Some people call it the most important talk in your career! – The talk that you give when you’re applying for an academic position. If you deliver a brilliant job talk, you might get the tenure-track-professorship that you always dreamed about. If you do well and succeed, it might well be the last job talk you have to give. It is a fantastic chance – and you don’t want to spoil it! A lot is at stake! Are you positive you’ve done all you can to prepare well? Do you know how to demonstrate that you’re the best candidate for the position? Utilise our 5 tips for a professional and winning job talk!
What is a job talk?
In the application process for an academic position you go through several stages:
- You prepare and submit your job application,
- you might get invited to be part of the selection process,
- you are invited for a job talk at the institute where you applied,
- you have a job interview, and if you get a job offer
- you will negotiate the terms of appointment.
With a great cover letter and compelling CV, you’ve earned an entry ticket to the interview process. If you’re uncertain about how to guarantee an eye-catching cover letter and avoid common mistakes, get our free Expert Guide: 8 common reasons why application letters fail. All stages of the job application are vital but the job talk is when you can really score major points. See more on the job talk’s performance in Mascarelli’s article on ‘The all-important job talk’ (Nature 513, pp 131-133).
The search committee invited you because they thought you would be qualified, and they now want to experience you ‘live’. The job talk is a talk of 30-60 min. in which you present yourself and your work. The talk is followed up by questions and comments from the audience. The exact content of your talk is flexible – some search committees give detailed instructions as to what they want you to present, others give a few broad topics they want you to cover, and some leave it entirely open.
Who is the audience?
The audience of a job talk varies. It can be the selection committee only, or it can be open to the academic public:
- The selection committee is often composed of academics from the very group or department that is hiring, plus people from adjacent and unrelated disciplines to bring in a more balanced view. So you’re not only faced with experts from your field in the committee.
- The academic members of the institute may include a larger and mixed audience of students and staff in addition to the the selection committee. Presenting to this audience means you must also make a first impression on your potential new colleagues.
Regardless of whomever is sitting in the audience – the search committee is your prime target. They are in charge of the hiring process and pick or suggest the candidate that will get the job offered.
What is the purpose?
The purpose of the job talk for you is to show the very best of yourself and your work (e.g. research and teaching). You try to convince the search committee that you are the most suitable candidate for the offered job. During the entire application process, this is the one situation in which you can show your abilities best: you are in the driver’s seat and everyone else listens! It’s THE chance to win the committee over! If you misstep here, you can hardly make up for it in the interview with the search committee that follows.
Everything is up for questioning
You are being evaluated for the entirety of your talk, and believe us, everything is up for scrutiny here. Don’t be fooled into thinking that this is about your work and achievements only. It is just as much about you as a person. The search committee tries to picture you in the very position you are actively seeking: If you get this job, what kind of teacher, mentor, leader, colleague or friend would you be? How would you act when holding this position? What kind of person are you?
You’ve got to come across as the person that ticks all boxes: Your work should be up to the highest standard, and so should the way you present it and how you present yourself. You must display complete professionalism.
We regularly train candidates how to give great job talks (see our course ‘How to apply for an academic staff position’). During our courses, participants practice and deliver mock job talks for an academic position. Over the years, we’ve come across a ton of reoccurring mistakes. There are the usual technical hiccups and presentation faux-pas, like standing in front of the slides, or talking in a speed that no-one can follow. In this post we want to bring your focus to those top 5 issues, which are rarely discussed, and are probably less obvious, but we consider them crucially important for a convincing and successful job talk.
All of the below mentioned issues can make or break your candidacy! But, with a little bit of attention and practice, these mistakes are easy to avoid. We so much want you to succeed and to be the one who gets the job offer. Use our 5 tips below to prep yourself!
Tip 1: Show presence and address the audience directly!
We completely understand that everybody is hyper nervous when giving a job talk. Many applicants seem to just want to get it over with to end their misery. But entering a job talk with that mindset is not the best strategy, because it will shine through in your appearance. If you ‘just want to get it over with’, you will turn mentally away from the audience and ‘shut down’. As a result, you often talk as if there’s no one else in the room and you’re on ‘auto-talk’ mode. You also risk talking at a very fast pace (because then it’s over quicker!).
For a search committee, you will appear as a detached and remote person. If you talk too fast, it will be hard for everyone to follow or understand what you are presenting. If you are not the only candidate, which is most likely the case, but are number 6 or 10 presenting that day, your talk may hardly be remembered until you are due for the interview that follows.
However, the occasion of a job talk for a position that you truly want, which is important to you, means you’ve got to show up with a different mindset.
Here is what you need to do to make your job talk a success:
- You’ve got to show presence here, and you’ve got to show that you can face and handle a larger crowd.
