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grad skool rulz #26 – the job talk

Previous grad skool rulz.

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These notes were prepared for sociology graduate students. As usual, please adjust for the standards in your own discipline.

The job talk is an example of public speaking. Here are some tips on how to improve your job talk skills and public speaking more generally.

  • Do not improvise your talk. Prepare an outline of the talk. If it helps, write out the talk in its entirety.
  • How to organize your talk I: Start the talk with the main point. Example: “Scholars tend to think X, but my analysis of the GSS shows that X is not true.” Do not “surprise” the audience by not telling them the major point of your talk.
  • How to organize your talk II: Job talks usually have (a) an introduction where you tell the audience what your research is about and what you have proved, (b) a section motivating your research – the “who cares?” part of the talk, (c) a middle that is the “meat” of the talk – your hypotheses, data, etc. (d) conclusion talking about what you might do in the future. Of course, not every job talk conforms to this outline, but if you don’t know what else to do, this will be ok.
  • Attitude: When you give your job talk, be enthusiastic and confident. People want to hear about your talk. Show them that you care.
  • Practice your job talk: A research presentation is like performing music – you have to practice to do it well.
  • Practice I: After you write a first draft of the talk, practice in front of a mirror and use a clock. Your talk should be 30-45 minutes.
  • Practice II: Eliminate the “ums” and “ahs.” Practice so that you speak clearly.
  • Practice III: Try not to hide behind lecterns, tables, etc. Speak directly to the audience. Look directly at the audience.
  • Practice IV: Do at least one or two practice job talks. Get feedback from people. Did I communicate my point clearly? Did I speak clearly? Were my visual aids confusing or helpful?
  • Practice V: In addition, to practice talks in public, practice at home. Practice the entire talk so many times that you have the talk almost memorized. Practice until you are sick of the talk. I practiced my job talk (about 35 minutes) about 30 times – no exaggeration.
  • Visual aids: In general, I recommend against using visual aids. They distract the audience from what you have to say. However, it’s ok to use a few visual aids to summarize the main points, present a picture or a table of regression results.
  • Back up visual aids: It’s often a good idea to have extra slides. During my Indiana job talk, Pam Walters asked me a question and I pulled out an extra transparency that had the answer. Consider your visual aids to be tools, use the right one for the right job – but have the tool box handy in case you need extra help.
  • Be yourself: If you are funny, it might help to say something funny. If you are serious, then don’t try to be funny. Don’t do anything that doesn’t feel right.
  • Rude interruptions: Sometimes people will interrupt your talk. If you can answer the question quickly, do so. Otherwise, say something like: “That’s a good point. I would like to answer your question at the end of the talk.” If the person just doesn’t stop, then let them ramble and signal to the moderator that you need to continue. In some cases, you can’t do much except let the person go on.
  • Questions I: People will often ask tough questions. Fortunately, you can prepare for them. Here are some common questions in sociology job talks. Write down and practice your answers: “Why is this sociology?” “Isn’t this obvious?” “Hasn’t this been done before?” “What did X have to say about this?” “Why did you omit my favorite variable?” “Your method is completely wrong.” “How does this relate to –my favorite topic-?”
  • Questions II: Sometimes people ask good questions that are really hard. A few hints – write the question down, ask for clarifications on the question, admit that you don’t have a complete answer, find a related topic that you do know about. If the question was a true baffler, you could also email the person and say: “Nice question this afternoon. I’ve had some time to think and my opinion is…”
  • Questions III: Write down questions and look at the person when you answer. This will show that you are engaged.
  • No matter what: don’t lose your cool!! Be in control, even if somebody gives you a hard time, just smile and say that they have great questions. As one person says, “loss of control=loss of job.

The nice thing about the job talk is that it is the one thing you can control the most. So be prepared and enjoy the experience.

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Written by fabiorojas

July 19, 2010 at 3:12 am

8 Responses

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  1. Good list. Perhaps this should go without saying, but I’d like to mention one more: Know what you are actually talking about. We once had a candidate come and give a talk that still makes me shudder to this day. The theoretical set-up was great and her presentation style was beautiful and well-rehearsed, but then a good portion of the conclusions she drew focused on moderation effects…but she had NOT actually tested for moderation in the series of regressions she presented. Even we green grad students knew this was not a good sign. The ensuing Q&A was brutal, made worse because she seemed so surprised. I felt truly horrified for her, and also rather irritated that any advisor would let her get that far without saying “hey, by the way….”

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    angela

    July 19, 2010 at 10:41 am

  2. A bit of advice my advisor gave me, you are selling yourself as much as your research. I had a brief (<1 minute) slide on my background and how I came to be interested in my questions. Don't know if it helped or not, but I got the job.

    Other adviserly advice that I followed. I structured my talk as three "snapshots" of the issue. It was basically three, ten minute mini-presentations that were held together by a common problematic. It may not be appropriate for everyone, but my dissertation was methodologically eclectic (from regressions to ethnography) and helped to highlight this. Later, I found out that my "mixed-methods" approach was what sold a lot of the faculty on hiring me.

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    musa

    July 19, 2010 at 4:23 pm

  3. i think the most important thing to remember about the Q&A is that you don’t need to know every answer, but you do have to be able to come up with some ideas about how you would go about finding out. when i gave job talks i often answered questions by saying something like “that’s beyond the scope of my research but X has done some important work / is currently working on something that speaks to that” or even “that’s an interesting question, you might be able to address it with approach Y.”

    there are broadly three types of questions i’m thinking of for which this advice is relevant:

    how would your research replicate under a different context
    what’s up w/ something causally prior to your analysis
    what’s up w/ something causally following after your analysis

    btw, the important point with visuals is not to go w/o them but to go w/o visuals that are really just text. bullet points are LCD chloroform, whereas visuals that are actually visual almost always help.

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    gabrielrossman

    July 19, 2010 at 5:06 pm

  4. All good comments. To Angela: That’s why practice job talks and submitting stuff to peer review is good. Hopefully, you’ll address your problems before the interview!!

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    fabiorojas

    July 19, 2010 at 5:32 pm

  5. I like the one about eliminating the “ums” and “ahs.” These filler words can be quite distracting when someone uses them a lot. This goes for all nervous habits. It could be anything from playing with your hair to clearing your throat to swaying back and forth. The more prepared and practiced you are, the less like you are to be nervous and to use these distracting habits.

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    Mike Doughtery

    July 19, 2010 at 5:43 pm

  6. […] Tips on academic job talks from Fabio’s valuable series. […]

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  7. I would just add that those who are interested in non-R1 schools (liberal arts colleges, etc.) should not expect the typical job talk structure to apply, although all of the above advice is useful in any case.
    You should also plan on making a classroom presentation to students, although this is much harder to prepare for, since the committee may ask you to do either some version of your dissertation research, another topic of your choice, or the readings the students were assigned for that day.
    Having been on both sides of this, I can say that these presentations in front of a real class of unfamiliar students and the faculty committee, while seemingly artificial, are incredibly revealing of candidates’ teaching ability and rapport with students. For the candidate, while it might be stressful, a demonstration class provides an invaluable opportunity to get a sense of the full range of students you will be teaching and the facilities where you will be doing it!

    Liked by 1 person

    carolinewlee

    July 20, 2010 at 12:58 am

  8. One thing to add: always bring multiple copies of your job talk presentation, and in a variety of formats (pdf, ppt, doc, overhead slides) just in case of technical difficulties (which happened to me last year)

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    mt

    July 27, 2010 at 3:26 pm


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