Job Talks and Job Interviews

March 19, 2008

Two outstanding science bloggers, Geeka and Katie, have just returned from job interviews, Geeka for a post-doc and Katie for a faculty position. They have posted their fascinating and valuable impressions of their experiences at their blogs.
They have also each thanked PhysioProf for earlier advice that they considered valuable in their interviewing, and I am understandably pleased to have been helpful to them. Below the fold I highlight some of what they say, and amplify on a few things, but I urge readers to visit their blogs for their full stories.

Geeka just had a job interview for an academic post-doc position in the biosciences. In her last pre-interview blog post, she expressed concern that at the last minute she found out that her job talk was scheduled for “60 minutes”, and that she would need to expand from the 20 minute talk she had prepared to a 45-50 minute talk.
In a comment, I suggested that she prepare a 35 minute talk:

If you prepare to give a 35 minute talk, you start at five minutes after the hour, there are a few questions during the talk and a few more afterwards, the whole thing will be done by five minutes before the hour, and people will be grateful and think very highly of you for finishing in a timely fashion.
If you prepare to give a 45-50 minute talk, you are pretty much guaranteeing that you will not finish until five minutes after the hour at the earliest, and potentially even later, and some people might be annoyed and think poorly of you (even though it might be irrational for them to do so).
Bottom line: It is *much* better to err on the side of too short than two long.

Then Geeka commented back:

I get ‘set up time’ scheduled, so I was sort of assuming that I would actually get to start on time, although that doesn’t account for stragglers. But these are *very* good points. I may shoot for a 40 minute talk.

After which I assured her:

If your seminar is called for 4PM, it is highly likely that the organizer won’t begin until 4:05PM to allow stragglers to enter the room, and don’t forget someone is first going to introduce you. Trust me: prepare a 35 minute talk.

After returning from the interview, she posted her impressions, which included the following:

A wonderful shout out to PhysioProf because I made my presentation 34 slides, and that ended up taking 50 or so minutes. He was right.

Well, it certainly is gratifying to be “right”, but it is even more gratifying to hear that Geeka’s job talk and interview went very well. Go to her place for more details. And remember, no matter the context, for a “60 minute” seminar slot, you should prepare a 35 minute talk. There is absolutely no upside to preparing a longer one.
Katie also just had a job interview, this one for a faculty position. She had lots of wonderful things to say about her experience that should be of great value to job seekers in the biomedical sciences. Here is a particular point I would like to address:

I think it can be challenging to assess your audience a priori and put together something with the right balance of explanation and respect for their current knowledge.

It can be challenging, but this is exactly the right thing to be thinking about. You need people to understand what you are talking about, and you need people to feel smart as they listen to your talk. If you make them feel stupid, they will hate you. Thus, it is *always* better to err on the side of too much background information. It is much worse to have someone feeling stupid because they don’t understand what the fuck you are talking about than it to have someone feeling like you are telling them things they already know.

It’s been my trend to say something like, “I wanted to give some insight into the formation of my hypothesis and give you some sense of why I think the work is valuable.”

The impulse to provide this kind of conceptual outline for the talk is absolutely correct. However, as I pointed out in the comments to Katie’s post, this can be framed more effectively for purposes of a seminar:

Using this kind of language can come across as a lack of confidence in the validity and importance of your work. While it can take practice, especially for women who are socialized to be more self-effacing than men, it is better to use language like this:
“I am going to describe to you the evidence for the hypothesis that…”
The point isn’t to focus on your personal journey–which can connote contingency or particularity–but rather on “the” evidence for “the” hypothesis. The evidence and the hypothesis have their own reality that is independent of you personally. Rather than telling a personal story, you are unveiling an eternal truth about the universe.
“This work is valuable and important because…”
Again, this shifts the focus from you and your human contingency to the eternal essence of the work.
The key assumption of science is that it is grounded in generalities about the natural world that are independent of the personal particularities of any individual scientist. Using language like I have suggested taps into this deep-seated assumption, and piggy-backs on its authority.
Also, the statement “the point isn’t to focus on your personal journey” is only applicable to the context of a seminar presentation. In more informal contexts, both at interviews and in general, a compelling story of your personal journey in science can be *very* effective at generating support and interest.
This is something that can pay off handsomely if you spend some time and effort on crafting an appealing way of conveying the story of your journey. And women on average do better at this than men.

Katie also graciously thanked PhysioProf for some pre-interview advice about dealing with questions and one-on-one meetings with people:

Oh, the questions. This is actually the tough part for me. PhysioProf is right – interest in people’s research and interests makes them happy. (And I know I mention him a lot lately – my mom would ask if I had a crush on him – but it’s because I can’t comment on his blog. It’s all intense and scary and I don’t like to risk offending people! He does not seem to share that problem, which kind of fascinates me even as I’m befuddled. Anyway.) So I made a conscious effort to remember to ask people to tell me a bit about what they do. Then I asked for clarification, complimented them when I thought something was cool, asked where they wanted to go in the future, etc.

