What makes for a good academic research job talk?

In short, I don’t know for sure, but I definitely would like to! Wouldn’t we all? As someone who has now given a successful research job talk (yay!), I have been doing some reflecting on the medium lately. Below is a quick list of elements it seems like successful research talks either have or could have, based on the information I have been able to gather and based on my own personal experiences. It seems to me like crafting a research talk that addressed every one of the elements below would be very challenging, but, at the same time, it probably isn’t necessary to encompass them all to craft a great talk.

Some of what follows is certainly deeply colored by my own thoughts, and the tone and presentation are mine, but I am deeply indebted to three sources as well. These are these two sources here and here as well as my Post-doctoral mentor, Dr. Nick Balster. However, let me be abundantly clear: I am not speaking for anyone but myself, and my opinions are my own! Use them to inform your behavior at your own risk! 🙂

I should say these points are in no particular order. They are also in the form of commands: “Do this, not that.” That’s just to keep everything brief and in the form of a general “guidebook,” so please don’t interpret that as me thinking I am in any way an expert on this subject or that this list is somehow “definitive.” Maybe, with time, I will be able to update it to be closer to the ideal, but it probably isn’t there yet. I personally find having a rubric of rules to follow helpful, and I hope you will too, but feel free to disregard anything on the list that doesn’t resonate with you personally.

Did I miss something crucial? Disagree with one or more of these points? Please voice your thoughts in the comments!

