Related topics: Collected Wisdom, doing science

Collected Wisdom on Job Talks – Introduction

By Joshua Tewksbury

You spend years building a CV good enough to get yourself an interview at a major academic institution. Once you get the interview, its time to put the CV away and focus on the seminar. Its just you, the group you are attempting to impress, and the other finalist for the same job. Everyone in the final pool has a great CV; now it’s about how well you communicate, how well you connect, how well you tell a story. In the interview stage, there is simply no other element that is more important than the seminar. Yes you can loose a job outside of your seminar, but it is extremely difficult to land a job at a competitive academic institution without delivering a truly remarkable seminar. Learning how to give a great seminar is so important to folks entering the job market that I recently ran a graduate seminar focused on just this – the art of the research presentation: how to build and deliver your best possible job talk.

I appreciate a good job talk as much as anyone (and I am probably more likely than most to fall asleep during a mediocre talk), and I have developed some rules for giving my best talk, but I wanted a bigger sounding board. So I contacted a large group of faculty inside and outside of my home institution, and asked them what they thought it takes to create and deliver a truly over the top seminar. Most of the folks who contributed were from R1 institutions, and the majority were professors in ecology, evolutionary biology, and physiology, but consistent advice came from colleagues in a wide range of fields. Some of the key contributors to what follows include Carlos Martinez del Rio, Julia Parrish, Stephanie Hampton, Doug Levey, Lars Brudvig, Ellen Damschen, Carl Bergstrom, Toby Bradshaw, Ray Huey, Billie Swalla, Janneke Hille Ris Lambers, Emily Carrington, Bill Moody, David Perkel, Richard Strathmann, and Robert Cleland. I have organized this advice into main themes and removed some of the redundancies, and done some light editing, but that is about it!

Lets start with three big points that everyone agreed on.

First point: every talk is a job talk. Unless you never see yourself moving, then every time you talk about your work, you are giving a talk that could lead you to the next job. Job opportunities are often lost without the speaker even knowing it, and this is increasingly the case with informal “seminar-search practices, in which prospects are invited to “give a seminar”.

Second point: there is not one right way to give a research seminar. The right approach depends on who you are, and who you are speaking to. The double bottom line: feel confident and comfortable with who you are, and know your audience.

Third point: You learn to give a great seminar the same way you get to Carnegie Hall — practice, practice, practice. Get critical, constructive feedback on several iterations of your talk before any high-stakes event. A good rule of thumb for any high stakes talk – give yourself a minimum of 40 hours of work time to build the talk and hone it to perfection. The difference between a competent talk and an exceptional talk is that last 20 hours of practice AFTER you think the talk is “in good shape”. Talks can seem 95% done when the slides have been finalized, but it is that last 5% of practice that makes all the difference. There is a bit more to this. Don’t believe people who say too much practice leads to a formulaic or uninspiring delivery – exactly the opposite is typically true. When you know what is coming next in your talk you can lead the audience from one slide to the next without having to look at the screen constantly. This puts the audience at ease. Practice with friends, practice by yourself in your living room. Practice in the shower. Practice.

I have organized the rest of this into 5 parts and I will post them all here in series. Part I: The art of preparing the talk (9 commandments for building a truly great research seminar). Part II. The art of giving the talk (12 tips focused on the delivery of a great talk) Part III. A bundle of tips for making clear slides. Part IV. A quick hit list to check if you are truly ready to give you talk. And part V. A small number of resources. I will post these in separate posts and I am hoping for comments on ALL of these, so I can tighten this up even more over time.

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