How to Give an Excellent STEM Job Talk

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By Russ E. Carpenter and R. Parrish Waters

For Ph.D.s on the job market in the sciences, no element of the hiring process is more important for making or breaking your prospects than the job talk.

At some point in the 2019-20 hiring season — once you’ve made the long journey from application packet to Skype interview to campus visit — you will have to deliver a job talk. It will play a large part in determining the next decade or more of your career.

Yes, other aspects of the campus interview — the one-on-ones, the dinners with professors, the lunches with students, the meetings with administrators — will influence the ultimate decision about whether you are hired. But the job talk is where you can really shine — or very publicly fail. It is where you are given the stage to showcase your lecturing abilities, convey who you are and what you do, and, importantly, demonstrate how you could contribute to the department and the institution.

Given the impact of this segment of the interview, you would think that less-than-stellar job talks were a rare find. Sadly, far too many applicants find themselves in the midst of a cringeworthy monologue, full of disconnected experiments and overly complex graphs with no central theme or story. Worse yet are the applicants who never realize that at all, as their audience struggles to follow along (and mentally moves the candidates into the "no" pile).

In short, regardless of the number of lines on your CV, a poor job talk is the quickest way to sink your chances of landing the position. But, dear reader, you already know that — as we’re not the first to stress the importance of the job talk. A quick search turns up articles stressing practical (a checklist of what to include), professional (know your audience), and obvious (practice, practice, practice) advice.

Here, rather than repackage those tips, we stress points that we see as fundamental to a good job talk. We come at this issue with a unique perspective: Both of us are rising academics, with backgrounds in neurobiology, who have been on both ends of the "bad job talk." Frankly, we often find ourselves commiserating over the number of job talks we see that just flat out miss the mark.

With both our students and our peers, we stress the importance of communication skills in any professional (or casual) setting. So we decided to construct a positive message (instead of our usual commiserating) and offer what we see as best practices for an effective job talk, aimed at those of you who are entering (or continuing) an adventure on the academic job market.

Beyond "know your audience." In planning your job talk, start with an understanding of your audience. Who are they? What are their expectations? Institutional type will influence that more than any other factor. For example:

  • If you’re interviewing for a position at a teaching-oriented college, aim your talk at undergraduates. That is, demonstrate your ability to make your research accessible to less-knowledgeable audiences. Talk about how you involve undergraduates in your work. Most faculty members at four-year institutions will not be wowed by the amount or complexity of the data you present. Instead they will be watching your ability to engage a room. So spend some time setting the context of your research and explaining its application at a level appropriate for an undergraduate. Yes, include some compelling data, but explain its impact and why it matters in a relatable way.
  • Alternatively, if you are interviewing at a major research university, the search committee will be more interested in your scholarship than your teaching. So go ahead and dig into the weeds of your research. Your expectations of the audience’s familiarity with your topic and its relevance can be higher — but still, provide an appropriate amount of context. Your evaluators will likely be more concerned with your ability to do late-breaking research than your general classroom acumen.

Properly setting the tone and context of your research is of the utmost importance, whatever the institution.

Structure your narrative. An often overlooked, but absolutely crucial, element of a good talk — seriously, the most important thing — is your ability to tell a story.

As with any presentation — a movie, an infomercial, a dissertation — your talk should follow a central theme. Your theme guides the entire talk and follows a narrative arc with context, rising action, climax, and resolution. Here’s what we mean:

  • Context: Set up the theme with a good dose of background information. Tell the audience what you do and why it matters to them.
  • Rising action: The context should lead directly into the specific problems and questions your research identifies. With an appropriate setup, your research questions are intuitive and logically follow your background story. After identifying your research questions, walk your audience through the mechanics of how you seek to answer them (your research methods).
  • Climax: Clear and effective segues are critical. Each element of your talk should clearly transition to the next, and build to a main point — your central theme. To do this effectively, think of your talk as a series of loops. Progress through each question and method, consistently linking any ideas or conclusions back to your central theme, and to each other.
  • Resolution: Conclude your discussion of the work you have already done. You can end the narrative arc on a "to be continued" note, or on a discrete conclusion. Either way, your talk isn’t over yet.

Spell out where your scholarship is headed. Now it’s time to push your narrative forward by discussing your future plans at the hiring institution. This requires some creativity and foresight, and is where you can really shine.

If you’re like us, you have too many irons in the fire to count, but remember: You are telling a story here — one that doesn’t have an ending yet. Resist the urge to veer off on tangents about all the new directions your work might take since that would distract from the narrative you worked so hard to build. Instead, present plans that tie in with, and extend, the conclusions you’ve already discussed.

This is also a part of your talk where knowing your audience is absolutely critical. At a teaching-oriented institution, you need to show off how your research can be folded into a classroom environment, and/or is uniquely suited for undergraduate projects. Conversely, research universities are looking for ideas that are competitive on the grant market. Regardless, this part of your talk should convey that you know the expectations for the position, and that you are especially qualified for this job.

Try this exercise to help you think critically about what you want people to get out of your talk: If you asked someone immediately after your talk what they took away from it, what would you want them to say? Would it depend on their role (student versus faculty member)? Decide on your preferred take-home message and use it as a starting point to build your talk. Be sure to stress that theme throughout, and circle back to it at the end.

Avoid the data dump. As you construct your talk, remember your storyline, and include only projects and data that fit. We’re all tempted to show everything we’ve done since Day 1 of graduate school (oh, the hours!). But for each project you’ve worked on, ask yourself if it pushes your narrative. If it doesn’t, omit it.

For those projects you do include, please don’t show every single analysis and graph you have created to form your conclusions. Show the one (or few) that really make your point. If you have to allude to others, be brief.

At times every scholar has to delve into the weeds — after all, that is where the nuance lies. Just don’t stay there too long. Lead your audience back to the big-picture view often.

A great strategy is to create a single graphic or image — not a series of slides — summing up a major finding or conclusion. Sure, in some settings, it’s imperative that your colleagues know you explored the expression of seven genes in four brain areas, and that some of those (a) correlate with head-dipping in the open arms of the elevated-plus maze and (b) demonstrate the role that brain region X plays in the development of anxiety … but that level of detail is ill-suited for a job talk. Entire graduate seminars could be spent interpreting such data.

Instead, pull out the one (or two) findings that best represent your conclusion, build a graphic around it, and use that image to bring your talk back to your central theme. This strategy should help you move your narrative along within the confines of a 40-minute talk.

Parting thoughts. Once your talk has been prepared, practice it with intention. Deliver your talk in a large classroom that has the sort of equipment you plan to use in your talk (context is important). Practice it both alone and then with an audience — several times.

In addition to what you are going to say, practice how you are going to say it. Even behind a podium, you send nonverbal cues or tics that someone watching you practice might notice and help you avoid. Think about moments where you can demonstrate your passion, and emphasize them. Work on segues and transitions, which maintain the pace and flow of your talk. Most of all, include elements that engage and educate your audience.

With some dedicated work and practice, once you finally find yourself on the stage, presenting for a chance at a job you’ve been working hard to get, you will be able to express your genuine self, which is what you want the search committee to see.

Russ E. Carpenter is a lecturer in Stanford University’s Program in Writing and Rhetoric, and R. Parrish Waters is an assistant professor of biology at the University of Mary Washington

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