The Academic Job Talk

Additional Resources

The Art of the Job Talk - by Prof Marilynn Johnson, - illustrates the difference between a research talk and teaching demonstration.

Acing the Academic Job Talk - by Diane Manuel, Stanford University.

The Job Talk: Strategies for Success - Humanities professors discuss job talk strategies, University of Michigan.

Rules for Science Job Talks - by Lynda F. Delph, Inside Higher Education.

Perfecting the Job Talk

From Professor John Eadie, Department of Wildlife, Fish & Conservation Biology, University of California, Davis

The academic job talk is probably one of most stressful parts of the job interview process and one of most important. Truly the job talk can make or break the interview.

Important Point: Some faculty will only go to your job talk (don't schedule interviews, or only do so after hearing the candidate). Hence, sometimes faculty members will base their entire decision on just the job talk and a review of your application packet.

What do they really want to know?

A common misconception is to view the job talk and interview as the process by which search committees assess the candidate's basic qualifications. It's not. Search committees have already evaluated your qualifications in the review of your application packet and by adding you to their short list. If you have been offered an interview, then the search committee has determined they think you HAVE the basic qualifications. So the screening and on-campus interviews are not about proving your basic proficiency, per se but convincing the search committee, faculty members and students that you are the right fit for their department.

The job talk then is about two things: Exploring the range and depth of your expertise. What they want to know is what underlies the knowledge, skills and experience indicated by your CV? Is your knowledge in your area deep or superficial, did you ride on your advisor's/labmates coattails, or they on yours? How broad is your range of interest and competence? Is there more than appears on your CV? Do you have even more talents? Are you a star in the making or a one-trick pony who does that trick well?

Therefore, though it may seem a minor distinction it is an important one for your mindset; you don't have to PROVE your competence. This is not a TEST or a combative exercise, even though it may feel that way sometimes. This is an opportunity show your excitement and ability to contribute & collaborate. You want to illustrate your range of abilities.

Take-home: The job talk is not a DEFENSE of your stated skills, but a demonstration of them.

The Job Talk

The job talk has three goals. They are to demonstrate:

  1. Teaching potential - skill in communicating and interpreting complex concepts.
  2. Research potential - skill as a critical and thoughtful thinker (especially your curiosity, ability to generate new and insightful perspectives.
  3. Collegiality - interpersonal skills; positive, friendly, constructive & collaborative.

The idea is to showcase who you are, not just as a researcher, but as a person. A job talk is not only about content, but about the person and their skill at presenting and exciting the audience about the content.

The Audience

Find out from search committee chair beforehand who will be in the audience. They could be:

  • Just colleagues in your general area (unlikely unless it is a huge department with very specific areas); colleagues in entire department (diverse) or colleagues from across campus (unlikely but possible if high prestige position)
  • Just faculty (unlikely), faculty + grad students (typical) or faculty + grad students + undergrads (asked or assigned)
  • Research position/school (more emphasis on content) teaching position (emphasis on presentation - how content presented).
  • General rule: "sophisticated, not specialized" - don’t assume your audience is in any way familiar with your work or area, but don't assume they are idiots either.
The Content of the Talk

Should illustrate all aspects of your work:

  1. Depth - the heart & soul of your work.
  2. Need to demonstrate that your work has addressed an important area, has done so with rigorous and perhaps novel methods, and that the results have shed new insight or given us new perspectives. What is your contribution and why important (need to be able to answer the question "SO WHAT?")
  3. Often is the core of your dissertation work.
  4. Don't try to present your entire dissertation - pick out one or two key elements (15 min each). Not the goal to tell all your story; better to provide succinct story that shows how you can think deeply and in a logical and critical way.
  5. Stick with what is familiar - don't present your risky, newest and most uncertain stuff (not as the meat of the talk at least). Stay on certain ground for the main talk.
  6. Breadth - also want to show that you are not just a one-trick pony.
  7. Have ability to think about other areas, other applications of your work, different hypotheses or research questions (illustrate ability to grow and think widely).
  8. This is where you might briefly touch on other chapters of your dissertation ("I've also looked at these other components...") or could talk about other research in which you have collaborated.
  9. Don't get too far off-topic (don't want to jump around and come across unfocused just to show how broad you are). But doesn't hurt to briefly indicate your other areas of interest and how they relate to your overall research program. Sometimes called the T-principle; vertical part of T is depth, top cross bar represents breadth.
  10. Future - Finally want to show that you have thought ahead.
  11. They will know what you have done from CV and from first part of talk. They also want to know what you will do.
  12. What are your next steps in your research program (Is there a future? How will it add to what you have already done? Is your work building to a crescendo or fizzling to an end?)
  13. Also - how will your work fit in with the department? Location? Facilities? Potential new collaborators (don't have to say explicitly, but should be obvious how your future work will integrate and complement).
  14. How and where will graduate students fit in? It is easy to overlook the fact that that this is an important transition you will be making - from student to mentor. So, it is not JUST about YOUR work anymore…what is future potential for new projects & students.
  15. DO YOU HAVE A RESEARCH PROGRAM, not just a research project?

