Preparing a Job Talk: Maximizing Your Impact During Campus Visits

by Leandra Parris, PhD, Illinois State University
 
Whether you are seeking your first academic position or hoping to find a new one, tis the season for job searches. We’ve previously addressed the job search process here and here. Soon campus visits will begin (for some programs, they are well underway) and hopeful candidates will begin to experience the dread, worry, and excitement of preparing for the marathon of meetings, meals, and presentations. It can be easy to get overwhelmed by the process, particularly since it can sometimes last up to two days. From debates about drinking during your visit to what questions are (and are not) appropriate to ask, job candidates seeking advice will get a long, mixed list of do’s and don’ts. But one thing is consistent: the job talk is one of, if not the, most important part of the campus visit. Your skills in teaching, research, and presenting your expertise will all be evaluated in this 45-60 minute talk. But don’t stress (too much). We’ve put together a list of ideas that will help you prepare for and pull off your job talk.  
 
Know What Is Expected. A search committee likely has a fairly specific idea of what they want to see in candidates’ talks and these expectations can vary from position to position depending on the nature of the institution, unit, and program. A traditional job talk may focus exclusively on detailing a single study, but it’s increasingly common for committees to ask candidates to provide insight into their research agenda or a progression of studies. Some search committees will also ask for multiple talks, such as a research talk and a teaching demonstration, and some, depending on the nature of the position (e.g., heavy teaching), may only want a teaching demonstration. Identifying the exact nature of your job talk is a vital first step to preparing a compelling talk.
 
If the search committee doesn’t articulate their expectations, don’t be afraid to ask. You might query their expectations or goals for the presentation, how much time you should leave for questions, and how specialized versus broad your audience will be. There are numerous questions you might ask depending on the information provided: Will you be presenting only to the faculty and students of the school psychology program, or to the faculty of the entire department/college? Do faculty like handouts? Is an extensive Q&A portion expected? If that’s the case, it’s a mistake to present for the full time. Find out how long they’d actually like you to spend on the presentation portion if it’s not already clearly identified in your visit agenda. You might also ask about the type of room you can expect, since you may choose to adjust your presentation style or materials if you are in a conference room as opposed to an amphitheater for 100 or more.
 
Be knowledgeable but clear. When it comes to presenting your research, it is easy to give too much or too little. You have spent years dedicated to this line of investigation, while the same is unlikely to be true of your audience. This can cause applicants to forget that not everyone is familiar with the terms and processes that seem so second nature. Or the applicant is very aware of the complexity of the issue at hand and glosses over details in an attempt to simplify their presentation. According to Dr. Mark Swerdlik from Illinois State University, job applicants do not always “go into enough depth in their talk [which is] tricky because [they] are also talking to some in [the] audience that are not likely familiar” with their area of research. This is also true of your teaching philosophy and the materials you may choose to include in a teaching demonstration. When you practice your talk, don’t only rely on feedback from friends or peers who know your research area well—ask friends, colleagues, or even family members, unfamiliar with the intricacies of your research who can help you identify the aspects of your presentation that may be unclear, confusing, or overly dense.
 
The importance of explaining your research without overburdening your audience rises from one simple assumption: people who are truly experts can explain their topic area to anyone with clarity. However you choose to demonstrate your research or teaching style, make sure the format is easily understood, uses laymen’s terms whenever possible, and makes complex phenomena, philosophies, and methods appear straight forward. 
 
Teach them something. If there is not a teaching demonstration as part of the interview process, then your skills as an instructor will be inferred from your job talk. As pointed out by Dr. Tara Raines from the University of Denver, “Your job talk is a sample of your teaching style.” You may not feel like it, but you are in fact the expert in your area of interest and this your chance to share what you know with the audience. Show them that you can not only be an expert, but you can help others become experts, too. You also want them to know that you can be an effective instructor through interactions with your students, which leads to our next bit of advice. 
 
Be engaging. Don’t be afraid to be enthusiastic, according to Dr. Swerdlik. Because this is your chance to show that you are sound researcher and excellent instructor, it is important that you show that you also like doing these things. There are multiple ways to be engaging, such as quick activities related to your topic, walking the room, or simply modulating your voice to convey passion and interest (pro tip: Your speaking style shouldn’t mimic Ben Stine’s). Try not to rely on notes or slides too heavily since no one attends your job talk to watch you read. Instead, allow your slides to supplement what you are saying rather than dictating or constraining your presentation. Make eye contact with multiple people in your audience, doing your best to draw them into the presentation the same way you would try to increase nonverbal participation while teaching. Let your personality show and don’t be afraid to throw in some humor to help you relax and connect with your audience—but not too much. Humor is subjective and may be off-putting to some members of your audience.
 
