ProTips for academic job talks
October 29, 2011 6:06 PM   Subscribe

Best job talk ever! Dear academic MeFites, please share your best tips for job talks.

Specific concerns:

- How much time dedicated to the dissertation (I'm done, so I would assume that someone ABD would spend time emphasizes how accomplishable things are for him/her)?
- If one has moved beyond the diss, how much time dedicated to current project?
- How much time discussing immediate future plans/research agenda?
- If the department is mixed methodologically, how much do you play to your dominant methodological side versus keeping the group happy?

Frequently asked questions to prepare for?

What are the best things that you've seen people do (or done yourself)?
What are the worst things that you've seen people do?

Let's assume the basics are covered - don't read from the PowerPoint, not too crowded on the slides, drink water from a cup, smile, don't act like a grad student, etc.
posted by k8t to Education (20 answers total) 44 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: I'm a social scientist, mostly quant, btw.
posted by k8t at 6:11 PM on October 29, 2011

High on our list would be: Do what the department tells you to do. We have specific guidelines for topics and delivery, and get a little exasperated when they're ignored.

Do not talk down to the department. (Candidates sometimes make assumptions about who is teaching at a comprehensive college or other non-research-oriented institution. You want to avoid those assumptions.)

If you're going to use any kind of electronic media, make sure that it works beforehand.

There is nothing worse than an unrehearsed presentation. You should have run through it often enough that you are relaxed and comfortable. If you're reading a paper, you should be familiar enough with it that you can occasionally look up and make eye contact. By the same token, be sure that you're sticking to the time limit, lest you cause stifled fury amongst your audience.

Try not to become visibly irritated if someone shoots antagonistic questions your way (speaking as someone who once neglected to follow that advice...).

Are there going to be teaching questions at your presentation? It's a good idea to have mapped out an intro class, an advanced class, and a graduate seminar, so that you can immediately discuss textbooks &c.
posted by thomas j wise at 6:22 PM on October 29, 2011 [3 favorites]

In my field, all the job talks I have seen are similar to conference presentations (but longer) in that they focus on the candidate's current and future research, presenting RESULTS and why they matter. The only sense in which you would focus on "how accomplishable the dissertation is" is in that you would present the results you have in such a way that it looks like your research is done. All tied up. No huge loose ends, except for "future research" topics. You wouldn't be talking explicitly about where you were in the process.

I recently gave a job talk and I, and from what I hear the other candidates also, spent about 5-10% of the time at the end talking about what we planned to move into working on in the future, and how our research agendas would broaden in this new position. But mostly it was what we were currently doing.

I SAW a job talk once that went down very badly because the candidate talked about a completed research project only, and it was clear it had been wound up a year or more ago, and he gave no sense of what there was left to work on. So we ended up having no idea what he would be working on if he came here.

My own job talk was criticized as being "too confident". I.e. apparently I didn't hedge my results enough or talk about potential other interpretations. I think that's a matter of department culture - whether they prefer confidence or reserve. I also played up the quant/stats part of my research, because I thought that was a strength I would bring to the dept. They are mixed methodologically too, and the stats people are in the minority. This was a mistake. People who don't do quant stuff really don't understand it, even if you try to explain it simply, so half the room missed some of my important points. If I'd underplayed that stuff, everyone would have followed the whole thing. The advice I've seen is that all but 1 or 2 of your slides should be interpretable by everyone present, and then you can throw in 1 or 2 to show that you can do the complicated stuff that not everyoen else can. Unfortunately in my case, those 1 or 2 slides are what people focused on and led to them deciding I was not a good fit.

Finally, I also tried to dumb things down a bit much, I think.

The person who got the job gave a terrible talk, from what I hear, in terms of communicating. Her slides were complicated and over full. She read a lot of it off the powerpoint. She mumbled and blushed and didn't answer questions well. But her research was a good fit.

The lesson to be drawn from that is probably that the job talk is not the be all and end all, and although you should try to do a great job, if you feel that it didn't go as well as it good, don't panic - you could still get the job!
posted by lollusc at 6:26 PM on October 29, 2011

In my experience, the job talk is mostly about them meeting you, and less about your actual research--they already have a sense about that from your application. What you should worry about most of all is making the talk interesting. Whether it's focused on stuff you did earlier vs. later is not all that important, as long as you make it engaging. A good idea would be to look up the exact interests of the people in the audience and tailor your talk as much as possible to them. (So if you think that they'd be more interested in your dissertation, as opposed to what came later, then focus on the dissertation.) While listening to your talk, they will also probably be evaluating you on your teaching ability. So being very clear would probably score you more points than trying to impress them with the depth of your research, if that means giving a talk that's not understandable to most of your audience.

