I’ve been talking to myself for five nights straight. The kitchen table is covered in cue cards. There’s a laser-pointer blister on my thumb. I’m preparing my job talk, and soon I’ll be taking this show on the road, trying to convince search committees of my academic worth.
Dumb it down, make it punchy, think “big picture,” smile, and don’t, for heaven’s sake, go over time – just a few of the seminar tips I’ve received from colleagues. As a distinguished professor told me, “A good seminar won’t necessarily land you the job, but a bad one will almost certainly stop you from getting it.”
Like it or not, the seminar is the single most important part of an academic interview. Many people in the department in which you are interviewing won’t have read your CV or publications, so the seminar is often their only chance to evaluate your research and teaching capabilities – and your personality.
To prepare for my own job interviews, I’ve been attending various job seminars in my home department. When I see a bad talk, I’m sympathetic: it’s difficult to condense years of research into a few “take-home” messages, while at the same time demonstrating that you actually have done a lot of work. I’ve seen candidates whose research is exciting and intrinsically interesting send an entire audience into a humdrum trance, just because they made their talks too complicated, too dense and too long. “Keep it simple,” one of my former professors used to say. He prepared his job talk (almost 40 years ago) by practising it in front of undergraduate students, and then he kept tweaking the talk until the students could understand the main message and why the work was important.
In one of the job talks I attended, the candidate took an unconventional approach. She started the seminar with a short movie that highlighted the problem she was trying to solve, then presented about 15 slides with eye-catching images and easily digestible figures, all with little or no text. At different points in the talk she engaged the audience by asking them broad questions like “What do you think we did next?” or “Can anyone guess why we took that approach?” Although this style is not for everyone, it was memorable – and she got the job.
I asked this candidate, during the student and postdoc luncheon, how she became so talented at developing and delivering seminars. She said, “As a graduate student and later as a postdoc I gave a lot of departmental talks, and I made a particular effort to give seminars at other universities, forcing me to step outside my comfort zone. My first few seminars were terrible, but I always invited constructive feedback. Over time I got a knack for what works best: tell a story.” In her opinion, a talk was successful if one month after it had been delivered the audience members could still recall its major themes and conclusions.
My lab mates certainly know my job talk inside and out: I’ve been practising it on them incessantly for two weeks. Their patience, candor and extensive familiarity with my research topic make them excellent coaches and critics. I’m lucky that they’re not shy to point out the parts of my talk that need revising and the parts that need gutting.
Every detail of a job talk – from the background colour of the slides to the pace and tone of delivery – should be proofed, polished and perfected. Even a small typo in a figure title or a yawn in mid-sentence can leave an indelibly bad impression on some members of an audience. “Don’t expect to be fresh and clearheaded at the interview,” a friend warned me. “Assume that you’ll be tired and anxious, so prepare accordingly.” For me this has meant a lot of rehearsing and reviewing of my job talk – much more practice than I normally devote to a standard departmental seminar.
The intense competition for academic positions and the importance of the job talk are demanding and nerve-wracking. A few of my fellow postdocs have had more than 10 separate interviews, as far away as China and the Middle East, forcing them to put many of their postdoctoral research projects on hold. Others have found the interview process so stressful that they’re reconsidering their choice of an academic career.
As I pack my bags for the interview tour, I remind myself that the experience is valuable, no matter what the outcome. One of my colleagues put it very simply: “The process gets easier with practice, and with practice we improve.”
David Smith is an NSERC postdoctoral fellow and Killam Research Scholar in the Biodiversity Research Centre at the University of British Columbia, where he studies genome evolution of algae.