- You’ve got to embody a professor or lecturer – you’ve got to be the person of the position you are applying for. Show them how it will look when they hire you for the position they want to fill.
- Before your job talk, prep yourself and tell yourself that you are going to enjoy giving this talk, no matter what: “I enjoy giving this talk, and I am proud and happy to be here!” Say that out loud!
- When you enter the stage, you talk TO the audience and show them that you want to be there. It might also help you to imagine that you are in a teaching situation and you are standing in front of students. This can help to calm your nerves, and make it easier to be in front of the audience! If you worry about how to deal with nerves, check out our blog post #3 How to cope with stage fright?
Tip 2: Present a clear and relevant message!
There are job talks that deliver one bit of content after another, without an explicit overarching message or obvious purpose behind stringing them together. The audience feels overwhelmed by the massive overload of information they receive. The presentation may display a sequence of micro-messages, which may all make sense in themselves, but fail to tell the audience how it fits into the bigger picture of your research or teaching qualifications. There seems to be no obvious underlying logic behind it. You forgot to provide the audience with the the bigger context, the relevance, the beauty, the significance, or the societal benefit of your research.
For the committee (and everyone else in the audience), it is difficult to grasp or imagine the full range of content that is delivered. They can’t assess the importance of your work, nor it’s implication or benefit.
We see presentations of job talks across all academic fields – from archaeology, comparative linguistics and law, nursing and political sciences to neuroscience, biochemistry and atmospheric physics. We still remember those – often after years – that give us a convincing case or purpose for why they do what they do.
Here is what you need to do:
- You’ve got to have a clear message on what you do and you’ve got to communicate it in a nutshell to the audience! It needs to be crystal clear what you stand for, what you do and why you do it. We’ll give you two examples here: one job talking we remember for a professorship in international law. The applicant’s topic was ‘Piracy in the Mediterranean’. At the beginning of the talk, she managed to tell us in a few short sentences why the current situation was disastrous (lack of law) and everyone understood in the talk that followed how her work contributed towards developing international law to solve that problem! Another applicant from the field of archaeology had worked on ‘Prehistoric spindles’. She started her talk with a huge photograph of an ancient spindle, and explained shortly how much information she could extract from just a single specimen, which she used to weave her her talk around. She managed to bring ancient history to life and everyone listened intently to a talk on a relatively obscure subject.
- Try to grasp the audience’s attention right from the beginning. Tell them what they will learn from your talk, what they can expect and what the benefit is. Make sure they understand the problem you are working on, and then you’re not only addressing, the one specialist from your field, but everyone.
- Put your work into context, tell the audience a story that centres around your work. They want to see how your work fits into the larger picture. You can use this as a framework throughout your talk, and come back to it when you present major results and also at the end. This helps the search committee put what you present into context – so they understand why your work is relevant, why your results matter.
- Use visual elements, photographs, animations, illustrations, – whatever is suitable – to explain your work.
- Try to lead the committee to a point where they really want to hire you, because they want you to continue doing your great work and teach their students.
Tip 3: Focus, select and simplify your slide content!
The time you will be given for your job-talk is limited (and communicated beforehand). You may think you have to communicate every single aspect of your research to accurately represent it, and therefore you try and pack as much content into your talk as possible. This often results in slides that are overcrowded not only with text, but complex graphs, figures, tables etc…
But no one, not even the nerdy expert in your very specialisation can fully grasp the complexity of your message in the few seconds that they see it your slide. If you show one overcrowded slide after the other, you’re quickly, and ultimately loosing the audience’s attention.
As for the committee, they can’t get any real insight into your competence as a researcher, and might question your abilities as a speaker. As they will also picture you as a teacher, you might not come across as someone who is able to explain complicated subjects to students.
Here is what you need to do:
- Slip into the audience’s shoes and try to see your slides from their point of view. You’ve done your research for years and know it from the inside out. But imagine the search committee seeing your slides for the first time. How would that feel? Which part of your content will be understood by only the experts? What do you have to explain in order to reach them? How can you help them to better understand what you are going to say? Don’t forget that part of the job committee is not among the experts in your subject area, so you’ve got to give them a chance to understand as well. Of course, you want to come across as the expert in your field, but you also want to come across as an expert who can communicate well.
- Reduce the complexity on your slides. Look at each one, and figure out what the core message is.
- Stick to one message per slide.
- It can be a great strategy to exchange the original plots or complex tables, figures and graphs, to create visually appealing, simplified illustrations that sum up your main points in a good way.
Tip 4: Connect your oral and slide delivery!