If the department is mixed methodologically, how much do you play to your dominant methodological side versus keeping the group happy?

You should focus on making the whole group happy, as much as possible. The people in your specific area are already interested in you, if you got invited. The main battle is getting the rest of the department on your side.
posted by epimorph at 6:28 PM on October 29, 2011

Have a technology backup plan. There is nothing worse than seeing some poor person frozen in place because their laptop won't connect, the film clip won't play, or the slides aren't working. Be ready to give the full talk with no A/V.

And don't be all self-deprecating and down on yourself. Maybe the one thing that is actually worse than the person crushed by A/V problems is the person who keeps apologizing for the talk, their research, their preparation, and everything else. (Things like, "I had meant to work more on this slide, but...") A little confidence goes a long way.

For what it's worth, the worst job talk I ever saw was a person who was pretty clearly fraudulent -- it became immediately apparent that at the very least he had had significant help writing his application materials, and probably the dissertation as well. He more or less stumbled through the talk (about as well as I would if you handed me your notes five minutes before the talk, say), but the Q&A session was so awful that the moderator mercifully closed things off after only a couple of questions. The dinner with the search committee immediately afterwards was probably the most awkward and uncomfortable hour I have ever experienced. So no matter how badly things go for you, you can take heart that you are not that guy.
posted by Forktine at 6:33 PM on October 29, 2011

Response by poster: To make clear - I'm not ABD. I'm done and working on a new project. My dissertation was wrapped up nearly a year from when I'd be giving a talk.

I'd rather talk about my new project (which was an extension of my dissertation) than my dissertation (which was many stages and many studies), is that okay? I think that I can pretty well explain what my dissertation established, what the current project is, and what the next project will be in one job talk. (They're all really part of a larger research agenda.)
posted by k8t at 6:37 PM on October 29, 2011

We tend to focus on
(1) Does the candidate know what they are talking about - which is probably related mainly to your dissertation research
(2) Does the candidate have a plan - which relates to your 5-year research plan and how you are developing your dissertation research, to build a longer-term agenda
(3) Is the research fundable - and with which agencies/programs? - this tends to be an increasingly important issue for many University departments.

Make sure that you cover enough "scholarly" stuff - the theoretical basis for your work, the citations that you draw upon, your own contributions and accomplishments, and how you plan to change the field.

Present as if your audience are experts in the field. I once really fluffed an interview by treating the audience as novices in this area and talking through my journey to the position I was in now. Bad move - always treat your audience as experts an don't dumb it down - they will ask questions if they are not.

Go through the list of existing faculty and identify how you could work with various people in the department. Make sure that you get to meet with these people - they will be your raving fans. I'm convinced that I got a job because I produced a marked-up list of faculty with notes about common interests, in my last interview with the Dean.
posted by Susurration at 6:38 PM on October 29, 2011

All good advice up there. Especially the bit about following the instructions.

That said (unless contradicted in your case) for me, the best talks are the ones that start off nicely explaining the concepts so I know why the work is important then smoothly go up a gear or to to give a full "research level" talk: show your best thoughts, your best work. Do not hold back, do not whatever you do talk down to your audience. Not only do you not know who might be in your audience on the day, but also: we usually want to hire people who do things we can't do in the department right now. Don't fall into the trap of pretending you aren't one.
posted by cromagnon at 7:05 PM on October 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

I come from an interdisciplinary field, and so job talks in my department were all over the map. So there have been presentations on decision theory heavy on math, human-computer interaction with lots of demo videos, or analysis of some historical event. But, what the ones that everybody agreed were good ones had in common was in telling an engaging, coherent story.

Whether they emphasized their dissertation research or research post-dissertation depended on where they were in the process. There were some job candidates who were already assistant professors or postdocs whose job talks were not well-received because they spent most of the time talking about current research projects which had not yielded any results yet. Another candidate spent so much time talking about their future research plans that they left the audience confused as to what they had already done and what they planned on doing, and comments later were critical of their lack of results. So as others have said, present your best work, but as a coherent story. Be cautious about presenting current work if you don't have any results yet. Do not spend too much time on methodology unless your contribution is a methodogical one.

