Job Talk Juju
November 4, 2007
Since this is faculty job search season, and we have been discussing some of the things that affect applicants’ ability to secure job offers, let’s talk about one of the most important. You have been a successful post-doc, your CV looks great, and your research plan is masterful. You start to get invitations to visit departments to interview for faculty positions. What is the single most crucial factor in translating interviews into offers?
It is your job talk. There is one overriding psychological principle that informs everything about its design and delivery. People like to feel smart. Everything about your job talk must support the goal of making your audience feel smart. What the heck is PhysioProf talking about?
It is natural for the applicant to want to include as much experimental data as possible into the job talk. First, she has spent countless hours collecting and analyzing her data; she truly loves her data. Second, she wants to impress her audience with her extraordinary productivity.
Don’t do this! Just because you yourself can understand and speak intelligently about four years worth of experiments in about one hour, does not mean that your audience will be able to comprehend all that information. Except for people working in very closely related subfields, it is certain that they cannot. Audience members who do not understand what you are talking about do not feel smart. Guess who gets blamed for that?
You don’t want to be glib or superficial, but it is much better to focus on just one substantial paper’s worth of data for a job talk. As I pointed out here, in a 15-20 minute short seminar, you can really only present two or three multi-panel figures worth of data. That means that in a 45-60 minute job talk, you can present 6-9 figures worth.
Make sure you provide enough background so that you both take your audience through the motivation for the experiments you are going to describe, and give them a sufficient theoretical and methodological foundation to understand how you performed your experiments and how you interpret the results. A good rule of thumb is that slides with actual experimental data should not be much more than half the total number.
Giving your audience more than sufficient background to understand your experiments ensures that when you do describe your experiments, they will indeed understand clearly what you are talking about, and thus feel smart. When your audience feels smart, they feel happy. Guess who gets the credit for making them feel that way?
You should not expect to make more than two or three “points” that you would expect your audience to remember the next day. For each of those points, you are going to have to repeat it three times. The first time, you tell your audience what you are going to tell them. The second time, you tell them. The third time, you tell them what you just told them.
How do you do this without sounding repetitive? For each point that you will support with experimental data, first recite the point and state that you are now going to present experimental data that supports the point. Then present the experimental data. Then explain exactly how the experimental data support that point.
It is tempting to play Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: presenting the data without explaining what point it is supporting to build “suspense”, and then dramatically revealing the point afterwards. Don’t do this! At every moment during your talk, you want your audience to know exactly what they are supposed to be understanding, and why it is relevant.
You must design your job talk to be modular. You have no idea ahead of time whether you are interviewing at a department like mine, where seminar speakers get questions and comments throughout the talk, or like some others, where there are no questions or comments at all until the presentation is over. There is no better way to make your audience unhappy than to run long, so you must be able to seamlessly cut out part of your talk if necessary. This means that you should make the first two thirds of your talk a self-contained coherent unit, with the last third optional lagniappe.
You should also have a brief, two or three minute module that you can slot in at the end, regardless of how much of the prior content you made it through. In this module, you very schematically outline where you will go in the future, building upon the studies you have just described.
Now that we’ve dealt with design, how about delivery? First, you must come across as both smooth and spontaneous. If you memorize your talk, and you are just reciting prepackaged sentences verbatim from memory, your audience will quickly get bored. Second, you need to project an enthusiasm and excitement about your science. Excitement is contagious; if you are excited, your audience will get excited.
How do you deal with questions and comments? You should maintain control of the dialogue. If you are asked a good question, praise the questioner for asking it. Make her feel smart. For questions that you can predict will be asked, if you have relevant data, make extra slides that you can show in answer to those questions. If you are asked a stupid question, try to very gently shift attention to something that is relevant. If the questioner persists, politely–but firmly–state that maybe it would be better to address it after the seminar is over.
The main 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 is not to demonstrate your productivity, nor is it to give a detailed explanation of your research plan for the next several years.
For many of the faculty in the department, the job talk is your only opportunity to make an impression. However, for some of them, you will be meeting one-on-one for a half-hour or so, and a subset of the department will also likely participate in a “chalk talk”. We will discuss these things in subsequent posts.