person attending virtual interview

#126: How to Prepare for a Virtual Academic Job Talk

Have you been invited to give an academic job talk online? Do you have to give a presentation on your research and experiences as part of an application process? There are a few rules you need to follow in order to make your virtual presentation a success. In this post, we’ll share 6 key tips that will help you to avoid common mistakes. Organise your virtual talk according to the suggestions below and you can make sure that you’ll get your main message across and be the outstanding candidate that the search committee will remember. 

Have you received an invitation to interview for an academic job in a virtual setting? Do you have to present your research online? That may not come as a big surprise. During the pandemic when traveling was restricted, most hiring universities and research institutes held their interviews online. And most institutes have realised that this is a very efficient way to screen a number of applicants while saving time and resources. Virtual interviews reduce cost and are much easier to organise since everyone–interviewees as well as the committee–can attend from wherever they are. There’s no booking of accommodation, no travel or commute, and no need to reserve a space at the institute. Virtual interviews for academic positions have come to stay for entry-level positions or in the first round of selection, with only a handful of promising candidates being invited to a campus visit later on in the selection process. 

In the virtual space, different rules apply which you should know in order to use it to your advantage. The job talk has always been a crucial part of the selection process for an academic position, and knowing a few tricks can help you to master the virtual version. Use our 6 suggestions below and you’ll be able to significantly improve your job talk and how you come across as a candidate. 

What’s different in the virtual world? 

In general, the amount of information that is transmitted via video-conferencing tools is reduced in comparison to a live setting. You have to adjust the content of your presentation and how you communicate in the virtual setting. 

A selection committee may listen to the job talks of 8-10 applicants a day. You can imagine that fatigue sets in at some point. As a candidate, you have to make a huge effort to keep the committee’s attention and to make sure you get your message across. In a virtual setting, you need to communicate even more efficiently and make absolutely sure that the committee understands what you are saying. It’s a lot easier to lose a committee’s attention virtually than in a live setting. 

Be aware that a search committee will come together and discuss applications after they have seen all job talks. You have to make sure that your talk is memorable for all the right reasons. 

As part of our 3-day live online course ‘How to apply for an academic staff position’ all our participating scientists give short virtual job talks. The talks are critically evaluated by the group and we jointly discuss the ‘lessons to be learned.’ Some of the tips below originate from these discussions, and we’d like to thank our participants for their active contributions to the debate of what is important to consider in a virtual job talk. 

If you are not familiar with the academic interview process and the job talk in particular, please see our blog posts #16: Your job talk: 5 tips to make it a success and #27: The 8 mistakes you shouldn’t make in a job interview.

1. Start with a strong introduction

A good introduction helps to grab the selection committee’s attention right from the start.  It is about making a good entrance and raising interest in your talk. Without an explicit and strong intro, your first bits of information may be entirely lost as the committee takes their time to tune in to the topic.

Here are two great ways to start strong: 

  • Start with a great image or illustration that represents your research. Explain your topic or main research focus with the help of that image. We had a participant start with a beautiful picture of a tree in winter and summer, as her research focus was on seasonal changes in the environment. 
  • Start with a personal introduction: Tell the audience who you are and share the main steps of your scientific career path. Use photographs of the universities or research institutes you worked at until now to represent your career development. 

2. Create a clear and logical structure

Having a very obvious and logical structure for your talk helps the committee stay focused in the virtual setting. Not only should you have a clear structure, but you  should also communicate it explicitly. We suggest that after your intro, you mention what you will present in your job talk. Ideally, show one slide with an overview of your talk in bullet points. This way, the committee is aware of what comes next and will find it easier to follow.

If your invitation to the interview and job talk includes information regarding topics or themes you should talk about, follow these instructions meticulously. If not, present highlights of your research, teaching, and coordinating or leadership experiences as appropriate for the job opening. See blog post #16: Your job talk: 5 tips to make it a success! for more information. 

3. Stick to one core message per slide

You’ll do yourself a disservice by showing one overcrowded slide after the other. This is one of the most common mistakes in job talks, and is even more dangerous in a virtual setting. We understand that you want to communicate as much of your exciting research or teaching as possible, but attempting to pack in as much as possible is guaranteed to lose your audience. 

