Half-Hour Zoom Call: the Modern Interview Process

Photo Credit: Ben Pauley

Coming up on what will be my last spring break for the foreseeable future, I have transitioned from a meager job inquiry to a full-blown job hunt. I fleshed out my Handshake account and created a LinkedIn profile stating that I seek employment. The latter was something I so strongly associated with “adulting” that I had never before seriously considered the fact that I would one day have to do it. Without solid plans for where I will live this summer and perhaps beyond, the scope of the process is terrifyingly broad. Do I fill out internship applications for labs in Arizona and Hawaii? Look into getting teaching-certified in my home state? Hunt for monthly lease apartments in eastern Pennsylvania? I don’t know, but I am thankful I can move back in with my parents while I get things sorted out after school. This parachute cord feels more and more enticing to pull with each passing day. However, this anxious process has not been without its successes: most importantly, the interviews I managed to land. Each has been its own challenge, but I’d like to highlight three that left me with a different perspective after each one.

I killed the first interview, but it was a ten-minute phone call asking me to schedule a time for an actual interview later. Five of those minutes were taken up by having to resend them my resume (which I already sent them, but it’s fine, I’m not annoyed) so they could look over it. In that call, the organization also rerouted my application to an entirely different position than the one I initially applied for. It was a downgrade, too: I went from being considered for an assistant teacher position to a summer camp counselor. At this point, I figured I’d just do the actual interview anyway to build up some interview experience, but I was not going to get a job out of this. 

A week later, when the actual interview was scheduled, it was a half-hour Zoom call, to which I wore a button-up shirt and a sportcoat while my interviewer wore a t-shirt with the name of the summer camp on it. He asked me about my experience as a summer camp counselor; I asked him about the average day on the job — the usual interview questions. Toward the end, I asked him about the management structure, to which he responded by saying I would be reporting to a head counselor who would be a previous counselor with a summer or two under their belt. I thought that was fine until he offhandedly mentioned that the usual age at which people apply to be counselors is fifteen or sixteen. Call me an ageist, but there’s something about the prospect of having a seventeen-year-old boss as a twenty-two-year-old that rubs me the wrong way. So I thanked him for the interview and decided I made the right call when I told myself I wouldn’t take anything this organization offered me.

The second interview was awkward. I don’t even know if it was supposed to be a formal interview because the Zoom invitation the organization had sent me listed it as a “conversation.” I had talked at length with a representative of this organization in person already, so I figured we had gotten past the chatting phase and were onto the “should we hire this guy” phase, but I guess I was mistaken. It was scheduled for half an hour, which I figured would be primarily questions about my previous experience, what drew me to apply, describing a challenge I had to overcome, etc. Instead, it was a five-minute pitch of the organization itself, followed by the “interviewer” inviting me to ask her questions with the remaining 25 minutes. 

I was lost there. My parents and school career counselors had told me it looks unprofessional to have no questions for the interviewer at the end (I even got a B on a mock interview I did in high school speech class for failing to ask a follow-up question). Still, I hadn’t prepared myself for the possibility that I would be the one doing the interview. After exhausting my stock interview follow-up questions (“What does an average day in this position look like,” “What is a problem that recently occurred, and how was it handled,” “What is the management/reporting structure,” etc.), I stumbled and stammered through coming up with more questions until I finally landed on the one that sealed my decision: “What is the compensation like?” The answer to this was disappointing. I would be making just over minimum wage for full-time employment; that alone isn’t the worst for an entry-level position, but I would also be expected to pay tuition for graduate classes I’d be taking alongside the job. Annual tuition added up to more than my annual salary. I didn’t sign off right then for professionalism’s sake, but that turned a curious maybe into a hard no.

The last interview I want to highlight was funny and stressful at the same time. It was for a field I had no experience in, investment analysis, but they thought my resume looked good. And who am I to judge? I’m just some guy without any experience in the field. Unlike the previous half-hour Zoom calls, this one featured two interviewers. Wanting to feel that this was an in-person interview, I adjusted my display settings to “Gallery” to feature both of them simultaneously. However, this made me feel targeted, as I had visually transformed a conversation into a crossfire where I could never be sure from which direction on the screen the next question would come. It also didn’t help that they set it up almost as a good cop/bad cop scenario with a middle-aged man hitting me with tough questions while a woman, maybe just a few years older than me, reassured me that there would be ample time to learn skills on the job, so I shouldn’t be worried about my background. 

The funny parts came up a little way into the interview. The first one was when the male interviewer inquired about my time as a Residential Assistant (RA) and if I learned any valuable skills doing that. I have never worked in any capacity as an RA. So, I suppressed my smile as I clarified that, on my resume, I listed my former occupation as “Peer Assistant,” not “Residential Assistant,” before talking about what I did as a physics/astronomy photon. The other funny incident of note happened at the very end, with maybe three minutes left on the Zoom meeting countdown, as we had gone over time. The interviewer looked at my resume and said, “It says here that you’re majoring in Astronomy. Is that right? I’ve had this question for a while that I was hoping you could answer for me: what’s on the other side of a black hole?” That took me off guard, and I couldn’t suppress my smile before answering. I told him that the singularity, the point of infinite density and spacetime curvature predicted to be at the center of black holes, was physically impossible and that the equations that describe what is happening there break down at extreme values. He told me that it sounded like I paid attention in class. I passed this story along to an astronomy professor here at Swarthmore, who gave me some of the best interviewing advice I have ever received. He told me that while my answer was perfectly reasonable and honest, the real trick to landing jobs if I ever get asked astronomy questions in interviews (especially about flashy pop-science topics) is to say: “Sure, I could tell you. But only after you hire me.”

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