I’ve been asked by many readers to write about the Job Talk. I’ve resisted doing this because I believe that by the time you are writing your job talk, any meaningful advice has to be completely personalized. In other words, general rules about job talks would have to be so general as to be of minimal value. And valuable rules about your job talk can only be delivered personally.
I read job talks as part of my work here at TPII, and I’m convinced that on one occasion at least, my intervention saved a candidate from certain failure. She went on, with a new job talk revamped to showcase her authority and expertise, and proceeded to get the offer.
This morning, when asked again for a post on job talks, I began to think about what I corrected in that particular case, and a few others. I realized that I did correct for some errors that are relatively common, and that these corrections might serve as rules that could be of value to others. These rules will never replace personalized critique, but they may help you to avoid the worst and most embarrassing mistakes.
So, in no particular order, I present a preliminary list of Rules of the Academic Job Talk.
1. Banish the following words:
Refer to my post: “Do or Do Not. There Is No Try.”
2. Banish the following phrases:
- “is worthy of study”
- “deserves study”
- “merits study”
The fact that you are studying it proves that it is worthy of study. Saying these words makes you sound like a junior grad student trying to convince a skeptical advisor of the value of a dissertation topic.
3. Be thoroughly formal and professorial
This is not a chat. This is a formal presentation of research. It is meant to showcase your expertise and authority, not demonstrate that you are “nice.” Do not write the job talk as if you are “talking.” An example would be:
“So then I’m going to ask the question, ‘what would happen if we look at x instead of y?’ And when I do that, a very interesting thing comes up, which I’m sure that you can anticipate, which is that focusing on x puts the whole topic of z in a new perspective….”
Instead, you will write:
“Focusing on x instead of y reveals a different perspective on z, and it is on that perspective that I focus in this talk today.”
In addition, use formal words exclusively. This is not the place for slang and casual language.
4. Minimize your use of “us” and “we.”
I’m not saying you have to jettison them entirely, but based on my experiences with job talks, they are vastly overused, and are a central element of the excessive chattiness that I describe in rule #3.
5. Use humor sparingly
Search committees and audiences always appreciate knowing that you have a sense of humor, but the job talk is not the place to demonstrate it. One small witticism, if it arises naturally from your materials, or some mishap in your presentation, is certainly appropriate. But beyond that, let your sense of humor emerge in your conversations throughout the day; in the job talk, give your research the serious delivery that it deserves.
6. Use visuals, but don’t over-rely on them.
Academic audiences are generally ambivalent about PowerPoint. They appreciate visuals as much as anyone, but they also resent the “dumbing down” that often happens in a PowerPoint-centric presentation. Be sure that the text stands alone as academic written text, and is not subordinate to slides. In other words, don’t stand in front of the screen and say “and next, in this slide, we see that….”
7. Leave visuals that you do use on the screen for long enough that the audience can thoroughly assimilate and respond to them.
One of the most common errors that nervous speakers commit is snapping through visuals too quickly. You may have seen these slides 127 times, but your audience is seeing them for the first time. They need abundant time—several minutes most likely—to thoroughly study and assimilate the information on the slide.
8. This goes without saying, don’t read from the paper.
While this may seem to contradict Rule #3 and possibly Rule #6, it does not. You can remain strictly professorial and formal, and still make abundant eye contact, gesture broadly, and in some cases move about the stage or podium area. It is imperative that you draw your audience in and also closely monitor their reactions to what you are saying. For both of those to happen, you must watch them. Know your talk well enough that you don’t have to read it. Also, anticipating nerves, print the talk out in large font and doublespace, so that it’s easy to read, and also don’t be afraid to put stage directions into the text (“point to screen here”; “offer ‘spontaneous’ remark about xxx here”, etc.)
9. Make sure the talk speaks to the job being advertised.
Candidates can be so obsessed with their own narrow project, on the one hand, or so over-amped about trying to be all things to all people, on the other, that they often miss the mark in pitching the talk to exactly the position being filled. If it’s a 19th century literature job, then should your talk be about postcolonial literature? No. Should it be about Fielding? No. Should it be about 20th century adaptations of Dickens? No. It should be about some aspect of actual literature written in the actual 19th century. Do interesting things, but don’t forget that they have curricular needs that they are filling.
