Giving a Stellar Job Talk

You've sent out your applications, undergone conference and phone interviews, and have been waiting for that special moment when you get the call inviting you for a campus interview. If you've made it this far in the academic job market season, congratulations! Now is the time that hiring departments everywhere start inviting their top candidates to their campus for the marathon campus interview. As, I've written about in prior posts, preparing for the campus visit is a stressful and arduous task.

Recently, I was working with a client who needed advice and practice for her job talk presentation. She had significant research experience under her belt and had given numerous conference presentations in the past, but had many questions about how to develop and give a job talk presentation that meets the goals and needs of the search committee. Reflecting back on our conversation, I have some advice and tips to help future candidates give a stellar job talk presentation.

1. Focus on the forest, not the trees.

You wouldn't be invited to a campus visit if the department still questioned your competence as a researcher. Ideally, your CV and other application materials should covey that you have experience and knowledge needed to conduct research. Hence, the purpose of the job talk is to demonstrate your ability to achieve tenure and become an independent scholar in 5-7 years. Some ways of conveying this may include:

  • Focusing more on the importance of your work to the larger field, rather than get caught up with too many minute details about your methodology.

  • Note that not everyone at your job talk will know the subject matter of your presentation as well as you do. Consider how brief summaries, definitions, and avoiding jargon will make your research more accessible to those outside of your area.

  • Do not describe your dissertation research as a complete work, but as a starting point for a larger research agenda. Explain how your work informs future research, policy, and/or practice (when appropriate).

  • Identify any recognition you have received for your work, such as awards or funding.

  • Plan for your talk to sound more conversational and less like reading a detailed outline. This will help you convey more enthusiasm about your work and demonstrate confidence about what you do.

Know how to talk about your research. I recall one candidate during a faculty search who had a long list of publications on his CV. We invited him to campus and during the question-and-answer portion of his talk, there were several questions asked about decisions he made in his dissertation research methodology. Many of those questions he responded with, "Because my advisor told me to do it that way." Perhaps he had a better handle on his methodology than what he conveyed, but it wasn't clear that he would be able to work independently.

2. Spend time talking about the future.

The first part of your talk demonstrates that your work is important and you have the potential for moving forward with your work. However, the search committee is trying to assess what your work will actually look like once you are a faculty member at their department. Spend a good portion of the second half of your talk discussing how you would plan your first few years at that university. Some of the things that I suggest mentioning:

  • Identifying people in the department or at the university whom you see yourself working with, given their related research interests.

  • Suggest some potential projects you would like to pursue, given your findings from prior research. However, try to be general about project ideas so that you don't get lost in the weeds with future plans.

  • Identify potential sources of funding for your work that you would like to apply to. If the NIH, NSF or foundations are interested in funding work in your area, this indicates your interest and potential ability to generate research funding.

  • If you conduct community-based research, identify potential partners in the community that may collaborate with you to facilitate your work.

Know what the research mission, goals, and interests of the department/university are and make sure that you describe your future plans so that they align with their interests.

3. Your research talk may be doubling as a teaching demonstration.

At many universities - especially smaller, liberal arts colleges - you may be asked to give a teaching demonstration in addition to your research presentation. However, at larger, research institutions, you most likely will not have to do this. So, the search committee will be assess how your presentation style may transfer to the classroom setting.

I remember one job talk presentation I gave about my qualitative dissertation, one of the questions posed by a faculty member was, "How did I know that I reached saturation?" Understanding that many audience members may not be qualitative researchers and that there were several graduate students present, I first explained what saturation was and then explained how I assessed for saturation for my own work. The faculty member smiled and said to the graduate students, "See? We just talked about saturation in our qualitative research class last week. That is a good example of how you would assess for it." A few years later, I was teaching the doctoral qualitative research course for that same department.

Unfortunately, presenting research to our peers is different than teaching a class. My best advice: Be engaging, warm, and interactive, like you would be with students. When organizing your talk, think of it as a lecture about your work, rather than a short conference presentation.

4. You are being assessed as a potential colleague.

This is much different than being assessed as a researcher. Departments hire people who they expect to achieve tenure, meaning that they are making a commitment to working with you for at least six years if they hire you. So, they are assessing how much they may enjoy working with you.

  • Again, be warm and approachable during your talk. It's even okay to be a little funny at times. However, avoid planned jokes or other things that may come across as confusing, offensive, or that you aren't taking this opportunity seriously.

  • Avoid graphics or other content of your presentation that may raise questions about your personality.

  • You may encounter a comment or question during the question-and-answer portion of your talk that is critical of your work or even rude. In such cases, stay calm and respond in a professional manner.

  • If you receive a challenging or complex question, it's okay to say that you want a few seconds to think about your response. This will help you avoid making a hasty and potentially less thoughtful response.

If your needs for planning a job talk are more basic than what is presented here, there are excellent guides on organizing a job talk presentation available from Inside Higher Ed, the American Psychological Association, and UC Berkeley. In addition to the advice presented here, it is vital that you create a presentation that is thoughtful, clear, organized, and free from errors or typos. The department has invested a lot of money in inviting you and potentially 2-3 other candidates to campus for an interview. They do not view poor presentations lightly - it may leave them irritated.

Need help with your own job talk or interviews? Contact Nicole today and see how you can work together to become a more competitive job candidate! Nicole has extensive experience with evaluating job talk presentations and practice interview sessions. For an affordable price, she can help you create a presentation that will make you stand out.

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