The dreaded phone call: what to ask when you call an employer about a job

by Dr Amy Bohren

On a Facebook group I’m part of, a PhD candidate recently explained that she felt trepidatious about calling an employer to enquire about an academic job she was really interested in. Let’s call her Jane. The problem was that Jane wasn’t sure whether her field of research was suitable to the project concerned, but she was quite confident she had the methodological experience they were after. This is a common problem, and to be honest, after many years of calling employers to ask for more information about job ads, I still wish I didn’t have to do it. And I’m an extravert. Ok, I’m an ambivert. But still.

Why call

The most important part of introducing yourself to a potential employer is to get on their radar. Research into employment interviews shows that although people on selection panels often believe they’re objective in choosing candidates, in fact, findings show they are only human and often choose people they like and/or who are like them (Rivera, 2015). So by speaking to the contact person, you’re giving them an opportunity to get to know you, and are already making a better impression than everyone else who applies, but hasn’t taken the time to make contact. If the contact person likes you and believes (from what you’ve said) that you would be suitable for the job, they will likely keep an eye out for your application and tell others on the selection committee that they spoke to you and were impressed.

Another reason to call is to find out whether the job really is what you think it is. It’s important to remember that job ads are just that – ads. The organisation and manager are trying to make a good impression and attract interest in the position from highly qualified and experienced candidates. They are also trying to make the job sound interesting, when it may not be. So be sure to prepare some questions that probe a bit deeper. You will want to know the background to the role, whether it’s new or (tactfully) why the last person left, and what a day in the role might look like.

By finding out why the last person left, and asking questions about the workplace culture or team, you should be able to get a hint about what the management is like. One of the top reasons people leave jobs is not related to the job itself, but rather to the management. If the contact person is also the manager, having a chat is a great way to get an inkling about whether you could work happily with them. Also bear in mind that managers also move on from time to time, and you may not end up working for the same person throughout your tenure, so the job will need to be interesting enough to sustain you.

Like Jane, having read the job ad and position description, you may not be convinced that you’re sufficiently interested and/or whether you’re qualified or experienced to do the job – ultimately, whether or not you should apply. This brings us back to Jane’s question, so the next section provides some practical suggestions.

When to call

If you’re like most people, you’ll leave the phone call until the final days before applications close. Be aware, however, that the contact person is likely to be very busy doing their usual job and fielding enquiries from other applicants, and may not be able to get back to you in time. My suggestion would be to call at least a week prior to the job closing, to allow them time to get back to you, and this will give you a few days to apply what they’ve told you to your application documents. The contact person may also be travelling for work or unexpectedly on personal leave, and only available via e-mail. So if you don’t receive a response to your voicemail, be sure to e-mail them too, explaining that you left a message and thought e-mail might be more convenient for them. Give them your phone number and ask them to call you in response.

What to say

Take some time to think about what you’d like to ask before you call, and write down your questions, so you remember them, and be ready to take notes. Then follow these steps:

Introduction:“Hello, my name is Jane Smith. I’m calling about the position of Research Fellow in [insert department/discipline] that you advertised online recently.”

Be considerate of their time: “Are you able to talk at the moment, or have I caught you on the way to a meeting/lecture?”

Questions:Here are some ideas:

  • About your suitability:“I can see in the position description that you’re looking for someone with a background in health sciences, and my research focuses on the sociology of health, with a specialisation in using grounded theory and individual interview methods. More specifically, my thesis focuses on [insert a sentence about your thesis topic in easily understandable language].” Do you think my background would be suitable for the role, or are you looking for someone with a health promotion/[insert other] background?
  • About the project: “I’d be really grateful if you could tell me what stage the project is up to at the moment. I understand you’ve secured funding and as part of that have likely prepared quite a detailed project proposal.” “Are there any particular priorities you’d like the successful applicant to focus on in the first three months of the role, or will this be up to them to determine?”
  • About the team:“Could you tell me a bit more about the research team? Is the culture already quite collegial and supportive, or is this something you’re working on?”

Of course, there are endless questions you could ask. The main point is to keep it positive, frame questions from a place of curiosity and if appropriate, ask follow-up questions or talk a little about your own experience. Also, don’t take up too much of the person’s time. 15 minutes would be a good amount of time to chat. If it goes longer than this, say something like “I don’t want to take up too much of your time. I have another two questions, if that’s ok?”.

Say thanks:“I appreciate you taking the time to talk to me.” [If you intend to apply:] “I’m really excited about/interested in the role and I’ll be submitting an application”.

Farewell:“Enjoy the afternoon [or some other pleasantry]. Bye.”

Do I have to call?

You may wonder whether you should bother to call, since you could just e-mail instead. Whilst an e-mail would still make a positive impression, and (if you’re lucky) the person might remember your enquiry, it will make a better impression if you call. It’s also worth noting that you’re more likely to get access to valuable ‘hot knowledge’ (Ball & Vincent, 1998) via a phone conversation, as you will have the chance to establish rapport. By contrast, in an e-mail exchange, the contact person is likely to be more formal and less open, because they don’t know you and the interaction is in essence, being recorded.

What next?

  • If you decide not to apply:That’s ok, and good thing you found out the job wasn’t suitable before you went to the effort of writing an application. If you got along well with the contact person particularly well, you may wish to add them to your contacts or follow them on LinkedIn or You never know when another, more suitable opportunity may arise.
  • If you decide to apply: Great! Go for it. Be sure to mention you had a conversation with the contact person in the letter of application.

Regardless of your decision, be sure to keep your notes on the conversation, in case you later enquire about another position with the same employer. It will give you insider information or at least a starting point for next time.

All the best with it! After a while the process does become easier. I’d love to hear about your experiences with making the dreaded phone call – what went well and what was difficult? Do you have any advice for others? You can comment on the Red Careers Facebook page.


With thanks to HG and CB, who provided thoughtful feedback on this post.

© 2020 Copyright - Red Careers