Here are some key points to consider as you prepare for an academic job talk.
Find out who will be attending the job talk.
Knowing your audience will help you decide how specific or technical you should make the presentation. For example, if the audience is primarily undergraduates, you’ll want to spend more time explaining the significance of your work. Also, ask about the format of the talk so you’ll know how much time you’ll have.
Your research talk will probably be related to your dissertation, but remember, this isn’t a dissertation defense. Dr. Jonathan A. Dantzig (2001), professor of mechanical and industrial engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, advises: “make sure that everyone who attends your seminar learns something.” He notes that a good job talk should answer the following questions:
• What problem have I worked on?
• Why would anyone work on this problem?
• What is significant about what I have done?
• How has my work made progress on the problem?
He offers this sample structure for a 45-minute research job talk:
Content Time Target Audience Detail Level / Purpose Background 15 Everyone present Your parents would understand it Your approach 10 People in related fields Show you know the field Your results 10 People who work in your field Show that you are the world expert on something Summary 10 Everyone in the room Relate your results to the big picturePrepare an organized presentation. Good presentations have a beginning, a middle and an end, often referred to as the “3 Ts”: Tell ‘em what you’re going to tell ‘em; Tell ‘em; and Tell ‘em what you told ‘em.
If you choose to use a Power Point presentation, don’t use complete sentences on your slides, because you’ll invariably end up turning your back to the audience and reading the slides verbatim. Instead, follow these general rules:
• Two- or three-word phrases for each point; avoid long sentences
• Generally one topic per slide
• Title for each slide
• Generally no more than 6 words a line
• Generally no more than 6 lines a slide
• Larger font to indicate more important information
• Font size generally ranging from 18 to 48 point
• Bullets to highlight your text items
• Don’t overwhelm your audience with fancy fonts, shaded backgrounds or custom effects (for example, words or phrases that fade or dissolve or graphics that fly in or out). These “enhancements” are sure to distract the listener from your presentation.
For more tips on creating effective Power Point presentations, see the next article.
If your material is too detailed to put on a slide, consider using handouts instead. But be sure the information is not too complex and that any tables, charts or graphs are clearly labeled. Finally, make sure you bring with you enough copies of the handouts with the pages stapled together.
Now that you’ve prepared your presentation, practice it.
Practice in front of your adviser, some fellow graduate students, and at least one person who knows nothing about your subject matter. Perhaps invite some undergraduates to the mock talk. Get their comments, then practice it again. Make sure your seminar is at an appropriate level for the various audience members (e.g., faculty, postdoc fellows, graduate students, undergraduate students). Get as much feedback as you can.
Practice it again. Time yourself. If you’re using slides, figure out which slide corresponds to the halfway point of your presentation. That way, you can tell whether you’re going too slowly or too fast – while you still have time to do something about it. If you’re running short of time during the talk, it’s better to cut a pre-planned optional section in the middle than to be prevented from giving the conclusion. And don’t try to include every minor detail. Keep the big picture in mind.
Ask the audience to hold questions until the end except for brief
questions of clarification. Otherwise you’re likely to get interrupted
and run out of time.
I recommend taking questions during the talk but be prepared to ask the audience to "hold more questions until the end of the talk" if the discussion gets lengthy. This way you will get more questions which is a critical means by which people will judge the general interest of your work and presentation. -BB
Start by providing an overview of the topics you’ll be covering.
Be sure to explain near the beginning why a non-specialist might be interested in your work. Near the end, be sure to explain why your substantive conclusions are of importance beyond the immediate topic of the work.
Maintain eye contact with the audience.
Choose people at various locations in the room and systematically sweep
your eyes around to be sure you engage the entire audience. Avoid standing
right in front of the projector. You’ll end up obstructing the view of
people near the front, and you’ll also be partially blinded by staring
into the projector’s light. If you use a laser pointer, slowly circle
around the item you want the audience to attend to, instead of trying
to point at it directly. If you point and you’re nervous, your shaky
hand will be greatly exaggerated by the laser beam.
I recommend trying to look at every person in the room at some time, not just people at various locations. -BB
Don’t stand in one spot during the entire presentation. Make use of both horizontal and vertical space when speaking. When asking or answering questions or emphasizing a point, move toward the audience. Create presence. Be unpredictable in your physical movement, but don’t pace back and forth.
Pause before you reply. If you’re not sure what the question is, ask for clarification by restating the question in your own words and asking if that is what the questioner meant. It’s okay to take notes on the remarks from the audience, especially on an interesting point that you hadn't considered. And it’s not a crime to say, "I don't know. That’s a great question and it would make a great follow-up research project." (Just don’t answer every question like that.) Finally, never, ever argue or become defensive with the questioner.
In the end, remember that the job talk is not another defense of your work. You don’t have to prove your competence. Instead, consider it a demonstration of your ability to contribute and collaborate as a potential colleague and as a clear communicator. That’s what your audience is most interested in knowing.
The Academic Job Search, Rice University Career Services Center.
Jonathan A. Dantzig (2001). Landing an Academic Job: The Process and the Pitfalls. Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, February 22, 2001.
Perfecting The Job Talk by Professor John Eadie, Department of Wildlife, Fish & Conservation Biology, University of California, Davis, http://iccweb.ucdavis.edu/graduates/PerfectJobTalk.htm.