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.