The candidates who did an exceptionally good job of presenting quantitative research presented the material in such a way that the math "snuck up" on you. And, you were still able to get the gist of what they were saying even if you didn't quite follow the 1 or 2 equation-heavy slides.
posted by needled at 7:20 PM on October 29, 2011

If the talk is at a teaching-oriented small school, make an effort to really engage the questions of undergrads who attend the talk. That's the worst screw-up I've seen at a job talk -- someone giving a talk at a prestigious small liberal arts school who took questions from the senior undergrad majors and basically blew them off because they weren't sufficiently high-end questions. It was glaringly obvious that he didn't want to teach undergrads, and he didn't get the job even though his work was very well-regarded.

If your talk will be partly to undergrads, be ready to handle their questions seriously and gracefully. (You might try to give practice versions of the talk to an audience similar to the audience you'll have - eg if you're aiming for small schools, see if you can give your talk to a mixed audience of faculty and undergrads beforehand.)
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:49 PM on October 29, 2011 [2 favorites]

And in my field, the job talk should be some nicely-sized chunk of important work that leads to a satisfying result. Explain why it's important, a bit of background maybe including other people's approaches and why they're flawed, give your argument/experiment/result, describe your conclusion, describe its implications or your next steps, the end. This could be your diss, or the project after your diss, or one of the dozens of other projects you've done if they are meaty enough to take this form. Pick whichever will be most important/surprising in a scholarly sense, or most interesting for undergrads if your audience is mainly undergrads.
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:53 PM on October 29, 2011

Make sure that your talk is precisely timed so that it doesn't go over, and prepare for even curveball questions during the Q and A. I have heard colleagues speak about how important it is for a candidate to cordially stand their ground, not conceding too much if the question doesn't warrant undue capitulation. I also know that I lost a job once because I was startled in a Q and A by an angle of questioning I didn't expect.

If you can gather together your friends in the field and give a mock talk to them, asking them to brainstorm difficult questions, that could really help you to shore up any vulnerabilities. I think the most important thing I learned from my mock talk is that I was a good 12 minutes overtime, and needed to trim out a bunch of information.
posted by umbĂș at 8:23 PM on October 29, 2011

Matt Might's advice is good. (And not just that article, the S/N ratio on his blog is very good.
posted by caek at 8:24 PM on October 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

It is entirely possible that the following might be field-specific, but . . .

Do NOT just say "I'll get to it" if someone asks a question "too early" during the talk. Assuming you are going to get to it, still try to give a very high level answer and then explain how/when/why you'll go into the details later on. Crafting a narrative with a logical flow does give a great backbone to a talk, but if you're not flexible enough to address questions when they arise, it makes you look like you don't know your stuff outside the talk, and frustrates the heck out of the question-asker.

This is particularly important for fields where you've sent an advance copy of your paper, or where your stuff is already published, because while many won't have read it, some will. And those are the people who could be the most instrumental in getting you hired.
posted by synapse at 8:29 PM on October 29, 2011

Great advice so far, but I guess more is better.

Before the talk.

1. Watch lots of job talks. You'll be able to figure out what goes into a great job talk (you should have already done this if you've finished your PhD).

2. Practice, practice, practice, and practice in front of as many audiences as possible. Ask lots of people in the department watch you as you give your talk. Ask them to treat it like a friendly talk, ask them to treat it like a hostile talk, and ask them to treat you like they're bored. Have them ask easy, hard, and impossible questions. The more you practice, the more comfortable you'll be and the better your talk will be.

3. Video-tape your talk at least once. It's very uncomfortable to watch yourself on video---except, interestingly enough, if you're a narcissist)---but you'll discover many bad habits that you want to correct.

4. My experiences suggest that every department has one person who always asks a similar tough question to every applicant (though the question may change from year to year). If you have a good network, somebody should pass along information about what that question is to you. For example, when I was a grad school, one of the faculty members would always ask if there was an "endogeneity problem" even if there was no endogeneity problem. I think he just liked to see how people handled the question.

During the talk

1. Nobody who asks you a question wants to be told that they're "wrong." For example, at a colleague's job talk, somebody suggested using a methodology that was wildly inappropriate for the research. Rather than say that, my colleague said that he considered the proposed methodology, but decided to use his methodology for a variety of reasons (which he then explained). Answering the question in this way allowed the questioner to save face (the questioner realized his mistake soon after asking the question), showed that my colleague wasn't an asshole, and also suggested that he thought deeply about the methodological decisions that went into his research.

