by Niklas Elmqvist, University of Maryland, College Park
So you have been invited to an interview for an academic position. How exciting! Typically such an interview will include you giving an academic job talk to your would-be colleagues. How do you even prepare to do such a thing? People give job talks and get hired all the time, so it can’t be rocket science, can it? Below I offer some advice on how to prepare for your own talk.
Why It’s Important
The very first thing to realize is that your job talk is the single most important part of your interview. Other people might disagree with me on this, but hear me out: it is so important because it is the only part of your interview that virtually everyone who is involved with your hiring will see. Only the search committee will have seen your application, so it doesn’t matter how well-crafted it is once it has served its purpose and gotten you invited for an interview. The 1-on-1 meetings or group meals? Only a few people will attend those, and so any highlights or gaffes during those have a smaller impact. Even those who cannot meet with you will attend your talk remotely, or watch a recording afterwards. Yes, of course the meeting with the department chair and/or the dean is vital, and sometimes you have a formal Q&A session with the search committee, but dollars to donuts, time spent improving your job talk will yield the best return on investment.
With that piece of sage advice, I am sure I have elevated the stress you feel towards the job talk a hundredfold; sorry about that. But the job talk is also an opportunity: it allows you to introduce yourself to people who don’t know you and to redefine yourself to those who do. I have seen many candidates that looked only so-and-so on paper turn the tables to become a favorite because of a fantastic job talk. I have also seen people who were a seemingly perfect fit based on their record crash and burn during their talk. Let’s not kid ourselves: it is a high-stress situation precisely because it’s so important. But what can you do about it? Read on.
Most job tasks are allocated a full hour, but the expectation is that you don’t speak for more than 45 minutes to leave time for questions and answers. Most attendees will have a schedule to keep, and thus will not be able to stay longer just because your talk drags out. Also remember that the job talk can be seen as a proxy for your teaching skills. If you are unable to keep to a specific time limit on such a well-rehearsed talk, what will you be doing to students when it comes to teaching your lectures? I don’t know about you, but when I was a student I was always stressed out by the bumbling faculty member who had no idea of the time.
Besides, brevity is important. You may have what you feel is a whole body of work and need time to develop your message, but remember that everyone gets the same amount of time. It’s one thing to be fresh out of graduate school with “only” your dissertation work to talk about, but imagine a candidate interviewing for a full professor position with a lifetime of accomplishments. They need to find a creative way to summarize or filter their work so that it fits into the allotted time. Besides, the ability to succinctly summarize important work into an understandable message is an important skill for a faculty member.
What Should You Talk About?
For newbie faculty applicants, what they should talk about is obvious: their ongoing or recently finished Ph.D. research, of course! And this is largely correct, but the way you speak about your work can be important depending on the department you are interviewing with.
I am not of the opinion that you should adapt your job talk to the specific department. This can quickly become impractical for some candidates who have many interviews lined up during a semester. But if you have a particular preference for a specific institution you are interviewing with, you may want to spend some time customizing your message to that audience. This may mean adding some slides to provide context or to connect to specific people in the department.
For more senior candidates, you may have more research than you can comfortably fit into a single talk. Senior job searches are generally also smaller in scope. In these situations, I advise you to customize your job talk to each department. In doing so, ensure that the work you are presenting is both (a) a fair representation of your work, and (b) comfortably within your own expertise. I have seen candidates overreach by talking about an experimental new topic that they only aspire to work on. I myself once overreached during a job talk by trying to pass myself off as a games researcher when I (clearly) was not. Another time, I witnessed a senior colleague get demolished in the job talk when he tried to build a bridge between his work and experts in the interviewing department. In other words, customizing too much can backfire.
It’s All About the Pitch
Now you know what to talk about, but the question is how to talk about it. I feel the same about this as I feel about academic papers: it’s all about the pitch. Whenever we teach, write, or talk about something we know, we should tell a story to engage the audience, draw them in, and keep them interested in your message. Stories are powerful because humans are hard-wired to listen to them. The story of a talk connects its different parts (often the papers or research projects) into a coherent whole that fits together and makes sense.