Take-home: Demonstrate depth (30 min), breadth (10) and future potential (5-10 minutes).

Preparation & Presentation:
  • Practice is critical.
  • Practice out loud to yourself (to get content, flow & timing). Then in front of friends & colleagues. Ask them to be critical. Go through each part (each slide) and ask if it is needed, if sensible, if can be easily read and interpreted. Remake slides. Don't put too much information on each slide. Don't get cute with PowerPoint. Keep the focus on you and the content, not the jittering multi-color slide formats that PowerPoint allows.
  • DON'T use humor - let it come naturally if it does, but don't be cute or try to be funny. They are not hiring a comedian and there is NOTHING more deflating that to have a joke bomb early in the seminar. If you do use humor, save it to the end and keep it light.
  • Avoid jargon and acronyms. It doesn't demonstrate that you know anything more and it just excludes those who don't know the field (and makes you seem insecure and exclusionary). Remember the audience is evaluating you as a teacher, not just a hot-shot researcher who knows all the buzz words.
  • Keep to the time limits - better, keep it under time! There is a real temptation to want to show ALL that you have done and to eek out every possible minute. Don't! The best impression you can leave is to come across as respectful of other people's time and to be able to convey a message economically. They will love you if you finish early and it leaves more time for questions.
  • Check out the room in advance (know where light switch, slide projector etc.) is.
  • Plan for disaster (have overheads, make sure PPT works on the system they have, be able to talk if there is a jam etc.). Go to the room before your talk and do a run through if you can (at least make sure everything works).

Go to other JOB Talks - see what works and doesn't.

Questions & Answer

May be the hardest part. You are usually tired, unsure of what is coming and afraid to make a gaffe. Brilliant talks can be torpedoed by bumbling answers.

  • Anticipate questions (can even leave some obvious ones hanging…bait the audience although can be dangerous). Have colleagues go over the kinds of questions they would ask.
  • Take time to answer. Shows you are thoughtful and gives you time to make sure you understand the question. If not clear on exactly what they want, ask for clarification. Effectively, all those skills learned in prepping for oral qualifying exam.
  • Don't be afraid to say "I don't know. That's a great question and I'll have to think about it". Or, "that would be a great follow-up research project". Just don't do this too much.
  • Think of questions as part of a dialogue, not as criticism you must deflect. Treat every question seriously and with respect (even the really dumb ones).
  • Remember that YOU do have control of the Q & A session - you are not simply a victim thrown to the wolves. Be ready to steer questions to areas you want to talk about or to use questions as a way to talk about aspects of your talk that you did not have sufficient time for during the lecture. In all cases, be friendly, interested, and conversational, even if questioners become aggressive. In many ways, the Q&A session is more about HOW you deal with questions and questioners as it is on your answers, per se.
The Bottom Line

Ultimately, the best jobs talks are those that illustrate the following:

  • Energy and excitement about the work (can be contagious). You fell in love with this topic; why & how? Communicate this.
  • Organization and a logical flow (don't make the audience struggle to follow the flow).
  • Enough depth to show the significance of the work and make the audience believe it, but not so much as to bore the audience with unnecessary details that would be more suitable for a specialized audience.
  • Nice graphics (interesting slides, not just text). Don't let the medium become the message!
  • A personal presentation - evidence of the desire of the speaker to engage the audience, not impress them.
  • Don't worry about reaching every member of audience -- it has been estimated that even a great speaker on a great day doesn't reach 20% of audience. Aim for that 80%.

Finally, have fun. Really. What is the worst outcome? You received an expense-paid visit to a new school, met with interesting folks, impressed many (perhaps not all, but even if you don't get the offer, it doesn't mean you haven't made a mark), you are clearly in the running (since you were invited for an interview) and you probably have some great ideas on what to improve or modify for next time. The less you look on each job talk as a must-have, do-or-die situation, the greater the chance that you will be able to convey your true personality and enthusiasm. And that will go a long way in the final decision.