Chalk Talk Cha-Cha-Cha

January 5, 2008

I have already posted on Job Talks: the formal seminar describing her post-doctoral research that a job candidate presents as part of her on-site visit to a department to interview for a faculty position. As part of their faculty interviewing process, many departments also expect the candidate to present a “chalk talk”: an informal presentation solely to departmental faculty–usually without slides–that describes her immediate, medium-, and long-term plans for her independent research program as a PI.

The chalk talk has a quite different purpose than the job talk. As I pointed out, the purpose of the Job Talk is to “demonstrate that you can tell an effective story, that is both interesting and well-supported by data”. The purpose of the chalk talk is to demonstrate two things: (1) that you have a feasible (and fundable) plan for what you are going to do when you open the door to your new laboratory, (2) that you can think on your feet and respond effectively to sharp criticism.

In one chalk talk that I gave, the chair of the department started the proceeding by saying, “PhysioPostDoc, why don’t you outline for us how you envision the three specific aims of what will be your first R01 application?” Even if you don’t get asked this specific question, this is the gist of what a chalk talk is about. The key is to present your vision for your research program simultaneously at multiple levels of abstraction and multiple time scales (one year, five years, ten years). Keep the technical detail to a minimum unless you are asked specific questions. You want to present an interesting program that appears both highly significant and feasible.

You will be peppered with difficult and, potentially, mean-spirited questions. The purpose is generally to see how well you can defend yourself on your feet, and keep your cool under stress. You need to make it clear that you have already thought about all this stuff at length, and can confidently and coherently explain why your research plan is both significant and doable. You must not come across as defensive, no matter how wrong-headed or mean-spirited you perceive the dialogue. If you do, you are sunk, done, finished.

All of the above probably sounds self-evident, and you are probably thinking, “Shit, PhysioProf, why am I wasting my time reading this litany of the obvious, when I could be doing something useful, like cutting my toenails?”

Well, PhysioProf is now going to share with you an inside super-secret fact about the chalk talk that most job candidates never find out about until it is too late to help: In the audience at your chalk talk you will have both advocates and enemies. Your advocates have decided, for whatever reason, that they want you to come across as appealing as possible. Your enemies have decided, for whatever reason, that they want you to come across as un-appealing as possible. (There are many possible reasons for faculty members to adopt these attitudes, but are not really relevant to chalk talk tactics. If people are interested, we can discuss this in the comments.)

You need to figure out who is who. This is because the questions you are asked by your advocates are designed to lead you down a path that will benefit your chances of getting a job offer, while questions asked by your enemies are designed to lead you down a path that will diminish your chances.

How do you tell who is who? For the most part this is an intuitive thing. There are a few rules of thumb, however.

If you are asked an open-ended question like, “Do you think that your new blibbity-blabbity technique could be used to address the question of blah-blah-blah?”, this is a sign that the blah-blah-blah question is perceived as being of interest to the faculty (or some members). You are thus being invited to provide an affirmative answer that will benefit you. You certainly don’t want to answer this kind of question by stating that you don’t think blah-blah-blah is a very interesting question, and the more interesting question to be addressed with your new technique is zip-de-do.

The kinds of question designed to trip you up tend to be much more specific and closed-ended. If someone prefaces their question with a detailed recitation of experimental findings related to your work, this is a red flag. And if the question is somethings like, “How do you explain the discrepancy between Joe Schmoe’s finding that blerg is blergy and your finding that blarg is blargy?”, alarm bells should be ringing. The best way to deal with these kinds of questions is to give a short, direct answer and move on. As in all seminar type contexts, fi someone keeps drilling at you, eventually you need to just say, “Maybe we should discuss this in more detail afterwards”, and move on decisively.

I think I’ll stop here, and take specific questions in the comments. As I promised, I will post soon about how to handle the one-on-one meetings with individual faculty.

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11 Responses to “Chalk Talk Cha-Cha-Cha”

  1. neurolover Says:

    I’d add that what seems like really tough questioning might in fact be a very good thing. It means people are paying attention to you and are interested enough in your answers that they are bothering to ask questions. So, if you’re succeeding in making it clear that you’ve thought about the questions you’re being asked, and want to answer them, and have ways to think about the things you may not have thought about (someone might come up with something new) you’re doing well.

    I once talked with a candidate right after a chalk talk and the candidate was devastated, but in fact, his talk had gone quite well.

    I’ll have to add the caveat that in my department, which might be odd, it can be difficult to tell who your advocates are, because we have a history of hiring folks who disagree with us. The killer question in our case would not be conflict (as in physioprof’s suggestion), but the suggestion that nothing will be learned, basically along the lines of why should we care about the answer, or couldn’t this also be explained by all of these other reasons, and therefore, you won’t really learn anything. .

