The Job Talk: 7 Tips for Preparing a Great Presentation
Updated: Dec 11, 2020
The job talk is probably the most pivotal part of the on campus interview. Read these steps for making the best STEM job talk possible.
by Dr. Destenie Nock
December 9, 2020
If you are here, I am assuming you have made it to the stage where you need to prepare for in-person (or Zoom) interviews. Congratulations! This is wonderful news, and you should celebrate on making it this far. The job talk is a perfect opportunity to let your future colleagues know your research interests, and gives them a sense about how you communicate. That being said, when you are interviewing, it can be nerve wracking. While on the job market I received 8 on campus interviews. That means I gave 8 official job talks, and in the year before that I gave three graduate student seminars which I used as practice job talks. Below are 7 tips on how to prepare the best job talk possible, and set yourself up for success on your on campus interview.
#1 Make you the hero of your research
There have been too many talks where the presenters spent half the talk speaking about background information, and not enough about what they actually did. My breakdown for a 45 min talk is as follows:
Introduction - 5 min
Background and Motivation - 5 min
Methodology - 10 min
Results - 15 min
Future Work and Conclusions - 10 min
In my breakdown of time for a 45 min job talk has over half of the talk time being dedicated to methodology and results. When you are done with the job talk you want people to know what you created and the impact of the research. With this timeline for your talk you can give the audience the essential information for your talk, and spend the majority of the time making you the hero of your story.
The job talk is your time to shine as a scholar, and show the people in your future department what you have to offer. In the job talk they are wondering if you will be a good colleague, a good teacher (i.e. can you keep students engaged), and handle criticism (i.e. questions) in a professional manner. Similar to your dissertation defense the most important part of the job talk will be the 30 seconds in which you summarize your main contributions to the field. The second most important part will be the time when you discuss future work.
#2 Know your audience
While on the job interview cycle I presented at nine different universities. The majority were industrial engineering departments, but I also presented in mechanical engineering, public policy, and civil engineering departments. Additionally, there were people from other departments that attended my talk. This meant my talk had to be general enough to allow people outside of my field to understand, but detailed enough so that people within my field knew I had technical rigor.
In general the audience is primarily interested the motivation for the research problem presented in your talk, the methodology used to address the problem, and the larger implications of the final results. For talks that are primarily theory, the novelty and the contribution to theory are of great interest to the faculty and students in the audience. Keeping this in mind can also help you cut out fluff and stick to the time limit, which brings us to Tip #3.
#3 Stay within the time limit!
I cannot stress this enough. You need to make sure that you do not go over on your time. If you have a 1 hour time slot for your talk then you should plan a 45 minute talk, with 15 minutes left for questions. When I was on my interview people often told me they were impressed by my talk, but were more impressed by the way I handled the questions. So when you are practicing your talk, make sure you practice staying with in the time limit.
#4 Let pictures tell the story
In your job talk you should like pictures tell as much of the story as possible. Most likely your job talk will be at the end of a very long day, and people (including yourself) will be tired. When you make your job talk you should aim for the majority of your slides to be 75 - 100% pictures, figures, tables, or graphics. This does not include the title and conclusion slide.
For example instead of having a background slide of mostly words, use a central picture to highlight your theme and then talk people through the background. The picture below illustrates 2 power point slides with the same information. Do you think the audience would rather see the 1st version where the speaker says everything that is already written on the slide, or the second version which the audience can look at the pictures? A benefit of the second version is that it allows for more flexibility and the audience can give their full attention to listening to the speaker, instead of trying to read what is on the slide.
#5 Practice your talk with people inside and outside of your field
This is vital because the more you practice the better you become. Practice with your parents and family members because they can let you know if it doesn't make sense to someone outside of your field. Practice the talk with your adviser because they will be able to give you an idea about the subject matter questions you might be asked. They can also help you figure out the best way to explain the technical details in a clear and concise manner. Practicing your talk will also help you gauge your ability of staying within the time constraint, and help you know how to navigate different audiences.
#6 Show confidence and be your best professional self
I saw a lot of advice out there about being yourself on the job interview. I do not agree with this because I think we have different versions of ourselves based on who we are talking with. For example, you would not talk to your adviser the same way you would talk to your best friend. In general as graduate students we are unsure of our results, battling impostor syndrome, or just nervous wreck about finishing everything on time to graduate. You do not want to show any of these things while in the job talk, or on the interview. Michelle Obama once said, "Through y education, I didn't just develop skills, I didn't just develop the ability to learn, but I developed confidence." The job talk is the time for you to show that confidence. Make sure you dress the part (i.e. wear a suit and proper dress shoes), and remember to smile.
#7 Be prepared for questions
Nine times out of 10 there will be questions. Examples of questions I encountered are as follows:
Why did you use method X and not Y?
What are some possible expansions of this work?
If Z happened would that lessen the impact of your results?
It is impossible to prepare for every single question people could ask you, but having as many people give you feedback as possible will help you prepare. Also remember to have back up slides. These can be for the questions you think might come, such as the future work question.
If someone asks you a question that you were unprepared for then smile and try to answer to the best of your ability. In one of my interviews someone asked me why I did not use a certain method in my energy planning model. At the beginning of my talk I had stated that method as a potential future work item. Instead of saying I already addressed the reasoning behind lack of this method I just smiled and said "due to time limitations I have not been able to look at that method yet. I believe this work stands on its own, and in the coming years I plan to incorporate that method to make this research stronger." Remember people are tired and in all of the presentations you give you want to be polite, respectful, and professional. If someone challenges you, or tries to say that your results do not hold, some possible ways to address this are:
Ask to discuss their reasoning behind the perceived flaws after the talk
Tell them it is interesting, and a different perspective that you will need to look into (then write down what they said, and follow up with them at a later date)
In a calm manner, say "I have to respectfully disagree because of XYZ which would make my current results hold". Note that this only should be used when you are very confident.
Good luck on all of your interviews! Remember to smile, practice, and try to have fun! The interview is the time when the majority of people in the department are super interested in your work. If you made it to the on campus interview then in general you are in the top five candidates, so congratulations on making it this far!
If you like this post feel free to subscribe below or follow me on Twitter @DestenieNock.
Note about the author: Dr. Destenie Nock is an Assistant Professor position in Engineering & Public Policy (EPP) Department as well as in the Civil & Environmental Engineering (CEE) at Carnegie Mellon University. Her research focuses on understanding trade-offs between sustainability and equality objectives in energy systems. She loves working with students because of the direct impact she can have on helping people get to where they want to be in their career. In her free time she has had to learn some new social distancing hobbies. During COVID she has rediscovered her past self, which reminded her that she loves to paint, sew, and go for walks in the park. She also likes to make To-Do Lists. Some would describe her as a list-aholic.