This problem is closely related to the previous point. It is particularly important when explaining complex content. Let us illustrate what we mean here: During the job talk, you stand at a lectern or desk at one side of the lecture room, looking towards the audience. The slides are displayed in the background behind you. Your talk goes on and the slideshow moves forward, but there is no connection between the oral and the slide delivery. You stand (sometimes frozen-like) on one spot without moving. There is no attempt to walk to the slides, to explain something or to highlight a particular bit of content or figures. You may have great illustrations included in the presentation, but the audience misses the point, because they are not explained.
For the search committee and the audience this feels a bit like watching two separate shows at the same time. They have to process the information that they get from the slides AND follow what you’re talking about. Sometimes the committee may feel as if the information on the slides is redundant, because it is not mentioned at all. Or, there might be a lot of (important) information on the slides that is not taken up in the talk. As a result, the committee may be left with more questions than answers.
Here is what you need to do:
- Try to create ONE seamless presentation not two competitive shows. Your oral delivery and your slide presentation have to be in complete sync and mutually support each other. The content that is delivered orally has to match with what you display on the respective slide. You show text (just a few keywords to highlight what you’re saying) or visual content, or a well-designed combination of both.
- Interact with your slides: Walk up to them, take a stick, your arm, a laser pointer or use gestures to emphasise what you are talking about on the slides. In the case of illustrations, figures, tables etc. go right up to your slide, stand in front of it (face to audience) and explain it there so everyone can follow.
- Walking back and forth from time to time also creates space and presence and makes your talk more lively and natural.
Tip 5: Master the ‘question-and-answer game’!
It is common that the search committee (first) and then the wider audience (second) will ask you questions related to your talk after you have finished. Imagine the search committee as a mixture of experts and scholars from a broader field (or unrelated). That means, questions can go in all directions: A few might be closely related to the specific content of your research, others may be strongly framed by the disciplinary background of the person who is asking. There may be questions that are rather critical -of your approach, content, or research in general-, or critical regarding the relevance and societal benefit or your work. Questions can also touch on wider ethical aspects of your work (especially if you are working with patients, children, animal experiments etc.). Some members of the committee may also deliberately ask you difficult, irritating, or probing questions. They can also put leading questions, whose answer is more about a particular opinion or controversy than scientific facts.
As a top candidate, you will have to know how to play that game, but often applicants struggle with this part and become insecure. Starting an answer with ‘Ahh hmm, I don’t know …!’ is unprofessional and looks unassertive/indecisive/hesitant. Another mistake is to give the impression that you don’t care about the question, or do not consider it relevant. Reacting in a defensive way may not be the most frequent mistake, but we see it happen from time to time and then it can be an absolute talk killer.
The way you respond to the questions after your job talk speaks 1000 words about you! It is incredibly important! After the talk, you’re charged and you’re likely high on adrenalin. You may think it’s done and dusted, but the game is not over yet. While your talk is rehearsed, the questions are not, and it’s then that the applicants often display their true nature. Stay focused, and make sure you see the ‘questions-and-answer game’ as part two of your job talk.
Here is what you need to do:
- If you can, move closer to the audience to answer the questions. Be right there and stand in front of them, if the setting allows for it. Give the selection committee the feeling that they can throw whatever question they want at you – you’ll be able to address them all well and with grace.
- When you answer, be friendly and welcoming. Really! You must welcome each single question and be happy to answer.
- Try to genuinely understand what the person’s question is about – if necessary, ask back or rephrase the question with your own words.
- If you get leading questions, or ones that ask for your opinion, be careful. Come up with a politically correct answer that does not put anyone off. Don’t blurt out your most private opinion or berate anyone with your personal philosophy.
- If you are criticised, stay cool. You can say that this is a good point to make, that you have considered it, but (for good reasons …) you (this time …) decided otherwise. Think beforehand what could be critical points of your research and prepare strategic answers.
- Keep your answers short and factual, so there is time for as many questions as possible.
You should prep yourself well for your next job talk! A convincing talk shows an applicant who is a real pro and has a great personality! As one successful candidate recently recalled about her job-talk:
“I was very nervous before, but I stayed totally focused and concentrated on my presentation [while waiting and watching other candidates talks]. When it was my turn I walked to the lectern, looked into the audience and then I was just there, all tension was gone and I just enjoyed showing everything that I had practised in my mind for so long!”
We want you to be equally successful with your next job talk! Remember our 5 tips for a successful job-talk and you can stay on top of your game and make your next job talk an enjoyable one – for yourself, but also for the committee!
- SMART ACADEMICS blog post #3 How to cope with stage fright?
- Free Expert Guide: 8 common reasons why application letters fail.
- Amanda Mascarelli (2014): Interviews: The all-important job talk, Nature 513, pp 131-133,
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