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Academic job talk tips

Recently I had the opportunity to consult on a job talk and boy, did it bring back some memories. As someone who graduated in 2008 into a rapidly thinning job market, I gave a LOT of academic job talks (including two at my current institution) before I got that elusive tenure track offer (not until 2014, fyi)

For my first campus visit I was so nervous that I couldn’t even practice. As soon as I would start I was gripped by anxiety and words would not come out of my mouth. I somehow survived the day, although I obviously didn’t get the job. Looking back, I see I was too nervous to even reach out for help although I needed it desperately.

A few years later I gave a talk in the deep South about the fetishization of women’s bodies in condominium advertising. The search committee chair responded, “I think everything you just said is a lie.” My final job talk was clearly successful as I landed the position. The fact that my depictions of gentrification and social exclusion made two members of the audience cry was luckily not held against me.

The job talk is one of the most important parts of the academic job interview yet it’s riddled with contradictions. It has to be comprehensible to a range of non-experts and perhaps even undergraduate students and show off your theoretical sophistication. You must be engaging and serious and formal. Your talk should make you look very smart, but not smarter than everyone else in the room. In other words, it’s a fine balance.

Here are a few of the general pieces of advice that I’ve found helpful and I believe are sound. Of course, you know your disciplinary norms best.

Leslie’s academic job talk tips

The message

One of the most helpful bits of presentation advice comes from this music metaphor: “What is the tune you want your audience to be humming as they leave the room?” Translation: what is the central message that the search committee and others will take away from your research? Have you made this crystal clear from beginning to end? Is the main refrain recognizable, or lost in a jumble of other ideas? Know your tune, and make sure they hear it.

The performance

A job talk is a performance. That doesn’t mean you’re going to tap dance and jazz hands your way through it, but the audience does want to be entertained, intellectually speaking. While I don’t recommend starting with a lengthy vignette, joke, or personal anecdote, you might want to think about the “hook.” What’s going to make their ears perk up? What will make them want to know more? So, present a problem or a paradox. Draw them in with an intriguing image or surprising quotation. Keep it short, but make your audience curious.

The point

Get to the point quickly. This should be obvious, but it isn’t. In fact I had to rearrange this paragraph to move the first line to the top. Before you hit the end of your first page, you need to be on topic. This means that you give a quick “thanks for inviting me,” present your “hook,” and then tell them exactly what your presentation will cover and what the argument will be. Do not be tempted (as I have been) to start by situating your work in your longer research agenda, your personal history, or with broad definitions or descriptions of the field. It can sometimes feel like you need to cram all of this information into the job talk and that it’s important context for your work. But if you put it all at the beginning, you’ll lose them.

The strategy

Be strategic and think about how you’ll share everything you want to share at different points during the interview. One solution to the problem above is to remember that most academic interviews are long. At least a day. You’ll likely have a chance to share your research trajectory (past and future) and even your personal investment in the topic at some other point, either during the formal interview or in informal discussions throughout the day.

The other solution is to use a little time at the end for a discussion of how this particular bit of research fits into your long term agenda. They definitely want to know that you have a research plan, but don’t use precious minutes at the beginning laying out your timeline or funding plans.

The significance

“Why does this matter?” This is a question I ask often when I do peer reviews of manuscripts. Authors may assume that the significance of their work is self-evident, but I say, tell me why I should care! Similar to making sure you know the “tune,” make sure you can clearly state the importance of the work. How does it connect to or help one start to answer bigger questions? What social or economic need is it responding to? Is the survival of the planet at stake? Okay, don’t overstate it’s importance, but know – and explain – why it matters.

The focus

Focus, focus, focus. If you’re in the midst of or just finished a dissertation, it can be very daunting to create a 30-40 minute talk out of hundreds of pages of work. Accept from the start that you are not presenting your dissertation. You can, and must, only present on ONE aspect of the work – one key question, one key finding. Explain how it fits into the whole dissertation, but if you start trying to present the whole project, you’ll be out of time before you ever get to the results.

The literature review

One of the hardest things for newer academics to do is slash and burn most of the literature review for the job talk. This is where we feel comfortable, nestled among our foremothers and telling everyone what wonderful things they said and wrote. But in the job talk you need to limit this to a very brief (half a page or so?) note about how you situate yourself in relation to other work, without delving deeply into that work. Just tell them what they need to know to make sense of your question and project. And then it’s all about you.

The preparation

Practicing the talk is essential not just for polishing the presentation, but for clarifying your thinking. When you read the talk out loud, you will be pushed to make your language more precise, concise, and clear. It should go without saying that you need to practice in order to stick to time as well. And finally, it’s important to be able to look up, move around, and relax a little. Even if it’s the norm to “read” a full paper in your discipline, practice means that you can sound more comfortable and that you won’t panic if you lose your place.

The PowerPoint

Practical tip: if you’re using Powerpoint slides, consider pasting your talk chunk by chunk into the notes section on Powerpoint. Paste the chunk of text you expect to say while that slide is on the screen. Then, print those off by selecting “Print” and then “Notes.” That way, you’ll have a little picture of the slide along with the text you’ll be reading in your physical hands. I have found this much better than typing [next slide] into my notes for remembering which exact slide should be on screen at any moment.

I hope these suggestions help!

3 thoughts on “Academic job talk tips”

  1. Leslie, your post brings back vivid memories of my own job talks and the juggling act of showcasing expertise without overshadowing others. Your metaphor of the “tune” you want your audience to leave humming is such an apt way to approach crafting a memorable and impactful presentation. Your tips, especially on being strategic with sharing and focusing on a single aspect of research, are incredibly helpful and would have saved me some sweaty palms in my early career!

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