There is nothing that makes someone like you better than if you show interest in them. This is a very basic fact of human nature that must be exploited in the interview process. Of course, it helps a lot if you genuinely are interested in other people and their research.
One final point: Katie is truly an amazing writer, with a wonderfully evocative attention to detail, as exemplified in this excerpt from another post at her blog:

I took a shower – one with excellent water pressure and my very own soap and shampoo and conditioner and face wash – and felt completely clean for the first time in a week. I had my pick of pajamas and moisturizers. It was delightful.

That sure does sound delightful, doesn’t it?

15 Responses to “Job Talks and Job Interviews”

  1. Couple of things: first, you’re a really good man for offering this invaluable advice to these young scientists. As I’ve said elsewhere and continue to hold as truth, the career development information you get here is second to none.
    Second, thank you so much for introducing me to two tremendous bloggers – I had scoured the sci/med blogosphere for trainees like mine maybe a year ago and it is clear that I need to update my blogroll in this regard.
    Third, thank you for taking such an active interest in the future of our professional community and encouraging the diversity and equality for which we have been striving since I was a student.


  2. Propter Doc Says:

    I’d second the comments about showing an interest in other people’s work. At my interview day (British style: bring all the candidates in on one day and have them meet each other), we were meeting other academics at lunch and I took great care to ask them about their research, their teaching and how they felt they had settled into the department (some were new hires). This lead them to tell me many things that were very useful but that I could not have asked directly. One even confessed to being slightly underworked in the first year because of the light teaching load given to new hires! I noticed that another candidate was barking on about what she would change about the department, how she’d have to write a funding application for this and that big shiny bit of kit. I don’t think she asked any questions or showed any interest in the potential colleagues around her. She didn’t get the job…
    I’m looking forward to trying the 35 minute idea for my next seminar.


  3. Martin Says:

    I pretty much destroyed my own career by doing a Ph.D. in complexity science. Now I’ve fallen into the interdisciplinary chasm. Ultimately this seems to be the biggest problem – unless your thesis topic is fashionable, you have zero chance of getting a decent post-doc.


  4. Ewan Says:

    Allow me to add myself to the list of appreciative readers. The series on job talks, one-on-ones, and so on was perfectly timed for me; and whether or not that was the key factor :), I had a choice of positions and will be starting my new t-t job this summer.
    I tend to speed up when giving talks, to the point that I very consciously try to modulate it; but it does mean that a talk which practice pegs at 50 min tends to be 40 when actually given. I *definitely* recommend the presence of an additional section, coming after the acknowledgements slide, which can either be included if needed or used as supplementary data (nothing looks better, imho, than being able to answer a question by saying ‘as it happens, here are some data on that issue’), and which provides timing flexibility. And certainly, ten minutes early is *much much* better than 5 mins overrun.
    Other stuff.. most of my individual faculty meetings were directed towards non-academic stuff, by the host, which surprised me – between that and interest in their work, it was not uncommon to have zero time for any further dscussion of my stuff. Which is fine, but it gets tough towards the end to be vivacious with regard to the same comments on SmallUniTown that have been made several times already.
    One variable gets back to some previous discussions here and elsewhere: I found that the presence of my (5 year-old) son in the first couple of slides of my talk was a *huge* positive. It gave a further handle for conversation, and allowed for an easy ‘in’ to the tricky discussion of partner, family, etc. I am convinced that the fact that those discussions occurred, and hence I was able to give reassurance/info (in particular, with regard to the one I took, that I had non-job additional reasons which made it likely that I would say ‘yes’ if offered) on that, was a big factor in my success.
    On future topics: I think that a discussion of post- (and pre-)offer negotiations would be very valuable. Several colleagues have been asking _me_ for advice – ha! – and it seems that a lot of folks are scared/nervous/unsure how to approach this.


  5. Katie Says:

    I daresay it’s very sweet that you dispense advice with a genuine desire for people to interview well. I’ve been relatively lucky in interview prep – my cousin, tenured faculty at a Big 10 school, mock interviewed with me out of grad school. But we’re related. My research group heard my talk multiple times, and each one yielded different advice and tips and possible questions. A member of my committee helped me rewrite my CV a few years ago. But my success reflects well on each of those people and while they are fantastic specimens of humanity, their goals weren’t completely altruistic.
    It’s different to read something online, offer advice then check back to see how things went. I find it impossibly lovely, actually, and very much appreciate that you do it. Thank you.
    Career development often feels very mysterious and the information you offer is both practical and specific. Which makes the whole process seem less scary. I’d love to see you tackle negotiations. My current idea is to pounce on the offered job with an, “Oh, yes, please! When may I start?” and I’m guessing that’s not so ideal.


  6. PhysioProf Says:

    I’d love to see you tackle negotiations. My current idea is to pounce on the offered job with an, “Oh, yes, please! When may I start?” and I’m guessing that’s not so ideal.