  1. Know the context of the talk beforehand. Know the who, what, when, where, etc. The logic here is that you can’t communicate effectively to an audience you don’t know. Will it be undergrads or faculty (or a mix)? Open to multiple Departments or just one? Is the search committee your primary audience, or is it the students (this you might have to suss out the moment the presentation starts)? Also, know the time expectations. Nothing is harder to live down, in my opinion, than casually going past one’s allotted time. Most of us have probably been in a room where a speaker has done that, and boy is it awkward! If this information isn’t provided up front, it might be a good idea to ask for it. Alternatively, you can be bold and set the context you desire up front at the start of your talk—give the audience the parameters by which they should judge your talk. I think this is fair if there would otherwise be a vacuum of expectations.
  2. Do your homework. You are proposing that you would make for a good colleague. That takes knowing who your potential colleagues are and how your work could uplift the work they do and vice versa. See if you can find a way to clearly communicate that their research values are yours as well.
  3. Don’t act like a “grad student. This sentiment probably covers a lot of territory, but, to wit, it at least means: 1) Don’t treat this like a defense, or you will come across as exactly that—defensive; 2) Don’t craft a talk that closely mirrors your CV. Your work is not a chronology anymore—it’s a story of the researcher you are and want to be; 3) Don’t treat your audience as potential critics rather than potential colleagues. Grad students shouldn’t do that either, of course, but it’s been known to happen (I’m guilty).
  4. Treat your past work as evidence your future work will be viable. In other words, you present your past work because it is evidence that your vision has legs, not because, well, you have to present something. Which segues nicely into…
  5. Craft a narrative. Probably the most important point on this list, from what I can gather. Your talk should be a story of your research vision. What don’t we know? How could we come to know it? What pieces of the puzzle have you maybe already solved? Which would you like to tackle next? This means there’s a beginning, a middle, and an end to the talk (and plenty of room for sequels!), and it’s clear when each part transitions into the next one. There’s also, ideally, a roadmap (which does NOT have to be a slide, per se!) the audience can follow along with built into your talk somewhere. The beginning and end are especially key. Advance a worthy question to start with and a compelling, original (even if tentative) answer at the end. It’s definitely a letdown when a research talk ends with little closure. That doesn’t mean the end can’t be a summary of all the details still waiting to be discovered, though.
  6. Minimize risk, maximize fit. This is what the search committee is trying to do, or so I am told: Find a future colleague who “gets them” and who will get tenure and stick around. Ask yourself: Does my talk make it clear that I would be a pleasure to work with, likely to succeed here, and a worthwhile long-term investment? More on this below.
  7. Don’t blow off the Q & A! I liken this to something I learned in cross country. Most amateur runners work hard to climb a hill, only to slack their pace once they’ve crested it, thinking the hardest part is over. Maybe it is, but you’ve let your guard down, and if I keep my hill pace past the crest of the hill and you don’t, I’ll pass you. If the talk is the hill, the Q & A is the crest. It seems almost second nature to breathe a sigh of relief and let your guard down in the Q & A, but you’ll get passed by the candidates that don’t. First off, repeat the question. This does three things: 1) Ensures you will be answering the question you’ve actually been asked, not the one you *think* you were asked (a seemingly common mistake to make in the moment); 2) It allows everyone else to hear the question too; and 3) It gives you a valuable moment to think about the answer before blurting something out. Second, be inquisitive and collaborative, not defensive or cocky. This goes back to #6—you’re a prospective peer and equal to the faculty in the room, so act like it. Probe the nature and intent of the question. Ask if the asker has some intuition about the answer. Ask follow-ups of your own. The best Q & As are spirited dialogues, not awkward interrogations. Lastly, consider your body language. Do you make eye contact with the asker? Do you stand far from them, or move closer and adopt a more neutral posture? A dialogue is tricky without the participants’ physical engagement, and yours is especially key.
  8. Demonstrate (subtly) your confidence that you can get funding, collaborators, and publications. This goes back to #6 as well. These are three things a professor needs to get to thrive, so your talk should illustrate you are little risk on these three fronts. However, it may pay to do so subtly rather than bluntly. Your CV is the “strong proof” already, so slipping info on funding sources, collaborators, and publications into your talk and/or slides more subtly may be better, if you can pull it off. This is the one I feel may be the hardest one to really nail on this list, and it makes me feel cynical to even put it on here! Alas.
  9. Remember that graphics take careful time to unpack. This one is a personal pet peeve. I have seen so many talks now that will introduce a complex graphic, pay lip service to “what it shows,” and move on within seconds. Oh no you don’t. As a data and graphics aficionado (read: snob), I am hurt by this. To be honest, the thought that comes instinctively to mind when I see this happen is: “Wait, why don’t they want me to engage deeply with their data?” In other words, I become skeptical. Probably not a good character trait, but I can’t imagine I’m alone. Take time with your graphics. Walk us through them, from the axes to the colors to the significance and back again. And if that sounds like too much work, then maybe a simpler graphic will do. Or, you know, no graphic at all.
  10. Address the many scales of your vision. It seems a missed opportunity, at least, to not mention how your proposed research will be of interest locally and beyond (although maybe not in equal amounts).
  11. Use jargon and text sparingly. The oft-given, but not oft-followed guidelines of presentations. You’re neck-deep in your research, but the whole audience probably isn’t. So, prove that you can talk the talk, but do so in a way that shows you can talk the talk to anyone, not just those who are as deep as you are. As for text, there’s a simple reason, in my opinion, that less is more: When humans see text, their first instinct is to read it. That instinct kicks in for the audience when they see text—they read it instead of listening to you. It also kicks in for the speaker sometimes—if you have text on your slides that perfectly encapsulates the point you are trying to make, the only recourse may be to redundantly recite it. Save the best words you’ve got for those you say.
  12. Body language is key. Eye contact, smiles, pauses, clear and confident pacing of speech—these are all qualities of someone who is happy and comfortable to be there, talking about their research. You are (hopefully) that person, so be that person! Easier said than done, of course, but it leads to the next point…
  13. PRACTICE. I have a tendency to over-practice, actually, to the point that I make my presentations sound wooden. But I definitely under-practiced a research talk once, and that talk definitely did not get me the job. So, live and learn. We all need to practice to do our best, simple as that. It’s also the only way to minimize the tics that cause us to violate point #12. My Master’s adviser had sage advice on this point; record yourself. It’s the best way to internalize those tics in a way that can facilitate your correcting them. A final point here—you can’t practice a presentation that isn’t done, so living this mantra means starting work on your presentation as much in advance as you can! There are probably major elements you can even put in place before you find out you are being invited to campus…
  14. Emphasize what work is “yours,” and make that work the star. This may be a controversial point—I’m not sure. Science is, after all, fundamentally collaborative. Your work is never only your work. However, at the same time, a Department is not hiring your past research team(s). They are hiring you, so they need to know what you bring to the table. So, it needs to be clear what of the work you are presenting is your distinct contribution, and it’s that work that should (probably) make up the bulk of talk. That leads into the final point…
  15. Focus on the future, not on the past. Remember, you are outlining your vision. Visions culminate in the future. As such, your focus is best placed on the theory you hope to build and improve, the findings that have gotten your theory-building off the ground, and the implications of those findings for your future work and that of others. By contrast, “the literature,” methods, introduction, and so forth are in the past. That’s not to say that they are unimportant, obviously! But the audience doesn’t necessarily need you present to suss out those things. They can only get your vision from you, though. Or think about it this way. Which question would you rather be asked in the Q & A, “So, what is the goal of your research?” or “So, how did you measure fruit quality?” The second is (probably) easier and quicker to get right, but the first is much more difficult to nail. That’s why it’s better to try nailing it over the course of a 40 minute talk instead of in a 5 minute Q & A.

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