For me, the pitch for a talk is best represented as a single thesis sentence. Done correctly, this thesis sentence will suggest the structure of the entire talk. The goal of your talk is to convey this message to your audience, exemplify it and support it with evidence, convince your audience that it makes sense, and prime them to remember it after your talk. Everything in your presentation should contribute to demonstrating and reinforcing that message.
This is also why I personally spend so much time on the introductory slides of a talk that develops this narrative. These slides take the reader from their starting opinions, explains your pitch, and lays the groundwork for the evidence you will present: the actual research projects and papers that support the pitch. In comparison, talking about actual research projects is easy and is something I can almost do on autopilot. Coming up with a powerful and engaging introduction framing them in an optimal manner is where the real effort is required.
I’m a visualization person, so I place a lot—sometimes too much—of effort on the graphical appearance of my slides. If you are not visually gifted or if you are pressed for time, you can never go wrong with something simple: a white or black background with contrasting text and a single sans serif font. I personally would steer clear of the Microsoft PowerPoint default fonts just because they are overused, but otherwise you should be fine with the defaults. Keep your slides short and uncluttered without filling them with text. Remember that slides are not supposed to work without a speaker. If a person can follow your argument without you in the room narrating your talk, you probably have too much text on them.
If you choose to spend time improving your slide design, make sure you know your limits. If you do not have good graphical design instincts, you may be better off sticking with the default appearance. If you do have those instincts, don’t let me stand in your way, but just be sure not to overdo it. Use your good sense (and taste).
In Media Res
The first few minutes of a talk are critical while the audience is trying to decide whether or not your talk is worth paying attention to. Don’t squander this time—seize it! In Media Res is Latin for “in the midst of things”, and it is a good model for how to grab people’s attention early on. Notice how action movies or suspenseful thrillers start off immediately with something happening in the very first scene (or page). They generally don’t waste a lot of time setting up the scene or giving background information. This is how I like to kick off my talks as well.
In other words, don’t start by painstakingly reviewing the literature, defining the terms you will use, or describing the problem at length. Don’t spend too much time on your background, your affiliation, or other relatively unimportant details. These you can fill in later.
What does “in the midst of things” mean for scientific research? Pick something from your work that is direct, vivid, and compelling: a question, a motivating scenario, a problem, or a user story. Or why not start with a video or even a live demo? Then you have shown some of your solution early on, and you can spend the rest of the talk keeping the audience on their toes by building up to that barely glimpsed solution. After the pitch is set firmly in the audience’s mind, you can step back and do all those other things: your background, the existing literature, your users, etc.
Signposting Your Talk
I don’t know about you, but I’m a sucker for structure, and I am sure many academics feel the same. This is true for any talk, but for a 45-minute one, I want to be assured that the speaker is not going to squander that time. I want to feel that they have a good idea where they have been and where they are going. In fact, 45 minutes is easily long enough that the audience can get lost in an intricate argument. If they get lost they easily lose interest, too. To prevent this from happening, you should add signposting to your talk to make it easier to overview and navigate.
There are different ways to provide signposts. The most straightforward are visual ones, such as slide numbers (with a total slide count) or some other kind of progress bar. Slide numbers have the added benefit of allowing people to refer to specific slides during their questions, but they do add visual clutter to a slide.
An arguably better form of signposting is to organize your talk into logical units based on its content and then introduce an overview diagram or flowchart that you can come back to throughout the talk to update the audience on your progress. Extra points if you can add a miniature version of this overview diagram to each slide, or at least to the section slides throughout the talk.
A particularly effective form of a visual overview is what I call the “progressive infographic”; a single slide that you keep adding to throughout the talk, until at the end you have a visual summary of your entire presentation. This essentially becomes an infographic summarizing your work.
By the way, if you’ve been told that adding an outline slide at the beginning of your talk is a bad idea for a 15-minute paper talk (because it is just too short for this to be needed), then please note that it is a good idea for a 45-minute talk. Just don’t start with the outline slide; that gets boring. Add it after your motivating first slides (see above).
Of course, if you are an excellent speaker, then this all goes out the window because you will be lacing your entire talk with recurring themes, which are the most effective (and subtle) signposts of all. This is very difficult to replicate without lots of practice, however.
How Much Detail?