10. Get to the point. And stay on point (Brits, I’m talking to you).
Don’t spend 7 pages in prefatory remarks and caveats. You should be into the main topic of your talk by the end of the first page. Make sure that the evidence mobilized and arguments advanced actually speak directly to the topic, and make your core central point.
11. Articulate an argument.
One of the most startling things about working as The Professor has been discovering just how many young scholars, across the university, cannot articulate a central argument of their research. You should be able to give the core argument of your project in a single sentence. That sentence should be prominently placed in the beginning of your job talk. You will then use evidence and logic to prove the legitimacy of your argument. And then you will conclude by reminding the audience what you argued, and then briefly gesturing to the wider implications and ramifications of that argument.
12. Be aware of your body language.
I worked with a stellar client who was the real deal, the whole package—brilliant project, fabulous teaching, terrific intellectual pedigree. And then we did a run-through of her job talk on skype. Who was this person? Her typical self-assurance was nowhere to be seen. Her hands fluttered like little fish. She bobbed and swayed. Her eyes darted side to side. “No, start over, try it again!” I said. “No, you’re still doing it!” Three times we went through it. I hung up feeling anxious indeed. Turns out, of course, she totally killed it, when it counted. Thank god. But she told me afterward, without that skype practice she never would have realized just how much she let her nerves show through her body language. You need a level gaze, head high, a firm stance, strongly planted feet (no winding or twisting your feet below the podium), squared shoulders, hands calmly on the podium or gesturing.
13. Have a strong and inspiring finish.
Do not dribble away with “so, yeah, uh, I guess that’s it…. uh, so, yeah, does anybody have any questions…?” leaving the audience to squirm in their seats and wonder when to clap. Finish strong. Asssertively. With a clear falling tone in the final words, then a pause, and then a confident gaze with half-smile taking in the whole audience, and a strong and gracious “Thank You.” Then another pause for applause, and then, “I’d be happy to take questions” (or acknowledge your introducer rising out of his or her seat to mediate questions for you).
14. Finish on time.
I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: the fastest way to lose a job is to go over-schedule. Searches are grueling and exhausting and inconvenient for departments. The faculty are dragged out of their already over-taxed schedules to sit in your talk. They have things right up to the start, and more things immediately after the finish. They need your talk to start on time and end on time, period. Zero tolerance for mistakes here. Practice 10 times at home until you can say with total certainty that the talk will never, under any circumstances, go over your allotted time.
15. Don’t forget your conclusion.
All academic writing needs a strong conclusion, and it is the element most often forgotten. Academics often forget that academic speaking is a form of performance. And as with all performances, the build up to the conclusion, and the conclusion itself, are in some ways the most important elements. The finish sits in the air, vibrating, and stays with the listeners for some time. It’s true that in an academic talk, questioners often jump in aggressively; nevertheless, a strong finish, more than almost anything else, demonstrates the speaker’s confidence and elan.
16. Be prepared for the Q and A.
In my years on searches, it was the Q and A that most often destroyed candidates. Given enough time and help, most people could pull together a decent talk, but it was the Q and A that separated the wheat from the chaff. Remember that by the time you give the job talk, you’ve already proven that your work, on paper, is good. What the job talk proves is that you’re intellectually vibrant and dynamic, that you can defend your work against challenges, while remaining open to intriguing new scholarly possibilities and conversations. Remain friendly, good humored, and affable, but not cringing, obsequious, or pandering. Remember to thank the questioner with words such as “that’s an excellent question,” or “thanks for bringing that up,” or “that’s actually an interesting point.” Call on the most senior people first; they will expect it. Try to avoid calling on graduate students, who often ask questions that are off-point or self-aggrandizing. Master the art of academic jiu jitsu; when directly challenged, acknowledge the value of the questioner’s point, but then turn the focus away from their agenda and back to your own. In other words, never, ever respond “oh, wow, I really wish I’d had time to talk about that and it’s a total oversight that I didn’t include it, I’m really sorry about that…” Instead respond, “you raise a valuable point and it’s certainly one that I considered. However, my findings showed that the primary issue her is in fact xxxx, and so it was to that that I turned my greatest attention.”
Having reached the Q and A, I will stop here. Readers, feel free to add your own comments and suggestions.