Day: November 20, 2017

Chalk Talk

Disgruntled postdoc asked:

Faux pas you see during faculty interviews, especially the chalk talk. I know you’ve written about the interviews (on site and Skype) overall in general but specific things during the chalk talk would be nice since from the outside postdocs have never seen any other than their own


I am not in the biomedical sciences, so I can’t say what’s needed there. My department usually does one long talk that’s part seminar, part closed session where we grill the candidate on their plans; the latter could be referred to as the chalk talk. What follows is, as is my wont, a stream of consciousness:

The seminar

The seminar showcases your knowledge of the state of the art and your prior work. But this is a job seminar talk. Its purpose is for you to look like an expert who’s done good, important work in an exciting area. I am always surprised by how many candidates don’t tell us what it is that they did versus the general state of the field. Others act as if their whole grad school or postdoc group is the same as themselves. Nope. Unlike a seminar at a conference, where you are a representative of your whole research group, this is a job talk. It’s nice if you are gracious and give credit where credit is due, but we are all here (including you) because you are interviewing for the job. We need to see what you know, how you think, what you did.

And get some clothes that fit and that you are comfortable in. Uncomfortably squirming, sweaty candidates in clothes made from non-breathable fabric and bought many pounds ago do not leave the greatest impression. You don’t have to be stylish or spend a lot of money, but be comfortable and professional. “Professional” does depend on the field; there are fields where wearing a suit is a must; in others, people are are much more casual.

The chalk-talk part

You need to have thought about what you will need and how much it will approximately cost. Ideally, look into the shared facilities at the university before arriving to the extent possible and show us that you know what you’ll be able to leverage. This is very impressive when done right and shows you are serious and interested. If there’s stuff you absolutely have to have as your own (e.g., because you will build upon that equipment with some custom additions), we need to know about it.

We want to see no fewer than three and no more than five sturdy lines of research that you will undertake. Think about long-term and short-term plans. What will you work on first, the first couple of years?  What will your first several proposals be on? How about five years in? Where will you apply for money? Are you naive about what the funding trends are? How large do you envision your group will be initially? Eventually?

What will your first few proposals be on? You don’t have to talk about these as proposals, but rather as exciting research ideas; either way, we want to see that you can think in terms of fundable, executable ‘quanta’ of research. Pitch your ideas to us. If you excite us with your ideas, with what you feel you will pull off, that’s a great sign.

Again, your ideas. Not trivial extensions of the work your group is currently doing, in which case they’ll be funded for it and not you. Your unique ideas. You need to grow your niche. Convince us that you know you need a niche, that you will develop one, that your envisioned niche is something you are uniquely positioned to do, and that it’s important and exciting.

Far too many candidates are indistinguishable in that they don’t have original ideas at all; instead, they regurgitate what they’ve heard at conferences or in group meetings to be the next obvious steps. That’s boring. We want to see interesting, well-thought-out, fresh ideas.

Blogosphere, please chime in with chalk-talk dos and don’ts!