We’ve seen one job applicant who had 3 video clips running simultaneously on one slide. It was impossible to focus on all three of them at the same time. Hence it was also impossible to understand what the applicant actually wanted to demonstrate with the video-clips. The message got lost. We’ve also had applicants who show so much text on a single slide that it is not even possible to read half-way through before they jump to the next one, such as a single slide with 3 figures displaying complex results of a scientific study.

Remember this: The selection committee only has a few seconds to look at each slide while also listening attentively to what you’re saying. If you have complex information on your slide that  you don’t explain, you essentially force the members of the selection committee to multi-task. This can be stressful, leading to delays in understanding, and miscommunications. None of this has a positive effect in a job-interview. You don’t want to stress out the committee–you want them to listen to your interesting presentation with joy and interest.  

Therefore, make sure you only have one core message per slide. The core message should be stated in the heading and can be explained with a few bullet points and short phrases. Alternatively, have a single graph, illustration or image on display, and take the time to explain that well.

Use a pointer to let the audience know where on your slide you are. Be aware that your slides on screen will appear much smaller than in a live setting in a lecture hall. So not only do you have to reduce the amount of information, you’ll also have to make sure that all information is legible on a (small) computer screen. You have to increase the font size. 

Explain every point well and don’t move too quickly. You know your complicated figures inside-out. The committee members may see them for the first time, even if they are experts in your scientific field. Take your time to explain graphs and the relevance of your results. 

4. Include a teaser of your work

Your virtual job talk may last for 20 min. or more. It’s highly advisable to build in one or two ‘teasers’ or ‘samples’ of your work for the audience. Ideally, your teasers should be attention-grabbing so everyone in the committee is intrigued and excited to hear more. 

A short eye-catching video-clip showing or explaining one aspect of your research can work very well. Think of a 5-10 second video of your experimental set-up, research objects, or circumstances under which you gather your data. 

To give you a few examples: We recently had a participant who worked with bird vocalizations, and she showed a video of the birds she studied and the vocalizations these birds made while flying in a wind-tunnel. Another participant showed a video-animation of satellite images displaying retraction of ice-cover on an alpine glacier. 

Embedded in a sequence of slides before and afterwards, and well explained, such a teaser helps to catch the committee’s attention and is something that is easily remembered after your talk when the committee convenes for a discussion on the most suitable candidates. 

5. Show your upper body & hands

One of the biggest differences between a live talk and a virtual job talk is that you as a person won’t be visible in your entirety. Most virtual tools or video-conferencing platforms will only show a part of you, which is not ideal. If only your head is visible, the committee is cut off from your body-language, including gestures you make to underline what you’re saying. Without gestures and body movements, it is more difficult to follow your talk.

We suggest you make as much of yourself visible as possible. Your face has to be seen well, and should not appear too small. But having your upper body, hands and arms on display as well helps you communicate much more easily. Make sure to practice beforehand so you see how far away from your camera and screen you should sit or stand. Put lights in front of you so your face is well illuminated and visible against the background. Make eye-contact by looking right into the camera. 

In our blog post #83: How to master the online job interview, we present tips on how to master the technical details of a virtual hiring process. 

6. Show enthusiasm and excitement

As a member of a search committee, would you want to watch one (e)motionless applicant after the other rattle through a talk? Many applicants focus so intensely on what they are going to say that the strain to concentrate is palpable. They present with a closed-off facial expression while moving through the slides. Such an appearance is hardly suitable to convince a search committee that you might be an engaging teacher in the classroom or an enthusiastic speaker at university events. Why should anyone bother with your research if you do not seem enthusiastic about it yourself?

Record your virtual talk and critically reflect on it yourself. After an initial round of improvement, you can ask colleagues to watch a recording and give you feedback as well. Make sure you come across as a vivid, animated speaker who speaks to an audience with ease. The committee should sense that you ENJOY presenting to them. 

Conclusion:

There are quite a few important things to consider before an upcoming virtual job talk. But taking into account the above points can help you avoid common mistakes. None of the tips above are overtly tricky to implement–they just need a bit of planning, and careful crafting of your talk. Giving a great job talk can be the decisive moment that catapults you into a lecturer position, group leader position or a professorship. Being the one who delivers an outstanding, effective and memorable job talk moves you a great deal closer to landing an academic position and presenting yourself as the person the committee wants to hire. 

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