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How Do You Create A Phenomenal Job Talk?

Nov 04, 2021

Hello, colleagues:

Today’s topic is job talks. This may seem a little off-topic from grant writing. But job talks and grant writing are two major ways you get people to invest in your ideas. I hope today’s newsletter helps demystify this part of the academic job market.

Let’s set the stage for what job talks are. When schools have an open position, they solicit applications. The committee usually screens the submitted applications, conducts a round of phone/Zoom screening, and then invites a small number of candidates (usually 3 to 4) to a campus visit. During the campus visit, candidates give a job talk. Job talks are an invitation to speak to faculty and students for one hour about your work. 

Job talks are not about proving your credentials. Anyone who makes it to the job talk stage has already passed multiple screenings. Your background is not in question. I say this as someone who has sat on multiple searches. I’ve also given five job talks and received offers after these job talks. I got these offers (I think) because a senior colleague let me in on a secret about job talks. 

Here’s the secret: the purpose of a job talk is to tell a story. It’s the story of who you are as a scholar, and it’s the story of who you will become. Candidates often don’t tell a story in job talks. Candidates focus on the technical, which makes job talks fall flat. Your audience wants to be excited about you as a colleague and as a teacher. Generate that excitement with your story. 

Here are concrete ways to tell a great story. Choose strategies that feel right for you.

  • You need a plot. Choose 2 - 3 papers or studies that show where your work started and where it’s going. You are going to cover these in depth. Limit yourself to 2 - 3 papers/studies because people want to see a deep dive into your methods. When you gloss over your methods too much, people feel like your talk was “too light.” If you are an established researcher with 10+ years of experience, you can pepper in mentions to your other work. But ultimately, people want to understand the richness of your work. 
  • Share your plot by using an agenda slide. People will be more engaged if you help them earmark where you are in the presentation. Here was my agenda for my last job talk: Conceptual model of risk. Research findings. Current studies. Future directions.
  • You need a hook. Very quickly, frame why you are doing this work. Why does it matter, why should it matter to the institution and your future colleagues? For example, I talked about how many people are affected by disasters each year and why children are particularly vulnerable.
  • Connect with your audience. Talk about how your work fits with existing work at the institution. This is how you show you are a good colleague. You’re not self-involved. You’ve figured out how you could be a team member at the school. This could be in terms of thinking of the classes they want you to cover, the projects you could do at the institution, how your work draws from work being done there already, etc.
  • Orient people to figures. Any time you land on a figure, explain what the figure is, what the axes or labels are, and why the figure matters. 
  • Have a clear ending. This is a tip I learned from a postdoctoral mentor. Show a thank you slide, say thanks, and pause. This lets everyone know you’ve finished your talk. The audience can applaud your work and be excited about your ideas. Candidates sometimes skip directly from a thank you slide to a “questions” slide. This makes audiences feel awkward. It’s not clear if the talk is over and if it’s ok to clap. It’s the academic equivalent of holding a concert and skipping directly from the last song to the encore.
  • End on time. People don’t like stories that are too long. Ending on time has the added bonus of showing off your teaching skills. It shows you can cover complex material and leave time for questions. To get the timing right, you need to practice your talk. Cut slides that don’t add meaning or momentum to your talk. In case it’s helpful to you as a data point, I had 48 slides in my job talk set when I entered the job market in year 2 of my postdoc. This is probably too many, but about 10 of these slides were inserted for momentum (e.g., a repeated agenda slide to show where we were in the talk, a slide of animation for a figure).
  • Avoid barriers between you and the audience. Steer clear of words like “clearly,” “obviously,” or “as you can see.” These words make it seem like ideas should be self-evident. But it’s your job to make things obvious. 

I made a visual guide of these strategies. You can snag the pdf here. Good luck to all of you on the job market this year. 

I also want to acknowledge how grim the academic job market has been. You can do everything right and still not get to the job talk stage. It’s not you, it’s our system.

Let me know what you think of today’s newsletter (my email is [email protected]).




P.S. If you think a friend might benefit from this newsletter, would you mind forwarding it to them? I remember feeling lost when I went on the job market, and I’m hoping we can keep others from having to feel that way.

P.P.S. Have you ever had bubble tea? It’s my favorite. It was invented in Taiwan, where I’m from.