2. Sometimes you'll get an audience member who really likes asking a question and won't let you go on with your talk. Since the timing of the talk is your responsibility, you can't let yourself get completely stalled. In these situations, the best thing to do is to say that this is to say something like, "I think you're making a lot of good points and I'd like to talk more about this with you. If it's at all possible, do you think we could take this conversation off-line? I want to make sure that we have enough time to talk about some of the other aspects of the research." Tabling a discussion in this way will keep your talk on track and also show that you have classroom management skills.

3. A great way to buy more time when you're asked a tough question is to rephrase the question and ask the questioner if you understand it correctly. This is a stalling tactic, but it also shows that you listened to the questioner and respect them.

4. Results matter. Yes, it's science and good science can sometimes lead to null results, but please don't present null results at your job talk. it's just less satisfying that way.

5. Everybody who is going to make a decision about your application knows (or will know) where you went to school and who you've worked with. The talk should be about your awesome research program.

6. Only present research that you know deeply. You might be bored with your dissertation, but it's easier to get excited about your dissertation again than to get a deep level of knowledge about a research program you have not yet mastered.

7. Discuss exciting future directions. The department is going to bet on your future so make it seem like a good bet.

8. Fit matters, so be yourself. There are many different subcultures in academia and you want one that you'd fit in. I love my department culture---everybody is treated exactly the same way, regardless of whether they're a first year doctoral student or the department chair---and I think that we started to realize that there was a great fit during the job talk.

9. Job talks are more likely to ruin people's chances than win them the job. If you got a talk, it looks like you're above the bar. The job talk is a chance to show that this is true. Don't go overboard and try to prove you're much better than your record. If you show that your record is no fluke, you'll probably get an offer at one of the places you interview.

10. Smile and be extremely positive. Emotions are contagious and people will remember if they felt good during your talk. :)

And that, by far, is my longest metafilter comment.
posted by eisenkr at 8:54 PM on October 29, 2011 [8 favorites]

Lots of things are field-specific, but if were already holding a phd in my field, I'd agree that making your new project your job talk is smart... iff you have some good results, anyway.

How much time dedicated to the dissertation

I'd suggest very little. In the best of all worlds, basically start with the usual introductory dreck and "Today I'll be talking about X. This project grew out of my dissertation, which was completed last year and has seen pieces published in Journal and Journal." And that's pretty much it. My honest sense is that you can leave most anything else for questions.

I would absolutely *not* recommend including some discussion of the dissertation as intellectual history for where the new project came from. Nobody cares why you got idea X, or what inspired you to whatever -- whether that inspiration was someone else's work or your own. Go straight in -- here's this problem, here's briefly a demonstration that the lit doesn't address it (well enough), and here's me doing it.

The only reason I'd suggest mentioning the dissertation at all, if it's not the focus of your talk, is to remind people who aren't on the committee that You. Are. Done.

If one has moved beyond the diss, how much time dedicated to current project?

Your job talk should be about a single project, ideally pretty much done but not yet accepted somewhere. So if it's about your current project, it should be almost entirely devoted to that project.

How much time discussing immediate future plans/research agenda?

In my field, I'd suggest around five minutes but be prepared for more questions about it.

If the department is mixed methodologically, how much do you play to your dominant methodological side versus keeping the group happy?

The right thing to do here will depend on the department's personality and the department's politics. It might be that this is a happy, unified department and the right thing to do is for you to try to keep the group happy. It might be that the department has some methodological divides and the way to appeal to the people actually making this decision is to be full-on hardcore quant in the talk. No way to know, but I'd suggest asking your mentors or other people you trust what might be going on in the department.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:34 PM on October 29, 2011

Other notes:

With quant results, don't just throw up the regression table (or whatever). You'll need to have slides with the full results on them, but they go *after* the end of the talk so you can turn to them for any questions about specifics. In the talk itself, you want simple, pithy summaries of the results.

Remember that you are a Bad-Ass Motherfucker. Seriously: k8t, Bad-Ass Motherfucker. If you lose your wallet, people will easily find it because it's the one that says Bad Mother Fucker on it. You know more about this shit than, probably, everybody else on the entire fucking planet, and you get to own that room for however long your talk is. That doesn't mean you can't hedge or talk about other interpretations, as someone noted above -- but it does mean that when you hedge or talk about other interpretations, it's from the perspective of an absolute stone-cold expert on this shit. If you are invited to a job talk it is because you are already a Bad-Ass Motherfucker.

