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.


This post originally appeared in Inside Higher Ed on 11/15/16

Current events have highlighted systemic racism in America yet again, and social media feeds continue to be inundated with posts about racism and police brutality. Often, these online conversations enter the classroom, lecture hall or other communal spaces within the university. This can often leave administrators, faculty members and students to fend for themselves during conversations that are, by their very nature, heated and laden with emotional content.

To address this, many people have turned to the language of privilege to structure conversations and unpack racism for those who may be predisposed to deny its very existence. Regardless of how popular the term “privilege” has become, I have never found it particularly useful in discussions, because it is too generic and abstract.

In fact, I believe that “privilege” is a sterile word that does not grapple with the core of the problem. If you are white, you do not have “white” privilege. If you are male, you do not have “male” privilege. If you are straight, you do not have “straight” privilege. What you have is advantage. The language of advantage, I propose, is a much cleaner and more precise way to frame discussions about racism (or sexism, or most systems of oppression).

Any and all advantages one can have are based — in part, or in whole — on a system of oppression designed to elevate certain innocuous expressions of humanity over others (skin color, sexual preference and so on). Thus, the language of advantage begins by first enumerating one’s advantages and understanding their origins.

For example, I am advantaged as a male. That advantage affords me a higher salary on average when compared to women, regardless of talent, which in turn affords the further advantage of enabling me to build wealth. If I were white, my advantages would grow. In the academy, I am also, perplexingly, better equipped to take advantage of paternity leave. Being male also enables me to express my opinions as though they were fact — my opinions in certain spaces are generally not questioned, or if they are, it is not assumed that I am wrong.

Those are simple examples, but they illustrate the point. Advantages can be summed up in a way that can generate a net advantage or disadvantage in certain spaces. This exercise is similar to a “privilege walk.” But it is different in that any advantages will not just net me a meaningless step forward in comparison to my peers. Thinking in this way forces me to understand what my advantages can, in fact, buy.

The distinction between “privilege” and “advantage” is important because “privilege” is not a particularly useful phrase to incite change in the minds or actions of others. No one wants to give up privileges. The entire idea of a privilege is based on possessing a special status that is somehow deserved. Privileges feel good.

Think about all of your privileges. Do you want to give them up? Does giving them up make you feel like you have somehow done someone a favor? (“Here you go … make sure you use this well.”) Or does giving up a “privilege” seem incoherent? It might, because generally privileges are given and taken by someone else. They are earned, and are seldom bad things to have.

Now try shifting your language to that of advantages. Ask yourself, “What advantages do I have over that person over there?” That question is much easier to answer and yields more nuanced responses. If I answer for myself, I can readily see that not all advantages are inherently problematic on their face. As a tall person I am advantaged in some spaces (e.g., reaching up to grab something from the high shelf in a supermarket), and disadvantaged in others (e.g., sitting in a cramped seat on an airplane). Yet if one looks under the surface, one can see that in both circumstances my (dis)advantage is predicated on design choices that are outside of my control. They are systemic. (It is also silly to say that I am tall privileged.)

What about a wealthy high school student who scored well on their SAT? They could unpack their success by understanding their advantage, for example: “Yes, my SAT scores are higher than someone else’s, but that may be because I have advantages in schooling that are predicated on the wealth of my community and/or parents. My schools are better, and I had access to tutoring. Moreover, some of that wealth is a result of oppressing people of color by historically denying them the ability to buy property in nicer areas, thus limiting their capacity to build and transmit wealth to their children. Those advantages are unearned, yet I still benefit from them. So, no, I won’t get bent out of shape if someone else with lower SAT scores is admitted into this fancy college and I’m not.”

The above example is more complex than my innocuous example about my height, but both have the same structure. They both require situating an advantage in a larger sociocultural context. While this is possible by using privilege, doing so can get clunky very quickly, and can shut down conversations before they become meaningful.

Unpacking systematically unfair systems through the language of advantage affords nuance. The poor white farmer lacks economic advantage but still possesses white advantage, and he can thus interact with law enforcement without fear. The wealthy black businessperson lacks racial advantage but can mitigate some of the negative effects of that through the strategic use of wealth. The difference? The white farmer will always be white. The black businessperson may not have always been wealthy, may lose his or her wealth, and his or her wealth can be ignored by a more powerful government.

The language of advantage also implies intersectionality, and this allows for a better understanding of one’s net advantage. For example, I am a Mexican-American man. I do not have “male privilege.” I am a man, and that affords certain unjust advantages when it comes to the salary I can earn and where I can work. However, for a person of color that salary may come with expectations for more service that, for all their merit, can be distracting and lead to less productivity.

All this leads to a certain uncomfortable truth: we are not — and have never been — equal when it comes to the advantages we possess. All lives do not matter equally in practice (although they should). It is time we adopt language around racism, sexism, etc., that helps move the conversation forward. Only then can we begin to measure and understand the mechanisms of inequality that lead to needless suffering.

When we shift the language to that of advantages and disadvantages, it foregrounds how unjust and arbitrary some of those advantages are — while also allowing us to quantify relative (dis)advantage better. The language of privilege, on the other hand, obfuscates the systems of oppression it is meant to highlight. It is time we move on from using it.