Why Your Job Talk Sucks

by Kellee Weinhold, TPII coach and master of our live Skype Job Talk Strategy sessions.

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It is that time of year again. The job applications of August and September are resulting in campus visits in November, which for the Professor is In means a significant uptick in Job Talk Interventions.

It also means a significant uptick in frustration, angst and despair for both clients and me. There is nothing quite so disheartening as pouring hours into a job talk and having someone tell you in no uncertain terms that it is a failure.

And, “frustrated” does not begin to cover my response, as a person devoted to effective communication, to daily evidence of how thoroughly departments fail to prepare grad students in the basics of communicating their research.

IN FACT, because the vast majority of Job Talk Interventions have resulted in massive overhauls, we no longer offer the Job Talk Intervention, and have instead replaced it with a Job Talk Strategy Session, designed to walk you through resolving these key points, for YOUR research, so that you can avoid writing an egregious and totally non-viable first version, and move straight to an effective editable, presentable draft.  (By the way, Karen and her team also edit job talks.  Ask her about that at gettenure@gmail.com).

So, in the long tradition of the Professor is In tough love, here is why your job talk sucks and how to fix it.

  1. Your talk does not address the job ad.
  • Virtually all job calls include something like:
    • “We are especially interested in candidates who use quantitative and mixed methods, and regularly work with the analysis of large complex datasets.”
    • “We are looking for a scholar who has expertise in one or more of the following areas: i) global/transnational XX;  ii) The state/public policy/social regulation; iii) race diversity/immigration”

If have been invited to campus for Job #1 and you do not present a job talk that includes mixed method and large data sets, you have written the wrong job talk. It is also very unlikely that you will get the job.

If you have been invited to campus for Job #2 and your talk does not include a global perspective, you have missed the mark. Of course, it also needs to look at either ii) or iii) but the global/transnational approach has been placed front and center. That means you need to do the same.

 

2. Your talk is too broad.

  • The job talk should provide a window into your larger intellectual enterprise. Think of it in cooking terms; it’s an amusebouche. A small taste of what you do. One that reveals everything about your talent and potential but doesn’t leave the audience in a food coma. And just to be clear, we are not talking those weird overly precious plate constructions. Think sophisticated BUT manageable and accessible. To repeat: Make one basic point, supported with theory and/or evidence. ONE POINT.

 

3.  You overcompensate:

  • You forgot that your research focus and expertise have already done the work of getting you to the campus visit. Instead, you go into the experience thinking you have to justify what you do and to prove the value of both. In my experience that means that you will front load your talk with waaaaaaaay too much information about why your project matters, what theories and research informed it, and worst of all, the journey of how you came to the project i.e. your “interests.”
  • Here is the hard truth: No one actually cares about what interests you. They care about how you and your work are in conversation with them. That’s why the job talk exists. To allow you to further explain what you are doing and show how you engage with the people around you. So, rein in your narrative of self-discovery and provide a clear and compelling snapshot of your research that reveals your maturity, flexibility, and teaching abilities.

 

4.  You argue your case before you make your case:

  • Session after session with clients, I hear them leap into their argument without setting up any groundwork. Just, “Hi. This is what I think.” Jumping directly to your argument can be read in one of two ways: desperate or arrogant. To avoid evoking either response, walk the audience through your methods and results BEFORE you make the argument that answers the question you are taking up in the talk. You are answering a question, right?

 

5.  You forget that not everyone knows what you know:

  • In fact, no one does. Just because you’ve spent a decade on this stuff doesn’t mean the audience know the first thing about it. So, think about what an advanced undergraduate would need to know before he or she could understand the approach and analysis that will follow. This is the who, what, when, where, and why.

 

6. You give up too much real estate to other people’s ideas:

  • While you absolutely need to situate yourself in the existing research, you do not need to explain anything and everything that others have done. The tendency, especially if your talk is based on an article, is to descend into a lit review. Remember, the talk is about your work. Cite only a few sources, noting the question/gap that you are addressing and move on to your own work.

 

7. You forget to answer the question:

  • So you set up this entire talk that is designed to answer the question(s) to make one basic point. Then you proceed to answer something entirely different. Many of you reading this will dismiss this with a wave, “I’m not doing that!” Trust me. I see it more often than not. Look at your question. Look at your results. Make sure the results that you got from your method/approach actually address the question you are engaging. And make sure that the discussion of those results is aimed at your field. Raise the level of complexity.

 

8.  You collapse at the Q&A:

  • The truth is that very strong candidacies are lost at the Q&A. They are lost because this is the main place in the talk where you reveal your collegiality (and confidence). Or you join the host of candidates who routinely crumble in the face of questions, which they perceive as at best, challenges or at worst, attacks. You must learn the art of responding to challenges. I suggest that clients think of the Q&A as being in an improve performance. The number one rule of improv is to accept whatever the audience or your fellow performers throws in your direction. So instead of allowing the screaming fear in your head to take over, pause and listen. Locate the point of entry for you to take up rather than resist the question.

 

9. Your Power Point works against you:

  • The mistakes are legion: You make it about the Powerpoint, using every bell, whistle and sparkle the program has to offer. (Focus on the message.) You use too much text. (Any text should be a headline not a paragraph.) You use small text. (Project it before you go. Stand at the back of the room. If you can’t read it, your audience won’t be able to either.) Your image use is ineffective: Whole screen images with no context. Multiple tiny images with too much going on. Illegible graphs shoved into too small a space. (Again, look at it from the audience perspective BEFORE you go). You don’t proofread. (I assume you know the solution for this?) You read the slides. (Stop it. Just stop. We can read.)

 

If you can correct these content issues and deliver your talk with formal phrasing, emphatic delivery (including a strong falling tone) with no hedging or self-sabotage, you will far surpass almost everyone on the market.

Read more about job talks here and here.

 


Comments

Why Your Job Talk Sucks — 8 Comments

  1. Thanks for this! I wish I could have read this a few weeks ago before giving my first job talk. Here’s to doing better next time…

  2. This is, as always, hugely helpful. Thanks!

    I’m looking at a different kind of job talk, though. They’ve asked for 15 minutes of research presentation, followed by 75 minutes of Q&A. This seems a pretty unusual format in my humanities field. Any advice for the 15 minute version rather than the 45?

    (My instinct is that I can really only say one thing in 15 minutes and I just have to leave everything else to the Q&A, presuming that if they want to know about something I didn’t mention in my 15 minutes, they’ll ask about it.)

  3. Pingback: How To Make Your Job Talk Not Suck – Confessions of a Bored Academic

  4. There are some jobs that don´t ask you for job talk, instead, the ask you to give a class. Is there any advise on this? Thanks

  5. Thanks for this! What do search committees think if you use a case study from your writing sample as one example in the job talk?

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