I read somewhere that a research talk should start at the average expertise of the audience, gradually descend into technical details to a brief point when only the speaker and a few people in the room fully understand, and then ascend gracefully back to the whole audience at the end. I like this picture in that it demonstrates that you are both able to connect to an entire room as well as that you have technical depth. It also scales to any type of talk you will ever give about your research since it starts with the audience’s own expertise. In other words, if you are speaking to a high school class about your work, all you need to do is adjust the starting point of your message and turn around earlier when going into detail.
What does technical detail mean? It depends on your area. One of my colleagues once half-jokingly told me when preparing for a job talk to “add a formula or two” to my slides. The implication was that for this audience, they would expect mathematical formalism to consider something to have technical depth. If your area does not truck with mathematical formalisms, then this obviously does not apply, but there is likely something similarly technical from your work that you can use to demonstrate this technical depth. Just remember to not stay at this point in your talk for too long, lest you lose your audience’s interest.
Like I have said above, the single key thing about an academic job talk is crafting a compelling narrative that binds your research projects and papers together. The introduction leads people into this narrative and sets you up to describe the actual results. The ending, then, serves as the other bookend to the narrative. In other words, ending gracefully is almost equally important as kicking off the talk to a good start.
Remember that pitch you developed in the beginning? Now is a good time to go back to it and make sure you tie up any loose ends. In fact, if you started the talk with some kind of motivating slide, then you will score some easy points by recalling that slide at the end of your talk and explaining to your audience how what they have learned now makes the original question easy to answer.
Finally, you can avoid some awkward moments by clearly signaling the end of your talk. Add a slide with your contact information and takeaway message, and indicate that your talk is ended by thanking the audience and taking questions. A talk that just peters out with no clear ending is a missed opportunity.
Not Just Research
Opinions may differ on this, but I personally think that the job talk is an opportunity to talk a little about yourself as a candidate and not just your research. Don’t get me wrong: I have seen many job talks that are strictly about the research, and they have been quite successful. However, I feel that the job talk can be a platform to briefly present yourself in your candidacy for the position you are interviewing for. This is likely more important for more senior candidates who have a track record in teaching, service, and leadership that they also might want to highlight.
What should you talk about? This might depend on the position, but I would recommend setting aside a slide or two to review your awards, media exposure, and significant service. If you can find a way to seamlessly integrate this into your talk, so much the better. In general, it is never a bad idea to tell the audience a little bit about the person doing all this research.
The Q&A part of the talk is important because it may be the only time some people in the hiring department actually get to interact with you. They will be keeping a close eye on how you handle difficult (or not so difficult) questions. While this may seem obvious to you, remember to engage with all questions fairly and enthusiastically. Again, this is a proxy for how you will treat students you will interact with in the classroom, or how you will represent the department when you present your work to the scientific community. Arrogance, disinterest, or close-mindedness are often red flags that people look for.
Organize your answers into bite-sized pieces. Smaller answers allow you to gauge whether you are answering the right question and whether your argument is making sense. Above all, do not ramble. Long-winded and groping answers by a near-panicked candidate can be almost painful to watch. This advice is more important for phone interviews than the job talk Q&A because on the phone you can’t see the body and facial language of the person you are speaking to, but it is of general utility to the job talk, especially as many are now given online.
Regardless of how well you prepare, sometimes you may get a question that you just are not ready for. It is important to not panic, and to not launch into a long tirade just to fill the silence. People will be interested to see how you think on your feet. First of all, take a deep breath and try to respond calmly and succinctly. Use deprecating humor and smile gracefully if you can. Be ready to say that you don’t know the answer to the question—even if this may feel like a personal defeat for someone who has spent the last few years becoming the world’s expert in a field, I promise you that it is not. And, if all else fails, remember that old standby: “Let’s take this offline.” Meeting up with the person afterwards in a less public setting often does wonders for your ability to answer their questions.
The academic job talk is your chance to define yourself as a candidate to the hiring department. It is a high-stress situation because of its importance, but it can also be very rewarding. Done correctly, your job talk should feel like a tour de force reviewing your entire research career. If you nail the job talk, you know that you at least did your best in presenting yourself. What happens after that is up to the department. Good luck!