Tips for a Successful Job Talk

Note: This post was originally published by Inside Higher Ed January 10th, 2018 under the tittle “Tips for a Successful Job Talk”

Job talks are high-stakes professional presentations that can make or break your chances to land your dream position. It is unsurprising, then, that they are frightening experiences. Given how important a job talk is, I have outlined a few tips to help you avoid common pitfalls. The list is by no means exhaustive. It’s intended to serve as a good place to start.

Before the Talk

Know your audience. Sometimes you will know who is on the search committee, and sometimes you will not. Regardless, you can safely assume that many (if not most) members of the search committee will attend your talk, as will other faculty members in your discipline. Your audience is not limited to faculty, either — staff and Ph.D. students may also be there. Everyone in the room is a potential colleague, so you should try to anticipate what aspects of your research they will have questions about and what they might not understand. Knowing your audience is especially important because there will be differences in methodological expertise among those who attend, and you can anticipate what those differences are. Members of the audience may be qualitative researchers, quantitative researchers, theorists, etc. Your talk should be accessible to everyone while still having enough methodological rigor to impress peers who use similar methods.

Know your data. You are the expert in the room when it comes to the content of your talk. That means that you should know your data well, and know it in a way that is both deep (i.e., you can get into the nitty-gritty of the methods), and broad (i.e., you can tie your methods and findings to the broader conversations the field is having about your topic). Plus, the better you know your data, the more confident you will feel during the talk itself.

Avoid using complicated slides. Your slides should be simple and robust against technological mishaps. Generally, this means using static slides that have zero animations. “Fancy” presentation elements such as animations, slides that move to a set timer and/or videos that require audio have a way of going wrong. For instance, you might become nervous and stop an animation, or you may get to an animation too early. You may have incorrectly built the transition to begin with. Audio might not even work (as was the case during my own job talk). Thus, it is best to avoid complicated slides entirely. Static slides that build (i.e., add elements over time) are your best bet. If you use an animation within a slide, consider using a .gif image file — they tend to be smaller and are self-contained. Static slides enable you to cycle back and forth within your presentation easily. This is especially helpful during the question-and-answer period, since your audience might refer to a specific slide.

Make supplementary slides. It is advisable to avoid the “methodological weeds” during your job talk, but it is also advisable to have slides ready to get into the weeds should the need arise. Build slides you can use to discuss the details of your method, analysis, data, etc., just in case you need to, and put them at the end of your slide deck. (A good place for them is after the obligatory thank-you slide.) Having a few slides with more data at the end of the presentation will let you address questions that you may have anticipated.

Someone, for example, may want to know what model you actually ran or see a table with results. Having those slides ready is helpful because it shows that you had similar thoughts as the person who asked the question. Supplementary slides may also give you something to reference if a relevant question is asked. Will you present only one part of a multiple study/experimental design? You can use extra slides to showcase findings from the other studies, if the question comes up.

Be mindful of your color scheme. Your university should have a PowerPoint template somewhere. Ask for it and modify it as needed. This will help you keep a consistent color scheme. If you build your slide deck from scratch, avoid common mistakes that make your presentation hard to read (like dark-blue backgrounds with black text). Many universities have brand guidelines that will help you use colors that go together. An aesthetically pleasing and well-structured presentation isn’t an end in and of itself, but it will help mitigate against misunderstandings from your audience.

Practice it. Practice it alone, practice it with your family, practice it with your peers, practice it with your adviser(s). The more practice, the better. Practice will help you work out the kinks, gain confidence, and help you prepare for questions that your audience may ask. Practice it from beginning to end, and practice individual sections by themselves. Practice it at least as much as I’ve written the word “practice” in this section (11 times).

During the Talk

Don’t get rattled if something goes wrong. Always move on from mistakes quickly. Never linger on the failure or hiccup, and do not tell your audience what was supposed to happen (e.g., “Right now you should have been seeing/hearing …”). Your audience is not in your head, so they will not somehow imagine that perfect animation that you built to demonstrate your point. Drawing more attention to a hiccup is a waste of time. The show must go on! It is more impressive to see a candidate take a setback in stride.

Avoid overusing dissertation or study-specific language. It is important to realize that your audience may not catch your first explanation of technical terms. Did you create a category and/or variable for the study that only you understand? Do not use it, or, if you use it, make sure to remind your audience what it means every so often.

Move around. Avoid standing in one place during the talk. It makes it hard to engage with you.

Demonstrate expertise. Having notes to refer to your work is fine, but do not rely on them. It is painfully obvious when a candidate is reading their talk. You do not need to memorize what you plan to say, but you should be so comfortable with the material that you can talk broadly or go deep effortlessly. On a related note, avoid looking at your own screen too much. Otherwise, you may lose your connection with the audience.

Build up to your research. The first part of your job talk should communicate who you are as a scholar, and ideally include examples that show your research agenda or trajectory, such as previously published papers. If you launch into a study right away, it will be decontextualized. It is OK to spend a slide or two on a personal story that motivates the work, but avoid telling the audience your life history.

Discuss implications. The implications section is the part of the presentation where you have to sell your ideas, approach or findings as novel and/or important. No one remembers the details of your methods, but your audience will come away with a sense of whether or not the research you presented is important/interesting/novel. It is fine to really sell it here. Is the study the first that did X? Make sure to say so. Has the method never been used in the way you used it? Mention that. Does your research have policy/practical implications? Spell them out confidently. Your audience will not know any of what makes your study interesting unless you tell them.

Discuss future work. End with where you plan to take your research. Your audience will want to know that you have a plan for future studies that will examine the phenomenon your presentation highlighted. Include future areas of research, funding sources for that work and the like.

The Question-and-Answer Period

If a question is not clear, ask for clarification. My go-to approach is to say, “What I understand you to be asking is …” as a way to confirm how I understand a question with the person who asked the question, or to ask, “I’m sorry, I didn’t quite catch that — can you repeat/clarify?” After you answer the question, it is sometimes appropriate to also ask, “Did that answer your question?” That gives the person who raised the question an opportunity to further clarify if you missed the mark.

Answer the question that was asked. You do not have to launch into an answer right away — go ahead and take a moment to collect your thoughts. Avoid “hand-waving” answers that completely avoid the question, such as “I didn’t think about that; that’s a good question,” followed by not actually answering the question. Similarly, if you are questioned about a decision you made, avoid saying anything resembling “because that’s just how I did it.” Your audience wants to know why you made a decision. Also, don’t simply say that you were wrong and/or “did not think of that,” since doing so will communicate that you did not think the method through or do not have the confidence to defend your decision.

Remember, every question is an opportunity to demonstrate — or fail to demonstrate — competence. The way that you answer a question reveals if you have thought about your topic deeply or are capable of engaging with unfamiliar territory in a thoughtful way. Take the opportunity to communicate that you understood the reason the question was asked.

You only get one shot at your job talk. Once it’s over, it’s over. Do not linger on aspects of it that you felt went poorly, and do not pat yourself on the back if you think you did exceptionally well. Your job talk, while incredibly important, is just one aspect of the entire interview experience. The suggestions I have outlined above will help you put your best foot forward.