    We’re on it.


  7. Martin Says:

    I still don’t really see the value of interview advice. I know that sounds funny, but bear with me.
    Firstly, as I said above, it’s bloody impossible to even get an interview if you don’t have a fashionable thesis topic. Because my Ph.D. was multidisciplinary (immunology/ecology/sociology), I don’t have a chance getting an ecology job against an ecologist, an immunology job against an immunologist, or a sociology job against a sociologist, or even a simulation and modeling job against a pure computer scientist.
    Secondly, institutions regularly flirt with the law by anointing internal candidates for positions, while going through the motions interviewing external candidates they don’t want because they have to.
    Thirdly, a lot of interviews just seem to degenerate into pot luck due to job adverts and specs that are vague and incomplete. For example last year I lost one job due to a lack of experience in a field that was first mentioned in the interview, after my talk. Another interview I failed due to lack of experience in a particular, obscure programming language (Occam)
    Forth, and related to my second point, loads of jobs are decided waaaay before the interview stage in conference bars or comments between supervisors or whatever. Most of the interviews I’ve been to or seen just seem to be a case of 1 actual candidate, and two or three others invited to make up the numbers.
    So, call me a cynic, but while interview advice seems helpful in about 10% of cases, half the time it seems the interview is over before you even get there.
    I can some up the situation for 20-something early career researchers one rude word.


  8. Martin Says:

    Sheesh, I lost my ability to spell I was so annoyed there. Should have said: “I can sum up the situation for 20-something early-career researchers in one rude word”.


  9. PhysioProf Says:

    So, call me a cynic, but while interview advice seems helpful in about 10% of cases, half the time it seems the interview is over before you even get there.

    Your four assertions are all completely false in the case of the biomedical sciences, and the interview is hugely important.


  10. Martin Says:

    “Your four assertions are all completely false in the case of the biomedical sciences”
    Lucky you! Also I’m British, can’t speak for the American system. Here it seems to be entirely who you know.


  11. acmegirl Says:

    So sorry you had bad luck on the job market. However, some of us haven’t aged to the level of cynicism and defeatism that you have. I, for one, would like to read the interview advice without somone telling me that it doesn’t matter anyway. I, for one, would like to think that I can make a difference in my own destiny, by preparing myself for every step along the way, including interviews and seminars. I also think it is highly irresponsible to suggest that interviews don’t count. They certainly do – even if the decision is all but made over a pint, you can still blow it by not paying attention to prepearing your application or job talk.


  12. acmegirl Says:

    Thanks for posting this. I really did like the advice on how to frame the story of your research in a less personal, more direct tone. I have been working on this myself, and I think this is just the right balance of a confident voice, without too much bravado, that I could learn to apply to my talks. Also, the idea of planning a shorter talk than your scheduled time is something I definitely plan to try – I always seem to go over and maybe that’s why. Maybe if I start practicing this stuff now, it will become a habit by the time I am ready to do a job talk.


  13. Nan Says:

    The advice is all great, but, as Martin points out, sometimes it seems like no matter what you do, you’re screwed. My own advice to every grad student is to have a back-up plan. Maybe your dream job is tenured faculty at a top tier research-oriented university, but the reality is competition is fierce. You need to think about what you’re going to do if the ideal career path doesn’t happen. How many years are you willing to be an adjunct or an underpaid research associate? Is the private sector an option? Working for an NGO? What about the government?
    The worst thing that happened to me in grad school was having faculty who could not conceive of anyone using their education outside academe. Unfortunately, there’s a finite supply of jobs to go around in the academy, some areas are much more competitive than others, and, no matter how good you are, you may not get offered any of the jobs you really want and will have to settle for something else in order to pay off the student loans.


  14. PhysioProf Says:

    Nan, what you are saying is absolutely correct. I hope you understand that at DrugMonkey we are here to serve those who *do* want to give it their best shot at achieving success in academic biomedical science, defined as being a well-funded well-published PI who trains other scientists effectively and is respected by her peers.
    The reason we focus on this is because that is what we, academic biomedical scientists, are experts at. It would be foolish for us to attempt to advise on anything other than that. You need to turn to other ScienceBloggers for that stuff.
    One additional point: It *is* possible to succeed in the goal of becoming an academic PI, and it does not require some sort of outlandish degree of luck, nepotism, or whatever.
    What you hear on the Internet is only a subset of stories, and highly selected for those who fail. Very few of those who succeed are out here blogging about it. This is a lacuna that DrugMonkey and I seek to fill, to let people know that with some hard work and intelligent strategy and tactics, success at achieving and maintaining scientific independence in academic biomedical science is a reasonable achievable goal.


  15. Tom Says:

    I just wanted to offer up my appreciation for this post. I am currently in the ‘interview for assistant professor positions’ stage, and it was nice to see that I was doing some things right.


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