How to deliver a great academic job talk
April 2013 (perspective of a postdoc)
(This article is adapted from excerpts of Reflections on my tenure-track assistant professor job search.)
The job talk is the most important component of your faculty job interview.
Your One-Hour Audition
Your job talk is your one-hour audition for the role of a professor. Think of it like a music or acting audition, except here professors are your judges. By the end of your hour on stage, you need to get the professors in the audience so excited about the research you've done, so inspired by your future research vision, and so energized by watching your performance that they will be proud to call you a colleague.
This hour is often the first and only impression that many professors in the hiring department have of you, since many of them did not read your application materials and will not be meeting with you one-on-one. Thus, if you deliver an amazing job talk, then you have a fighting chance at an offer. But if your talk is mediocre, then many of the faculty will have already made up their mind not to give you an offer, and all subsequent meetings will just be polite formalities. As my friend eloquently told me while I was preparing for interviews, "Don't screw up your job talk; people will get really mad."
The first way to screw up is to exceed the time limit. People hate (hate, hate!) talks that run long. You might have a 75-minute slot at some schools and only a 50-minute slot at others. To be safe, your talk should take at most 45 minutes without interruptions. And you need to keep an eye on the clock so that questions from the audience don't eat up too much of your time. But you don't want to brush off questions, either. It's a delicate on-stage balancing act, which is impressive when done well.
The second way to screw up is to make your talk too dense and inaccessible to everyone except for experts in your own subfield. Rather, the target audience should be the majority of professors in the audience who probably know and care very little about your subfield. Teach them something interesting, and make them care! If a professor doesn't understand and get excited by your talk, then they aren't going to vouch for you when it comes time to vote on who gets an offer.
Now that you know what to avoid, let's discuss what makes a good job talk. There is a lot of advice online, so I'll try not to repeat what others have already written. In particular, I really liked Perfecting The Job Talk by John Eadie. Also, like Matt Might, I highly recommend reading Even a Geek Can Speak by Joey Asher. Although this book is mainly for corporate talks (i.e., "pitching to suits"), I still managed to transfer many of the tips into my academic presentations.
In short, your job talk needs to show that
I've ranked these requirements in increasing order of importance. Let's discuss each in turn:
1. Solid past research
Like any technical talk, you will spend the majority of your time presenting past research. The common wisdom is that you should start with the high-level motivation and then dive deep into one or two of your strongest projects, tied together by a common theme. I actually presented three projects since my third project transitioned well into future work, but I spent less time talking about that final one.
Even though your past research takes the most time to present, the specifics aren't too important as long as your technical content is strong. The department wouldn't have invited you to interview if they didn't respect your past research, so you don't need to "defend" its legitimacy like you would at, say, your Ph.D. quals or defense.
2. Compelling future vision
You should spend the final 10 minutes of your talk on future work. This part is, paradoxically, much more important than the 35 preceding minutes that you spent on past research. Huh?
The department isn't hiring you based on your past research. They're more interested in what new ground you might break in the future. The worst possible future work is simply extending your dissertation in incremental ways. Think far bigger! Pitch ideas that you don't yet know how to realize.
One hyperbolic way to plan your job talk is to design your first 35 minutes as a warm-up for the final 10 minutes of future work. I wouldn't wholeheartedly endorse this strategy, but it's food for thought.
3. Charismatic individual
The most important property of your job talk isn't what you say, it's how you say it. I know this sounds cheesy, but bear with me. The host department wants to hire a person, not a portfolio of research. Thus, your job talk is a one-hour live audition for yourself, not for your prior research.
The faculty want someone whom they would be proud to show off—an energetic and charismatic individual who can win prestigious grants, do research that leads to notable publications, serve as an inspiring teacher, mentor, and future leader, and bring greater visibility to their department and school. Your goal is to convince them that you're that person ... by delivering a 45-minute technical talk. Huh?
Think about it this way: An auditioning singer isn't judged on what song they sing, but rather on how they sing it; and an auditioning actor isn't judged on what lines they say, but rather on how they say it. By that same token, the technical content of your job talk serves as a vehicle for conveying your intellectual personality.
First, being an excellent public speaker is a prerequisite for on-stage charisma. If you're not already an excellent speaker, learn now! The time you invest will pay big dividends throughout your career. Nobody ever said, "Wow, I would've liked that talk more if the speaker weren't so poised and eloquent."
After you become an excellent public speaker, focus on empathy. Start with a genuine desire to connect and to help the audience understand your message. Don't just talk to them; connect with them. Don't rattle off a memorized speech like a well-rehearsed robot; inject your own personality throughout the talk to show that you can communicate like a real human being, not just as a talking research paper. The best academic speakers I've seen look like they're enthusiastically telling a fun story about their research to a group of friends, not like they're being judged by a panel of professors during an oral exam.
The final way to demonstrate charisma at your job talk is by gracefully handling interruptions and questions. Do you make your questioners feel respected, important, and intelligent? Or do you get all flustered, offended, and break down when challenged? How you field questions is a proxy for how you might deal with (potentially crabby) students and colleagues in the future.
When someone asks you a question, pay close attention and don't interrupt. The entire audience is staring at you as you listen to the question, so don't look annoyed, frazzled, grimace-faced, huffy, or nervous with closed body posture. Your questioner wants to learn more about your research, not to grill you. Even if they are firing up the grill on purpose, just pretend that they're genuinely curious. If you react defensively, then the audience will subconsciously pick up on your negative body language.
Job Talk Preparation
As soon as I received my first interview invite (in January 2013), I immediately scheduled three practice job talks—one per week—with trusted colleagues and friends. And then I got to work on creating the first draft of my PowerPoint presentation slides using my Ph.D. defense slides as a basis.
My first practice talk was a mess, but I could feel drastic improvements after each round of feedback and accompanying revisions. After the third major revision, I felt pretty confident about it. There's simply no substitute for practicing in front of critical yet supportive crowds who are willing to show you "tough love"—smacking you down with constructive critiques and then encouraging you to emerge stronger as a result.
In addition to practicing three times in front of audiences, I practiced the talk by myself around a dozen more times before my first interview. Before each subsequent interview, I usually practiced the first five minutes and the final ten minutes in my hotel room so that I could keep the beginning and ending sharp. However, I found it too tedious to do full practice runs before all of my interviews; I didn't want to risk getting bored with my own talk.
After several interviews, I made minor adjustments to my slides to clarify minor points. However, I avoided making major changes since I didn't want to lose the "muscle memory" gained from extensive prior practice. It's impossible to satisfy everybody with any given talk, and each audience will nitpick different parts. Thus, constantly tweaking your talk will do more harm than good.
In the end, I was very happy with my job talk. But after giving the same talk eight times, I was even happier about never having to give it again!
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Last modified: 2013-04-17