Dr. Karen’s (Partial) Rules of the Job Talk

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:

  • seek
  • hope
  • try
  • wish
  • believe

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.  I may add to this post as time goes by, and I remember elements of the job talk that need discussion and dissection.  Readers, feel free to add your own comments and suggestions.  






Dr. Karen’s (Partial) Rules of the Job Talk — 38 Comments

  1. Very helpful advice, thanks!

    Just a quick point: in my department at least, both junior and senior faculty are probably more likely than grad students to ask off-point / self-aggrandizing questions. (Grad students are also more likely to have been awake for the whole job talk.) I agree it’s good to call on more senior people first, but sometimes their comments are going to be completely out of left field and it’s wise to be prepared for that. I think it’s also worth remembering that in some departments grad students get a role in the hiring committee, so it might be wise to answer one or two grad student questions, just to show willing.

    • I do not disagree with you in principle. Faculty are definitely off-point and self-aggrandizing very frequently. I did, however, typically see grad students ask questions that were just “off” enough to be disruptive to the flow, both when I was a candidate and when I was in the audience. It’s hard to put in words what exactly was “off,” but it definitely derived from being insufficiently socialized into question-asking norms, so that the questions would emerge as excessively self-serving, or aggressive, or somehow not pertinent to the agenda of the event. Particularly in the latter case, the question would then cause the faculty to, collectively, grit their teeth, roll their eyes, and audibly sigh. And this is not a good environment for any candidate–you do not want to deal with an antagonized or irritable group of faculty, if you can avoid it. thus, I advise avoiding grad student questions. You know that in general I am a great advocate for grad students, so I am not engaging in an ad hominem attack here, just a general rule that in my observation is helpful to keep in mind.

    • I came down here to say the same thing. In my department, it’s only the faculty types who go off on self-serving tangents during Q&A (Ok I obviously have a few in mind that drive me crazy!). I will say though, and perhaps this is what Karen is referring to, that grad students often tend toward questions about methods or experimental design, which are sometimes off-point or might not always add to thoughtful discussion. This does occasionally lead to an easy question with a clear response though, which always looks good for the speaker.

  2. A few to add about practical matters:

    – You may have a projector or you may have a large TV – have a PPT that works on both (or 2 versions).

    – NO WALLS OF TABLES (like regression tables).

    – Bring your own laptop and clicker.

    – All models or quant results should also be given as handouts.

    – Know your audience and tailor your talk to them and the job description.

    – Record yourself giving it and watch it. Practice in front of people that can give you real feedback.

  3. My advice is to practice, practice, practice. Then when you think you are done, practice again. Practice in front of people in your fields and practice in front of people who know little or nothing about your field. Make them ask questions. We take so much for granted that what is elementary to us is foreign to someone else. Also, make sure you tell a story, don’t put up every single detail from one research project (like your dissertation)….just a few important results.i had two projects that i included in my talk and while they may seem like they are different, i tried to tie them in together to show off who I am as a researcher. Show that you are more than just your dissertation.

  4. I can’t emphasize enough the importance that you rehearse and time your talk. I’ve never been asked to give one, but I always attend the ones in my department. There have been a couple where an otherwise intelligent person completely bombed their talk because they obviously had no idea what they were doing. Editing on the fly, saying “I am going to cut the next bit, but please ask me about it in the question period,” and referring to theories and scholarship in passing with “But of course you all know the work of so-and-so” does not make a good impression. In fact, it is disrespectful of your audience: it shows you didn’t care enough about what they want you to do, and that you don’t care about their time. If you are at the stage where you are giving a job talk, you should at least be able to figure out how to time your material.

  5. Use slide numbers in Power Point! It is much easier to return to a previous slide if you have them numbered. For instance, your audience can say “in Slide 8, you said . . . “

  6. Here are two collections of interviewing advice in sciences that people here might find interesting (they were extremelly useful for my recent interview and negotiation):


    This includes info on job talks (i.e. what you did until now) and chalk talks (how you plan to establish your future research programme – I guess in humanities this would be the equivalent of having a second research project).

    Hope this is of use to someone.

  7. This was such a good post! I found myself going over the many times I did something awkward in a job talk (I’m definitely a serial offender when it comes to 1 and 2!). I also found very valuable the point you make about “mastering the art of academic jiu jitsu”. I think I would benefit from memorising the line: “you raise a valuable point…”.

