia?
  • Why are you a good fit for this position?
  • Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
  • Describe a time you experienced conflict at work. How did you handle it?

Additionally, memorize what is on your resume and have your tailored elevator pitch ready.

Your resume is likely where the person conducting the phone screen will pull questions to ask you.

So, it’s a great idea to know how you can relate each of the items on your resume to the job description.

6. You won’t pass the phone screen without practicing your answers out loud first.

Once you have prepared answers to common interview questions, you need to practice these answers out loud.

Practice out loud to yourself first, if you’re nervous about practicing with someone else.

But eventually, move to practicing with a friend over the phone.

It is very different to communicate with someone when you cannot see them.

The best way to do well in the phone interview is to get very comfortable talking on the phone and answering common interview questions.

And, to become comfortable, you must practice.

By practicing your answers out loud over the phone, you will get feedback about the quality of your answers.

Have you fully answered the question?

Does your tone and word choice convey the message you are trying to send?

7. You shouldn’t ignore the fact that salary negotiations have already begun.

Salary negotiations begin as soon as you have your very first phone screen.

Recruiters will often ask about your salary expectations.

They will likely play this off as just a small question, mixed in with other simple questions about you and why you want the job.

Don’t be fooled.

The recruiter or hiring manager is trying to get you to commit to a low figure range.

Never commit to a salary figure or range on a phone screen.

To dodge the question, have your response, “I will consider all reasonable offers” at the ready.

If pressed for your current salary — again, do not give a number.

Instead say, “As a [PhD student or postdoc] I actually only receive a stipend from the university, not a salary.”

Don’t feel pressured to give a number.

It is completely acceptable, and in your best interests, to stay with your “I am open to all reasonable offers” response.

8. You won’t be seen as a serious candidate if you don’t ask questions about your role at the company.

As your phone screen draws to a close, the recruiter will probably ask you, “Is there anything about the role you would like to know that I haven’t told you?”

Do not say “no”.

Prepare a list of 10-20 questions before the interview that you can ask.

You shouldn’t ask 10-20 questions, but you need to have lots of options prepared so that you can ask a question that wasn’t already answered.

The recruiter or hiring manager will have given you more information about the position while you are on the phone.

Do not ask a question they have already addressed.

You can also create new questions on the phone, based on the new information you learn.

For example, you could ask, “You mentioned that the role will involve XYZ, can you elaborate?”

The benefit of asking a question during this phone screen is two-fold.

One, you gain more information about the role to see if it is a good fit for you and two, you demonstrate your interest in the role and the company.

9. You will not sound engaged in the interview if you talk on the phone sitting down.

To properly convey your excitement and energy over the phone, you should not be sitting down.

Lounging on the couch is not a position that gives you energy.

While on the phone, adopt body language that makes you feel confident, full of energy, and happy.

Although the interviewer can’t see you, they will be able to hear this body language in your tone of voice.

Stand up and walk around the room while you are talking.

Have good posture.

And, most importantly, SMILE while you are on the phone.

No one can see your smile, but they can certainly hear it and it will make you seem much more likeable.

And, more likeable means more likely to move on to the next stage of the interview process.

10. You can’t be seen as a serious professional with your dog barking in the background.

This should be a given, but it’s included here because it is very important.

Do not have your phone interview outside, next to a busy street.

Find somewhere quiet to have your phone interview.

High levels of background noise are distracting and can actually cause the interviewer to misunderstand you.

A noisy background means that the interviewer has to work harder to understand you and makes the experience less enjoyable for them.

Having a noisy background is like showing up to an interview with a stain on your shirt.

Sure, it really has nothing to do with your ability to do the job, but that stain is distracting and makes you look bad.

A noisy background makes you look unorganized.

So, prepare a quiet place in advance where you know you can go to have your phone screen.

A phone screen is the first step toward getting a job offer. It’s the first time you will interact with the company as a job candidate. So, be prepared by following these tips: remember, it’s not just a casual conversation, you are not guaranteed advance notice of a phone screen, keep your audience in mind, ask someone else if you sound happy and confident on the phone, prepare answers to common interview questions, practice your interview questions out loud, understand that salary negotiations have already begun, ask questions about the role or company, stand up while you are on the phone, and go somewhere quiet for your interview. As a PhD, you are a great industry job candidate, but you must communicate that to your interviewers at every step along the application process.

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Jeanette McConnell, PhD

Jeanette McConnell, PhD

Jeanette is a chemistry PhD turned science communication enthusiast. During her PhD she realized that her favorite part about research wasn’t actually doing research, but rather talking and writing about it. So, she has channeled her passion for discovery into teaching and writing about science. When she isn’t talking someone’s ear off about her latest scientific obsession, you’ll find her on the soccer field or reading a good sci-fi novel.
Jeanette McConnell, PhD