Friday, September 9, 2016

Job Talk Advice

Seems to be the time of year when folks post their advice for aspiring professors on how to succeed at the job talk.  For non-academics, the job talk is the heart of the interview for folks seeking jobs (especially tenure-track or tenured positions) in academia.  While there are other parts of the process--being interviewed one on one by various members of the department or getting grilled by a committee (something that happens far more in Canada than in the US), the most important (and probably not deservedly so)* part of the "fly-out" is giving a talk based on one's research and responding in the Q&A.

I tend not to be very humble here and offer all kinds of unsolicited advice, but I hesitate on this particular question because my record, um, ain't great.  I have been given three job offers (TTU, McGill, Carleton) in my career.  That's it.  And I have interviewed and rejected many, many times--more than sixteen ... .  I might have blogged my advice about job talks before, but I can't seem to find the post.  So, here is just a few tips to go along with the stuff circulating this week (see the link's in Tom's post).

Some basic technical stuff:
  • Don't use a software platform for your presentation that is finicky or otherwise not widely available.  In other words, no Prezi.
  • Do have a PDF of your slides in case your software does not work so that you can at least page through on the projector through your outline/figures/tables.  Keep your files on your laptop and on a usb key and on dropbox---plan for technical failure.  Have a printout.
  • Don't make the slides overly busy with noises, things sliding dynamically, etc.  The focus should be on you and your message and not anything fancy. Also, large fonts, please.  Keep the tables of stats clear and big and use color.  Really!
  • Not too many slides--if you cannot present all the slides in an unhurried manner in 30-40 minutes, you have too many slides.  Keep to the time limit or even a bit short of it.
  • Ignore Axelrod's advice about asking people not to ask questions.  They will if they want to.
  • Damn near every place expects the talk to be about your current/recent research.  Pick one project and talk about it, maybe putting it into the context of your larger research program.  Don't talk about your entire research portfolio.  You need to demonstrate that you can speak about a question and how you handled it.
The Big Stuff:
  • It is kind of like a first date but with much bigger stakes--so be the best version of yourself.  Be confident but not arrogant.  But don't be someone else.  Don't lie about who you are, what you do, what you plan to do, but shape your presentation to fit the school/program/department (try to get students directly engaged if it is a liberal arts college--another lesson learned the hard way).
  • Nobody in the room knows as much about your stuff as you do.  But many will think that the they do.  Stick to what you know and don't offer up examples that you don't know about (that killed me in my second talk).  Oh, and Saideman's rule of dissertations applies here as well: just because you learned something does not mean it belongs in a job talk.
  • Make it interesting to someone who does not work in your subfield or even field.  I had someone ask me during one of my talks: so, you explain why war happens under certain conditions, so what?  Um, because war is kind of important, right?  Good thing I really screwed up other parts of that talk so that this did not matter so much.
  • Practice, practice and practice including among friends who can pretend to be hostile audiences.
  • The Q&A is key: anticipate the likely questions, perhaps even have slides that might address likely questions, answer what you can by staying within your theoretical approach as much as you can.  If they ask you to talk about a current event, show how your approach makes sense of it.  Acknowledge the limitations of your approach.  It is ok to say "I don't know" once or twice.  Don't be defensive but don't agree to every criticism of your approach either. It is a balancing act.
Aftermath:
  • Getting the job or not is often very idiosyncratic.  Don't take rejection too personally--if they are interviewing three people, the odds are against you.  
  • Try to figure out what you could have done better.  If you have friends or contacts in the places you have interviewed, ask after it is all over what you could improve.  

This is all basic stuff, but it is amazing how many people screw up the basics ... including this guy.






*  I wrote a while back that academics are not so great judges, that the process seems as random as drafting good NFL or NBA players.

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