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  2. anonymous, I think Says:

    So, just finishing up the latest interview trip, which included my first ‘chalk talk’ experience. This went almost nothing like I expected – I’d prepared some slides (on current grants, intended near-future grants, bits of data that hadn’t fit into my job talk, and other sideline stuff I am interested in) but had expected to be interrupted and not get through them. In fact, it apparently turns out that this was what they had planned to grill me on, so I got lucky – I worried that the general lack of aggression was a bad sign, but apparently not: everyone individually afterwards went out of their way to praise the prep.

    [I do wish I was better at telling when I should feel that praise is real and when it's just what one says to candidates. o well]

    Anyway: I have one other trip that has a chalk talk on the schedule, so we’ll see what happens; but that’s the initial n=1 experience.

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  3. PhysioProf Says:

    “I do wish I was better at telling when I should feel that praise is real and when it’s just what one says to candidates.”

    Academics generally do not give direct praise to people lower down on the food chain unless they really mean it. Upwards is a different story.

    “Anyway: I have one other trip that has a chalk talk on the schedule, so we’ll see what happens; but that’s the initial n=1 experience.”

    You will definitely get *much* better with your job talk, chalk talk, and the other parts of the job interview process the more times you do it. This is one very important reason for applying to *all* job searches that are even remotely relevant to your research, and accepting *all* offers for interviews, even if at insitutions that it is extremely unlikely that you would ever take a position. Then, you need to pray that your first few interviews are not at your favored institutions.

    My first job interview was at an institution that should have been grateful to have someone with my qualifications apply. My job talk and chalk talk pretty much sucked, and they gave the job to someone else. I interviewed at my most favored institution last, did the best job interviewing, got an offer, and am junior faculty there now.

    Incidentally, if you are a schadenfreude type of person, one of the fun things you can do is to keep tabs on the career progress of the people who got offers you wanted, but didn’t get. If you enjoy this kind of thing, it can be nice to be sitting there with multiple good publications and a couple R01s, go over to CRISP and Pubmed, and see people that beat you out with nada, zippo, nuthin. If you enjoy that kind of thing, you might even fantasize about running into the chair of a department that took someone else over you at a meeting, mentioning your own success, and then casually asking them, “Say, how’s Dr. Beat-you-out working out for you guys?”

    Of course, PhysioProf would never think that way, and only even knows about these kinds of things because other people have told him.

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  4. anonymous, I think Says:

    Hee :-).

    Yes, giving the job talk multiple times is certainly helping – although not a linear progression; but (and this hits one of your previous points) I try *not* to rehearse too much because I think one of the good points is my relative spontaneity.

    The next interview is esily in the ‘why the hell am I doing this trip?’ category – but even those tend to have at least a couple of people who might be on study sections, review grants, or be of interest for collaboration. So I don’t find it too hard to be enthusiastic (although I am surprised how hard the crash is from a couple of days of being ‘on). I will be happy to be done with the 20,000 mile month, though!

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  5. whimple Says:

    My first job interview was at an institution that should have been grateful to have someone with my qualifications apply.
    Of course, don’t go to an interview with this kind of attitude… people can smell this from 50 miles out. :)

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  6. [...] PhysioProf has also previously posted about chalk talks… I link his post so that you can also benefit [...]

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  7. ImmunoPdoc Says:

    Thanks, much appreciated. I’m just recovering from a trans-atlantic bash at interviewing (n=2). Does anyone know of a site with examples or clear instructions for a chalk talk? As feedback, I was told my chalk talks should be more NIH-style, So, I’ll make up a grant title and call my experiments specific aims instead of 1) and 2)? Or do I really have to add a lot of preliminary data? Can this be similar to the data in the job talk? Or do I have to postpone interviewing until I have another paper’s worth?

    I got to meet with students at one interview and had the time of my life, but one student reported to me later, at a conference, that it was boring, ’cause that’s what they do every time. How could I get them to ask more about my path? I tried just telling them things I thought might be interesting, but we ended up talking about baseball or something… so we went around the table instead.

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  8. Timothy Says:

    Wow everybody!!! Happy Thanksgiving!! .!! :)
    Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays, and each year I like to get into the mood-extend the holiday, since it were-by reading “Thanksgiving novels.” For example, those stories are mostly about families, about coming together to heal old hurts and showing thanks for the gift of love. . . . —
    Think You Are Better Off Today Than You Had been 7 Years Ago?

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  9. [...] so of course I’m going to oblige!! But first you have to go read PhysioProf’s excellent post on this exact topic. While you are at it, you should read his other posts on the job search. And also go visit drdrA at [...]

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  10. [...] I had spent a fair amount of time beforehand preparing for these types of questions, thanks to the advice of others in the [...]

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