The worst of job talks... I was at the one where the candidate cracked a joke about rape and how they were wanted it. I missed the one where the candidate made what seemed like a simple verbal tic -- like at the level of "The president writes the laws" -- but when pressed about it by an undergrad, actually insisted that was true.

The actual worst job talk ever would be Very Bad Indeed. I fully expect that there have been more than five job talks in which the candidate got drunk and either groped someone in the talk, or whipped out his winky, or both. I would not be surprised to learn that there had been one job talk where, in the course of the interview, the candidate actually murdered someone in the department. There are threads on the CHE forums about the Worst Job Talks Ever, I'm pretty sure.

Only present research that you know deeply. You might be bored with your dissertation, but it's easier to get excited about your dissertation again than to get a deep level of knowledge about a research program you have not yet mastered.

I think the better response here is to have mastered the new project.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:47 PM on October 29, 2011 [2 favorites]

There's lots of great advice here. I especially like the idea of making sure you tell a coherent story, and adapting your talk to the different audiences. Along those lines, also adapt your talk to the *job ad* you answered. As you know, some ads are very kitchen sink approach, or very vague, so there you have a harder time because these ads might reflect that the department does not know exactly what it wants, or people are divided. In that case, your job is more about explaining how your research is both important to the field and to this department.

On the other hand, sometimes job ads look for very specific things, and in that case, you don't have to convince them that $thing is important, but that you are awesome at $thing. As an example, we hired in a very specific sub-field last year, and one candidate spent waaaaaaaay too much time talking about why the sub-field was important to the study of the discipline. And the whole time I'm thinking, "yes, we know, that's why we want to hire someone in this area." It
took away valuable time from talking about the person's actual research.

Most of this advice assumes giving a research talk at a research oriented institution. In my experience, job talks at teaching institutions tend to be very different. Often you will be asked to teach a class or cover something specific, rather than talking about your own work.
posted by DiscourseMarker at 10:42 PM on October 29, 2011

Make sure that you cover enough "scholarly" stuff - the theoretical basis for your work, the citations that you draw upon, your own contributions and accomplishments, and how you plan to change the field.

There is a very fine balance between show and tell. The most boring / bad job talks I've been too spent an inordinate amount of time on old basic stuff that was way below the level of the people they were speaking to. It is important that you demonstrate that you have a good conceptual understanding of why you did what you did rather than just being someone else's RA, but that doesn't need to be inordinate background. It is fine to show the empirical result early and build up an understanding of it.

With quant results, don't just throw up the regression table (or whatever). You'll need to have slides with the full results on them, but they go *after* the end of the talk so you can turn to them for any questions about specifics. In the talk itself, you want simple, pithy summaries of the results.

I like when there are neatly labeled handouts. If you have a table with 25 numbers on a slide, about which you have 2 interesting things to say, someone will drag you back to that slide when they have processed something.

Unless your project is about methodology, it is nice, even if you have used very sophisticated methods, to present the underlying insight with very simple ones and regard the complicated methods as backup. If you have used complex methods, you must have a bullet-proof 1 minute summary especially if they seem too good to be true given the output of simple methods. Eg, somebody in the room will never have heard of what you did with missing data and will ask you a naive question to which you need a useful answer.

If your project is about methods, life is hard. Don't put proofs on a slide, nobody can follow that. Show the intuition that made you look there and guided you to the right tools, not the standard way you'd write it up for a journal (which goes for brevity and generality at the price of clarity).

The actual worst job talk ever

Someone was asked a softball high-level question by my department chair and declined to answer. As suggested above, do not give the pure blow-off even if tempting. Know who the people in the room are.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 10:25 AM on October 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

I went on the academic job market two years in a row. What didn't seem to work for me, the first year, was a talk that recapitulated my research achievements in a way that kind of emphasized the things I had spent the most time on and was most familiar with...

The second year, I totally redrafted the job talk to frame the singular result of highest impact from my research experience, framing that result within the past 30 years of research in this area and showing persuasively how this was a paradigm shifting singular result.

I think that result got lost in the noise the first time I went out on the job market. The second time, I cranked up the signal to noise ratio surrounding what is the most important thing I've done, and it worked quite well, in that I got a job that 2.5 years in I still consider a dream-job.
posted by u2604ab at 10:32 PM on October 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

« Older Can I smoke on the stairs across from my apartment...   |   The one with the turtle ride? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.