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! 

12 comments

  1. Disclaimer: n < 10, so maybe it's all noise and just my brain trying to make sense of the most stressful period of my life: the tenure track job search. But I suspect I screwed up all of my chalk talks and I am pretty sure that this has cost me job offers. I tend to give good talks (I know) so I am pretty sure my seminars went well. But nobody ever explicitly told me details about a chalk talk other than to talk about "my plans". I really wish I had had more clear instructions. I was just winging it.
    So what I ended up doing was showing them that I was a creative scientist and I told them about my big picture plans that I was (and still am) excited about. What I forgot to do was include some bread and butter studies because I thought that would be "boring" whereas in this case "boring" actually translated to "feasible" and "publishable". I put too much emphasis on the super original exciting work because I thought otherwise they would not believe I was good/independent enough to be an independent scientist in my own right.

    I'll never know for sure, but I think that's what went wrong at least. I never got straight feedback on these chalk talk efforts. I'd still like to see a you tube video of a good one. Maybe my plans just weren't as clear and cut out as I wanted to believe at the time. But the only places where I got offers were places where I didn't have to give an explicit chalk talk.

  2. I think you have to be able to communicate your science and interests to others that are not experts. I think a lot of people get lost in giving super-detailed technical talks full of equations not explained. That does not convey anything except that you cannot explain yourself. The other extreme are those talks that are so general that the speaker could be talking about anything. So walking that line is difficult.
    For me the chalk talk has a more conversation style, in that you are not presenting a seminar with results, etc. but you are presenting plans, funding sources, etc. It shows that you can think as a professor and can present your ideas and plans to get funding, several of them actually.

  3. The biggest mistakes I see in chalk talks is in either failing to “cut the cord” so to speak from a previous group (you CAN’T come in discussing your plans to collaborate with your former PI) or in setting themselves up in direct competition to their postdoc or PhD group. Candidates need to be able to tell us why funding agency would rather fund you than your better funded, better equipped previous group if you are staying in the same research area.

    The second biggest mistake is lack of long term planning. Most candidates we bring in have interesting ideas for the next project (or they wouldn’t have been invited), but less idea on how to set up a research program rather than a sequence of research projects.

  4. The one thing we’re looking for in a chalk talk is a cogent, clear, organized PLAN. A plan for your first R01 — that demonstrates you know what goes in one (hint: not the kitchen sink, ie, everything you ever wanted to do, this is NOT your grand vision, this is a single grant) and why those Aims hang together. A plan for exactly what preliminary data you’ll need to collect here in support of it, and how long you think that will take. A plan for where it gets submitted (name a study section). A plan for who will do that work (can you get UGs involved?). A plan for the next grant.

    By the time we see a chalk talk, we know you have a grand vision (so don’t go overboard in describing the sky). The chalk talk is where you demonstrate that you have both the big-scale vision and the organized approach to pull it off in its various stages and components.

  5. Your advice rings true to me for bio. I encourage everyone to ask the chair of the search committee, and if possible other members, what their vision of a chalk talk is. Some people have very strong ideas about what does and does not go into a chalk talk, and you need to find out if you’re going to have one of those people in the audience. I have also seen chalk talks go south when a member of the audience objects (often unreasonably imo) to an entire approach on principle. It’s painful to see this happen, and I imagine devastating for the candidate. But that jerk is doing you a favor — letting you know that you probably don’t want that job.

    Here’s an idea for another post: what not to do when you’re on the search committee. Or has that already been done?

  6. “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.” I agree with this. But to be honest, I think the reason many people just regurgitate what they’ve heard at conferences and group meetings is because it’s really REALLY hard to come up with new, creative, and feasible ideas. So what about those of us–like me–who often find it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to come up with original ideas? Does that mean we’re just not meant to be in science?

  7. MC3, I used to think the same as you – it is impossible to come up with original ideas. However, the ideas you need to come up with do not have to ground-breaking or super-amazing and potentially lead to the Nobel prize. What you need to do is to find a “niche” – an area of research that is comparatively underdeveloped, an area you can apply your skills to and get to some low-hanging fruit quite fast. I think many people make the mistake of trying to come up with something very flashy, but that is not the goal. What are some research problems in your field that not many people work on where you can make an impact?

  8. Some of the emphasis in comment section on grant writing skills/knowledge seems strange to me. I’d much rather hire someone with a history of publishing high quality, challenging work and great ideas for what they want to do going forward (including stuff like how to cut the cord from previous labs).

    Figuring out how to present your work to get an R01 seems like a fairly superficial selection criterion…easy to learn that on the job anyhow.

  9. Grumpy, it seems strange to me, too, but the biomed world has their own criteria… Also, some people might make small voodoo dolls of you and start poking them now that you wrote “present your work to get an R01…easy to learn that on the job.” Getting an R01 is very hard, especially in areas with many active groups…

    I also know from the blog that chemistry will have much longer research statements, like 10 pages total or ~3 pages per near-future grant. In contrast, what I usually see tops at 3 pages.

    Fields differ, although I agree that it’s ludicrous how much the interview process in all STEM fields is being molded to select for best funding prospects with diminishing attention to everything else. That’s also why we have junior faculty (true story, sadly) who don’t give two shits about teaching but will be tenured because they have money…

  10. Hah, my bad, came out wrong. Nothing easy about getting any major grants (especially R01), it’s just not a skill I would select for at the 1st year assistant professor level.

  11. Thanks for the advice! I’m sorry I didn’t comment back till now, but I’ve *thankfully* been busy going out and giving chalk talks! I’m in chemistry, so yes, long proposals. In addition to not being an easy extension of your postdoc/PhD, it seems like a lot of people want to see vision and impact in the talks too. “How are you going to change the field?” “What are you going to win your Nobel from?” Not the easiest to answer and I’m still working on it

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