Why Your Job Talk Sucks

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


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.

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Why Your Job Talk Sucks — 14 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?

  6. Just out of curiosity- I’ve seen a lot of anthro job talks, but I’m doing one for a design school. They want to hear about my work, but also my 5 year plan to publish and get grants. Is it still okay to read from something I’ve written as -part- of the talk, since that’s how we do it in anthropology?

  7. I have two upcoming job talks, during back to back weeks, each one with different time requirements. The first talk has been requested for 50 minutes and the second talk for 35 minutes. How do you suggest I write a job talk with separate time lengths without writing two totally separate talks? Is there a way I should write the 50-minute talk so I can just reduce it to a 35-minute talk?

    • Write the 50 min version and then cut it down. FYI we offer help with job talks: My Interview Intervention, Campus Visit and (brand new) Job Talk Webinars are very helpful, and are $50; these are offered live on an ongoing basis (check this Webinars page for currently scheduled dates), and always available in recorded version here at The Prof Shop.

      Time permitting, I edit job talks. The cost is $180/hour x 2 hours for 2 drafts of edits, with a special reduced overflow fee of $100 when short-notice is required (and an overflow slot is available).

      We offer 3 live Skype interview prep options: The Interview Intervention ($250): A 50-minute Skype session during which we move through a mock interview, stopping after each question to evaluate every answer for its strengths and weaknesses in terms of brevity, spin, word choice, tone, body language, etc., and refining it for effectiveness.The Job Talk Strategy Session ($125):  30-minute Skype intervention that will walk you through the mission, ethos, structure, and goals of a Job Talk, with specific attention to your research as it relates to the job call. You’ll work on an outline, with guidelines for what to include and avoid. If you have a talk coming up, but have no idea what a Job Talk is supposed to do, this is for you.
      The Campus Visit Intervention ($250): A 50-minute Skype session during which we move through the standard meetings of a campus visit, working on changing your message for different audiences as well as strategies for showcasing your fit. Just as with the Interview intervention we pay close attention to brevity, word choice, tone, body language, etc., and refining your delivery for effectiveness.

      These are all with TPII colleague Kel Weinhold or Petra Shenk.    Read some of the incredible testimonials on the Testimonials page to learn more.
      Both kinds of Skype Interventions are currently scheduled through an on-line calendar. Please go here to schedule and pay: https://www.vcita.com/v/3fbc7c63/online_scheduling

       Once an I-I or Job Talk Intervention has been scheduled it is non-refundable. It can be rescheduled up to 48 hours in advance; after that the slot cannot be changed.

      Please note that if you don’t see a time that works for you, Kel Weinhold will still try to make it work, so please just email her at tpiiintervention@gmail.com.
      Brand new: We also offer help on the Teaching Demo! This help is provided by Dr. Katherine Dugan. You may learn more about Katherine and her approach here and here.

      Teaching Demonstration Documents Review. We review your lesson plans and make suggestions and edits. This includes three drafts of edits. The cost depends on how long your lesson plans are. Document reviews are $150/hour. 1-2 page lesson plan will take 2 hours; 3-6 pages will take 3 hours and 7-12 pages will take 4 hours. There is a 10% discount for 3-4 hours.

       Teaching Demonstration Intervention ($250). This is 50-minute session over Skype where you deliver parts of your teaching demonstration. We evaluate your delivery style, paying attention to clarity of the demonstration design and your presentation. The goal is to make sure you’re taking charge of the classroom and prepared to engage a variety of students. We’ll also cover back-up plans for your demonstration. The session includes strategies to make sure your demonstration effectively shows off your skills in the classroom.

      Last, should you score that offer, I offer Negotiating Assistance. Negotiating Assistance is $600/first week ($700 tenured rate), and a week is virtually always sufficient (it goes down to $500 ($600), and then $400 ($500) for subsequent weeks in the extremely rare event that this is necessary).  I count the week as 7 days of work, and they don’t have to be sequential.  We can start immediately, and I make myself available by email and gchat for the quick turnaround of responses required by most negotiations.  While I technically don’t work on weekends, for NA clients only I check in to keep up with and respond to urgent updates. I assist you in evaluating the offer, clarifying your requests, crafting email and verbal communications, interpreting responses, and knowing how hard to push and when to stop. Most clients increase their offer by thousands of dollars in salary, research support, travel support, moving expenses, etc.  (An R1 Humanities tenure track offer can gain $10-30,000 over the initial offer; at a small regional SLAC it may be closer to $2-15,000. An R1 Science offer can sometimes gain $30-80,000 or more over the initial offer).  If you’re interested, let me know and I’ll invoice you today.  I also have all NA clients sign a contract acknowledging the nature of the work, which i will attach to this email for your reference.  

      For a client perspective, I will share one recent testimonial:
      “I increased my offer (R1 Social Sciences) by $12,000 conservatively. Another major benefit was that I was confident I wasn’t asking for anything crazy, and I wasn’t missing anything obvious. Since this was my first go-around with a U.S. job offer I would have been much more uncertain about it, particularly in my situation where my advisor was unavailable due to a medical condition. Particularly when I had done the interviews and was waiting for an offer, which is a tense time, the fact that I had this service helped make that easier.”
      As someone else recently wrote, “I’ve been on the market for several years and had always imagined finally getting an offer as the “end” of the lengthy and exhausting job search process; with that mentality it’s tempting to just flop over with relief and take the first thing thrown at you, thinking that you’re now done’! It was hugely helpful to have someone to remind me that the negotiating phase is as much a part of the job search as any other step!”

  8. Dear Karen, I have been invited to an on-campus interview for a TT Assistant Prof position at a public university. The chair informed me that I have to give a Research talk AND teach an Intro class, presumably on the same day. Is it common to do both? I have only heard of people doing one or the other.

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