    Something that came to mind when reading point 3 on ‘being thoroughly formal and professorial’ is that my experience in the UK has been a bit different (and somewhat confusing!). Whilst it’s the case that people expect seriousness, people sometimes interpret being thoroughly formal as a sign of pomposity and self-importance (which British academia doesn’t respond to very well, at least not when coming from candidates at junior level). I struggled at some point with what I thought was a contradiction… on the one hand, the advice I was given on this was that I should approach the job talk as a conversation with colleagues, not a lecture so basically as an opportunity to showcase that I would be a stimulating colleague. On the other hand, the job talk is also used as a kind of “predictor” of teaching quality –I have noticed in my times as panel member that colleagues’ assessment of the presentation has nothing to do with its research quality (stimulating, robust, original or even if it makes a significant contribution) but rather about whether they see the candidate as someone who could be put in front of students and not bore them to death. So issues like ‘ability working the audience’, ‘dynamism’, ‘humour’, and so on seem at times more relevant than the cohesiveness of the talk itself. I think I get your point in terms of the formality (it’s not a brown bag talk!) but I think there’s also the issue of how when speaking to potential colleagues you can also portray that you could ‘get down with the kids’ . How can we balance this? Or should we even try?

    • The clients who committed the worst sins of excessive chattiness in their job talks were both Brits, so clearly you’re on to something. In a UK context perhaps it is appropriate to be talky-talky; we need to hear from experts there to be sure. Both of my clients were applying for US jobs, however, and their tone was hugely “off” and would have been completely inappropriate to the setting. On searches in which I participated, job talks were not evaluated as evidence of teaching skill, but rather evidence of research skills and sophistication, as well as general confidence. So basically I’d say the very last thing you want to do in a US job talk is to appear to be ‘getting down with the kids.’ The programs that prioritize that will schedule a “demo class/teaching demo” for that purpose, and that is where accessibility and informality can be demonstrated.

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  9. Lots of good advice here. Just a quick correction- art historians and perhaps other humanists most definitely read their job talks and other presentations. The prose style matters, and you can’t just memorize 15-20 pages verbatim.

    • No, no, no! You don’t have to memorize anything verbatim! But you most certainly do not want to just stand there and read from a paper without eye contact and gestures. Do not just stand there and read! That is the downfall of countless job candidates, humanities or not.

  10. Is it lame to talk about your dissertation research in a job talk if you graduated eons ago? All the job talk advice I read seems to be geared towards new graduates/postdocs. I was a research faculty member for almost 6 years (even earning promotion) until funding dried up. Since then, I’ve operated independently and worked on short-term contracts. I’ve worked on a wide range of projects– but I’m not in the midst of a major project producing results right now. The group to which I belonged as a faculty member was highly dysfunctional and didn’t produce anything I would say is compelling (I couldn’t claim any strong results as “mine”). (The whole career trajectory/ research stuckness/ and staying too long in a bad situation is a whole ‘nother story.) I’ve investigated some new lines of inquiry, but it seems that the subject that best aligns with the place interviewing me is that dissertation project. I’ve kept it somewhat alive all this time- revisiting to see if I can start pushing it in new directions (though no strong results yet), and even still trying to publish a couple pieces that just haven’t gotten out yet due to lack of time. So, I’m tempted to recraft old talks and also talk about where I want to take research. My gut reaction is I have nothing to talk about…. Your opinion? Also, know of any resources for interviewing for 2nd/3rd jobs (i.e. non entry level asst. prof positions)?

    • that’s a hard place to be in. I generally suggest someone as advanced as you not talk about the diss. But if it aligns best for the job, then go for it, as long as you really make efforts to update it and connct it with current or new researhc or directions for research. don’t look like you’re resting on past laurels.

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  13. I went to a job talk yesterday and witnessed two pretty obvious errors:

    1. the speaker left her own cell phone on and had to silence it in the middle of her talk. I know it seems obvious, but really: turn off your cell phone.

    2. She continually addressed everyone in the room *except* for the search committee, who were all sitting in the back of the class. She had met all of them, so she knew who they were, but not once did she glance in their direction. I thought that was a really bad move.

  14. Karen, any advice for a job talk (humanities) where you’ve been explicitly asked NOT to give a formal presentation? I’m tenured, interviewing for a senior position, and I have plenty of experience doing formal talks of varying lengths, but less experience with this sort of “talk about your research” approach. What this department is asking for actually sounds a bit like the chatty British approach you critique above. Ironically, I’m pretty sure that the informal “research chat” is what I had to do for my current job, about a decade ago, but I’ve forgotten the details! I can of course put something together, but just wondering if you have any tips.

    Also, thank you for this website–luckily, I had great mentorship when I was on the market years ago as an ABD, but doing a job search as a senior person has been more nerve-wracking in some ways because I’m largely flying solo, with few people to ask for advice. You’re doing an incredible service here on the blog. Wish I’d found you in time for an Interview Bootcamp slot!

