Ace the Academic Job Talk

After sending in your application materials and successfully completing a round or two of interviews, you’ll be invited for an on-campus interview. Most on-campus interviews include a job talk. To be successful in your job talk, preparation is key.

Read up on effective presentations.

In some disciplines, reading a research paper to an audience may be par for the course. But that doesn't make it an effective research presentation! If possible, attend job talks in your own field. With your advisor, discuss which presentations were effective (or ineffective) and why. If it’s been a few years since they’ve hired in your home department and you haven’t attended a job talk, ask your advisor about the expectations of a job talk in your discipline.

Use visuals thoughtfully.

How PowerPoint can distract your audience from your message.

How is a penguin like a dolphin? Use images to add interest to concepts like convergent evolution.

The visual elements of your presentation should support your talk—they are not the focus of the talk. If you use PowerPoint, keep the text to a minimum so as not to distract the audience. Here are some key principles: Title your slides and address one topic per slide. Use a maximum of seven bullet points per slide, and restrict bullet points to seven words or fewer. Only include your key points—think of them as if they were news headlines. There's no need to use complete sentences. Finally, use your visuals to set a comfortable tempo: as a general rule you should change slides every 30 to 90 seconds.

Graphs or images can help organize and propel your presentation, as long as they aren’t overly complicated. Use figures to explain your data as well as the trends and implications for your research. Title each graph and make sure that all parts of the graph are clearly labeled and readable from the back of the room.

An image can clearly and quickly illustrate differences or similarities at a glance; an image can also be used as a talking point or to provoke audience response about your research.

Plan for technology failure.

Technology can get the best of even the most seasoned presenter. Have handouts of any graphs or text that’s key for your talk. Should a projector not work or a computer crash, you’ll be able to continue with grace and leave the committee with a favorable impression of your ability to perform under pressure. An added bonus: Handouts will help your audience remember your presentation and provide them with space for notes.

Some selection committees might ask that you not use a PowerPoint-type presentation at all. What these selection committees are looking for is your ability to create presence via eye contact, enthusiasm for your topic, natural gestures and movement, room management, and the specific ways you make yourself both verbally and nonverbally accessible to your participants. If you’re precluded from using such programs, ask if you’ll be able to use the white board or handouts.

Be interactive.

Use effective teaching techniques to involve your audience. Be careful about treating your audience like a class, however. Rather than calling on audience members, try asking a question that asks for a show of hands, or note when you see varying reactions, including looks of confusion, without calling out an individual. Don’t say, “I see some of you are confused.” Instead, try, “Let’s look at this another way,” and presenting the material from a different perspective.

Know your audience.

Before your on-campus interview, do due diligence and research each of your future colleagues. Know their research interests and how your research fits into the program. You may be working in a sub-field with its own unique lexicon. Explain specific terminology without talking down to your audience. And remember that your audience includes not only future colleagues, but graduate and undergraduate students as well. Your research should be easy to understand and engaging for experts and non-experts alike.

Practice beforehand.

Give your talk in front of non-specialist friends and faculty in your department. Learn what’s effective in your presentation and what still needs work. Become comfortable with all parts of your talk. Practice will make you more comfortable and natural when you present for a new audience. Most job talks include a specific time limit, so also practice your time management when presenting to friends or colleagues. And don’t forget to show enthusiasm for your topic!

Brainstorm potential questions.

Once you’ve finished preparing your presentation, think about potential questions your audience may ask, especially those that often arise after you’ve explained a complex topic or operation. When you practice your talk, encourage your audience to ask questions. These can be earnest questions, questions asking you to clarify, or tangential questions designed to catch you off-guard. Practice answering each kind of question and maintaining poise—this will make your job easier when you are asked the real questions after your talk. In Grim Job Talks are a Buzz Kill, Dan Shapiro encourages presenters to be patient when answering questions. After all, the audience includes potential colleagues. Your ability to handle questions with diplomacy will be an asset to the department.

Create connections.

Use the question portion of your job talk to address potential connections between your research and other researchers’ work. Research faculty from the hiring department and from closely affiliated programs (check the department’s website—many programs list affiliated faculty and their home departments. These are the people who will most likely attend your talk). Knowing what they work on will help you connect your own research to what’s already being done at the university, and you can speak to how you fit in with other researchers as well as how your research is unique.

Know where your research is headed.

In the talk and during the questions afterward, you’ll want to make it clear that your research is not a dead end, but that you see the important research yet to be done. You’ll also be able to show your research agenda for the next few years. Indicating future research shows that you’re thinking ahead and being proactive about your career.

Sources:

Dan Shapiro (July 16, 2012). Grim Job Talks are a Buzz Kill. Chronicle of Higher Education.
Katharine E. Stewart (May 3, 2012). Talking the Good Talk. Chronicle of Higher Education.

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