Making the best whiteboard "chalk talk" for a faculty interview
September 7, 2011 6:46 PM   Subscribe

Please suggest ways to make the best possible whiteboard "chalk talk" for a biological sciences faculty position interview at a research university in the U.S. The style of the chalk talk can vary widely by institution, and this handout describes some formats and has some suggestions. In practicing, I realize I have trouble writing legibly and remembering not to stand in front of what I've written, so I would especially love specific suggestions to address those issues.
posted by grouse to Work & Money (3 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I mostly agree with the suggestions in the PDF, although I think they muddied the waters by including suggestions for a PowerPoint talk, which in my opinion is a completely different thing. Here's what I would add:

In my experience, the chalk talk is a followup to a wider-audience slide-based presentation. That's the background for what I write below.

You want to transfer the energy and fun of describing your science one on one to someone at a conference that is wider than your field but where you can still assume some shared concepts.

The point of a chalk talk (besides knowing your material without slides, of course) is to show that you are part of a shared culture of academic (molecular) biology that goes back a few decades. The important aspects of this are: enthusiasm (smile of course, and smiling over your shoulder while pausing in a drawing or erasing a mistake is perfect), egalitarianism (be sure to answer questions from younger audience members as well as the big guns), and thoughtfulness (it's fine to think for a few seconds before answering a question - smile and make eye contact before looking away to think - because the interesting question has made your day (but I find "That's an interesting question!" to be pandering and cliche)).

I would not worry so much about writing legibly. I would instead concentrate on drawing simple ideograms for your core concepts. Think Venn diagrams, flow charts, blobs for proteins and lines for nucleic acids.

I should re-emphasize that the above assumes that you've had a chance to show publication quality data via slides or otherwise. So they know what you can do already. But will they enjoy dropping by your office to talk science with you? That's what a chalk talk can convince them of.

Good luck, and congratulations on getting to this step!
posted by Jorus at 2:13 AM on September 8, 2011 [2 favorites]

Ask the chair of the search committee ahead of time for info on what's expected. I haven't done many chalk talks, but my previous R1 institution used them. The idea was to allow followup questions on the formal seminar but mostly to hear about the candidate's expected first grant application. Where you're going to submit it, what program/panel, what's the idea, what preliminary data you need.

One colleague would always let the candidate blather about their general research interests for about 10 minutes, then bust out "OK that sounds interesting, but how do you expect to get funded to do X"? Somewhat jarring, but it's important and at least every candidate was directly asked. There were a number of clueless candidates whose answer was "I don't know". None were hired.
posted by Ian Scuffling at 8:49 AM on September 8, 2011

I believe your father has the same difficulties, perhaps they're inherited. When he notices them, he covers for them with jokes. If it's a choice between someone who really knows his subject and is interesting and enthusiastic while conveying it and a stiff with perfect handwriting who knows how to write backwards with one hand tied behind his back, most people will prefer the former to the latter -- unless they're stiffs themselves and then do you really want to work with them?

That said, there are two specific techniques that may help. First, prepare some backup posters on stuff you can reasonably predict that you will need to cover, and tape them to the board or a flip chart when you need to use them. This will reduce your dependence on your handwriting and minimize time with face turned away from the audience. I use backup PowerPoint charts for the same reason, but I always have a projector available (if you already have some backup charts, perhaps you can get them printed blown-up and save yourself the trouble of reproducing them by hand). Second, bring along some small cards with "DON'T TALK" written on them and distribute them unobtrusively in the chalk tray to remind you of proper board procedure. Actually, any little token will do as long as you associate it with the message. Eventually, you can train yourself to let the board itself be the token, and then you're laughing.

The handout says to "be yourself," and that's what's important. Don't worry about perfect form, don't worry about knowing the answers to all the questions, don't worry about anything. Just enjoy the opportunity to discuss the subject you've spent the last 13 years studying, and which you love enough to want to devote your career to it. You'll do fine.
posted by ubiquity at 5:13 AM on September 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

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