  15. What is a typical outline for a job talk presentation?

    Likely varies by field. My field is education administration.

    My advisor provided me with a copy of his presentation slides from his own job talk 6 years ago and it follows this agenda:
    1. Bio and review of professional experiences
    2. Research interests and prominent theories/frameworks informing work to date
    3. Presentation of research project (in his case, the dissertation)
    4. Prospective/proposed courses
    5. Future research project and agenda

    Is this typical? Recommended? Thanks Karen and anyone for input on how to structure the presentation.

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  17. Exactly what is a “job talk” ? Its hard to follow when you don’t define what it is you are talking about.

    Sorry for being dense. This vernacular just isn’t used where I am.

    • When you go for a campus visit at most institutions, the centerpiece of that visit is the “job talk,” which is a 45 minute presentation of your research to the whole department, followed by Q and A. For teaching campuses this may be accompanied or replaced by a “teaching demo.” Some departments will have special expectations for their job talk (different length, certain specified content such as future research, or a section on teaching), but in general, the default is the 45 min. research talk.

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  19. If it takes more than a minute for the audience to “assimilate” a slide, I’d say the slide is probably too complicated.

    Also… reading from paper? What is this? High School?

  20. Hello Karen,

    Thank you fro very valuable advise. I was wondering if you have a blog or can make suggestions about the teaching talk. Where I applied they have both ‘research talk’ – 60 min and teaching talk – 45 min.

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  22. Hi Karen and fellow seekers,
    I really appreciate this site. Both the advice and comments are very helpful. A new dimension that I think hasn’t been discussed here is video recording. Given 2 job talks in the last couple of months, and both wanted to record it. Others I’ve chatted with have run into this too. The given reason seems to be that some faculty can’t make it. I feel like it makes a tough situation worse. Presumably if a particular faculty member is pushing to have it recorded, they’re taking an interest in the position an want to have a say. But you can’t respond or interact with them, gauge their reactions etc. I think it is fair to ask that it not be recorded, but you’re in a precarious position and nobody wants to be the candidate who is making a fuss.Does anyone have any experience/advice on this?

  23. Is it normal for Universities to record your research presentation during a campus interview? If so, is it expected all candidates will agree to it?

  24. Dear Karen,
    I (job seeker in the humanities) have a campus visit at major US research university line up and the brief I received states that my 45-min talk should be mostly about research, “but if teaching works itself in, that’s okay too.” The position I am going for is at entry-level (Ass. Prof.), but since I have already been in postdoctoral for a number of years in the UK (including a full-time but not permanent faculty post), I have produced quite a bit of research output since my dissertation and have been (and am) involved in a number of research projects and collaborations. The way I would like to read the brief is that I am expected to talk about my research trajectory, highlighting impact and outcomes (first book etc.), guiding questions and methodological approaches, avenues for further research, and current and planned projects and collaborations, while also indicating how my interests and results inform my teaching and open possibilities for student involvement. All this I am quite comfortable with, not least because I have done it before. However, I realise (and it has been pointed out in the comments on your post) that the US is not the UK when it comes to job talks (where this kind of trajectory-narrative is more or less the norm). In fact, my research on the web (including your post) seems to suggest that US job talks are more like academic papers in that they showcase a particular research topic (e.g. the dissertation) rather than the entire portfolio. In this case I am a bit at a loss at where best to put my eggs. Should it be the project with the most impact so far (1st monograph, based on the dissertation, from which a number of side-projects have developed), even if it is not the current one? Or should it be the one which I have most recently begun and which I hope will occupy most of my time in the years to come (but which at this stage still includes a lot of blue-sky research and thinking while having produced little outcome)? Or should it be any of the short-term projects in-between? Ideally I want to cover them all, since they all connect. Do you (or anyone else) have any thoughts on what might work in a case like mine?

  25. Dear Karen,

    Thanks for the informative post. One quick question: would it be wrong to present a job talk on the same material as the submitted writing sample?

  26. Hi Karen,
    Any advice for those that have changed fields from their dissertation topic? I am a postdoc and my current project is in a completely different field than what I did not Ph.D. in. The good news is that I have continued to develop ideas and publish in my dissertation field even after graduation, but the current postdoc project is still a work in progress (I received a research grant even though publication is under review). What would be your suggestion about dividing the talk into completely different projects? My plan is to divide my talk into two projects — 1 done during my Ph.D. and the other during my postdoc time. My question is: how important is it to have a flow even though there is none. Or can I use this opportunity to convey that my research field is broad and I can make contributions in either? I am struggling to come up with a coherent title and an abstract. Will appreciate any suggestion. Thank you!

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