Think about when you are the most comfortable explaining your research or instructional topic and do your best to emulate that throughout your talk. This will help you be clear, knowledge, and engaging. When you practice your talk, do it as you will for the real event and ask for feedback on style of you have a volunteer audience.
 
Be responsive. You are going to have to read your audience. If it is clear that there are multiple people who are confused, stop and ask if there are questions. If they seem to have gotten a point that you are still trying to make, move on. If they are a more serious crowd, cut the humor. This may mean being flexible, expecting the unexpected, and staying cool under pressure should someone in the audience throw you off. From technology mishaps, scheduling issues, and people walking in and out of your presentation, there can be distractions and things that throw you off your game. But stay with your audience in the moment. 
 
Connect with the program/position. According to Dr. Celeste Malone of Howard University, one of the biggest mistakes candidates make is “not describing how their research fits with the department or program.” Whether it is linking to the mission or orientation of the program or college, an extension or expansion of current research being conducted by faculty, or a complement to ongoing research within the unit, make it clear what your contribution will be to this specific program and department or school. This also shows that you have done your research about the institution and demonstrates your interest in not just getting a job, but getting this job. That’s important to search committees and your potential future colleagues.
 
Show them where you’re going. In addition to failing to connect with the program, Dr. Malone pointed out that some candidates don’t make it explicit “how they plan to extend their research.” While having an excellent research study to discuss is wonderful, failing to outline next steps is much like conducting an evaluation then providing no recommendations. Those looking to hire you are using your current presentation to evaluate your potential scholarly contributions, and in many places, this concerns is implicitly or explicitly tied to tenure and promotion standards. Accordingly, your research agenda should be explicitly stated. This can be especially important if the research you present is exclusively your dissertation, or alternatively, the work you did your advisor or a center – you need to make clear the potential trajectory of your research program as an independent scholar. Think about what you want your research agenda or teaching development to look like over the next five years and highlight those goals for the audience.
 
Know your limits. We all want to be fancy with our presentations. We want to awe our audience, make them laugh with us, and leave without any doubts of our competency and likeability. But this is not the time to try out a new teaching technique, activity, or technology. Stick with what you know, what makes you comfortable, and presentation methods that do not tax your cognitive processes. You will need bit of your brain focused on your presentation, not also trying to figure out a new clicker with fancy features or how to make certain graphics work. Also, make sure that your presentation is not so fancy that it cannot easily work on both a PC and a Mac. That last thing you want is for all your hard work to get lost in translation between software.  Be prepared to do a tech-free presentation should there be a hardware malfunction.
 
Prepare answers. This one seems pretty obvious but it’s surprising how often candidates can be caught off guard by questions from the audience. Listen attentively, check for clarity if you are not sure what is being asked, and stall with phrases such as “That is an interesting question,” or “You know, I need a minute to think on that,” if you don’t readily have a response. You should also be prepared to answer as many questions as you can think of that may pop up. One way to help with this is to present to someone, or a group, that does not know anything about your topic area. This will help not only make sure you are clear in your presentation but the questions they have may help prepare you for possible questions during the job talk.
 
Practice. As always, practice. This will help you rely less on your slides and notes, seem natural and clear in your discussion, and hopefully appear confident and relaxed. This, in turn, will help you be engaging and show your best self as an instructor, researcher, and future colleague. Practice in the mirror, practice with your friends, practice at the bar with strangers – whatever works for you.
 
What other tips do you have for mastering the job talk? 

Don't name drop too much.

Don't name drop too much. Just because you work with 'big name' people or someone you think is a big name doesn't mean you should mention them every 2 minutes. If you are being interviewed, they are considering hiring you not your mentor or collaborators. you don't want to take undue credit for their work but you also don't want to make it seem like you should be hired based on your association to them alone.
It doesn't hurt to include citations in your presentation.

Don't try to cram too much

Don't try to cram too much text on your slides! 2 reasons: 1. The more text you cram, the more likely you'll be to rely on reading the slides, which doesn't generally make for a good presentation. 2. The audience won't appreciate tiny text. I try to follow the rule of no more that 6-8 words per line so that I can be reasonably confident that slides will be readable regardless of the size of the room or screen.

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