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Mastering the Job Talk

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It's a phenomenon unique to academia — and essential for anyone seeking an academic job. The invited seminar, more commonly known as the job talk, is your opportunity to relate your research background and goals to an institution's faculty and student community. As such, "it is viewed by the faculty as the key step in the evaluation process" for any candidate, says Harris Lewin, director of the Institute for Genomic Biology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

The job talk will usually take place on the first day of interviews at a university, and it's the best opportunity you have to introduce yourself and get the faculty interested in your work. More importantly, it's your chance to impress them with how your work fits in with theirs, and how having you around could allow them to do more exciting science themselves. "If you can know your audience and particularly know some of their research and tie that into your talk," says Eden Martin, director of the Center for Genetic Epidemiology and Statistical Genetics at the Miami Institute of Human Genomics, "it makes it look like you've done a little bit of work beforehand."

Because your audience will be composed of people from a wide range of backgrounds, an important step is to offer "a big-picture understanding of what they do and how that fits into broader research," Martin says. Don't attempt to explain all of your research; pick one or two particularly interesting threads and stick with those. Lewin says a general introduction is best, and it's a critical part of framing your hypothesis in a way that will be understandable and interesting to people who are not specialists in your field. In a 45-minute talk, expect to spend no more than 10 minutes laying this groundwork, Lewin says. Also, avoid the temptation to dwell on the technology you used in your research. "[You should] not go into such detail that it becomes a technical presentation," Lewin adds. Expect to include two or three slides on your tools and materials, and those can be scattered throughout your talk.

The most important points will be your results and conclusions — these should take a third to half of your time — and your plans for the future. Explain "what the critical next steps are," Lewin says. "If you don't do that you really miss an opportunity to impress people."

Finally, make sure you leave enough time for questions. Faculty expect they'll have this opportunity, so one of the worst things you can do is speak right up till the end of your time slot and not have time left for the audience. This step allows people "to see how well you think on your feet," Lewin says. It will also demonstrate how you respond to challenges, so by all means, says Martin, be candid — if you don't know the answer to a question, say so. That comes across better than trying to evade a question. "I have seen people get themselves in a lot of trouble by trying to BS their way through an answer," she says.

 

The How-To's of Giving a Great Talk

Aside from the usual good practices of giving a talk — address the audience, not your slides; keep your slides simple and easy to read; don't fidget with your hair or clothes — there's no shortage of tips specific to giving a good job talk. Here are a few starters:

Attend, attend, attend.

If you're already in the academic environment — be it as a grad student, postdoc, or faculty member — the best way to see what works and what doesn't is to attend as many job talks as possible. These are open to the whole campus community, so sit in and make note of what people respond to and what doesn't go over well.

Rehearse with peers.

It's not enough to practice the job talk; you need feedback from the type of people who will be attending. Ask your labmates or anyone else to listen to your seminar ahead of time and get their suggestions on how to improve it.

Prep your audience.

At least two weeks before your talk, send the abstract and a short bio so they can be circulated to faculty and students, says Harris Lewin at UIUC. You'll be more likely to get strong attendance if people get more than the title of your talk.

Introduce yourself.

The biggest mistake most candidates make "is to come in and assume everybody read your last paper," Lewin says. You're presenting to a broad audience, so be sure to offer a good overview of your research area to help non-specialists put your findings into context.

Results are key.

Lewin says your results and the conclusions you draw from them are the most important part of your talk, so be prepared to spend a third or even half of your presentation discussing them.

Budget your time.

"Find out how long you have to talk, and don't go over that," says Eden Martin at the University of Miami. Lewin says you should allow for 10 minutes of questions from the audience at the end. If you talk right up to the end of your allotted time and no one gets the chance to ask questions, "that's a big negative," Lewin says.

What's next.

A successful talk will not only tell your audience about the work you've done, but it will assure them that you have great plans for future research. Spend a couple of slides on where you plan to direct your work going forward.

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