Sunday, December 29, 2013

PFTF Discussion: Job talks, chalk talks, and teaching demonstrations

Last month we finished off winter quarter with another talk about the academic job search, where UC Davis faculty Siobhan Brady (Plant Sciences) and Sarah Perrault (University Writing Program) gave us the rundown on job talks, chalk talks, and teaching demonstrations.

Firstly, we discussed how these three presentations differ:
  • Job talk (research talk, about 50 minutes long) - what you did in the past
  • Chalk talk (research plans, can be 20-90 minutes long) - what you're going to do in the future
  • Teaching demonstration (can be 25-60 minutes) - mock classroom or course instruction

Then we broached the finer details.:

Chalk talks usually put forth the aims listed in your research statement (e.g. they can be the exact points you outlined in your original job application packet). Few institutions will allow any type of presentation aids for chalk talks (and if powerpoint is allowed, you'll usually be limited to just a few slides). The focus of this talk should be on your research goals (both short-term and long-term) as well as your long-term research questions. Some tips for chalk talks:
  • Speak quickly on your feet and show mastery of your field
  • Introduce your long-term research questions during your job talk
  • Being conservative here can help - people will see you as practical and thus able to get funding (and show preliminary data, if possible)
  • Gear your chalk talk towards faculty; talk about methods but don't be too technical: talk about what equipment and personnel you will need
  • People will interrupt you nonstop (in this sense, a chalk talk is similar to a PhD qualifying exam). Your responses will indicate how much (and how deeply) you have thought about the future.
  • People often fall apart because of a) nervousness and/or b) falling prey to the potential pitfalls of your subject matter
  • Most importantly: practice! Practice your chalk talk a lot before your interview, using diverse audiences (faculty, postdocs, etc.) Be critical as you strive to perfect this talk.

Job Talks
 are perhaps the most familiar, but we hit on some critical points that will ensure a successful presentation:

  • Keep your slides simple, use black text on a white background. Use 40pt font to make your slides readable in a large room
  • Use sentences for slide headings - these are more memorable than topical phrases (studies have shown this is true)
  • Use clean, simple graphics. Watch some TED talks to get an idea of how to use good visuals.
  • Beware of humor in a job talk: it can backfire
  • During questions, if you need to buy time to think you can ask "Can you repeat/rephrase the question?"
  • Be sure to remain poised and composed if you're battered with questions that seem to come out of left field (composure is what people are looking for). Sometimes these difficult questions are a result of faculty performing out of ego, or for the sake of their peers.

Teaching seminars come in different formats, and we discussed two different scenarios that our speakers had experienced.

  • The first scenario is more common in teaching universities: a candidate was asked to teach an intro course that was completely different from their own disciplinary subject area. The candidate was given good guidelines and plenty of preparation time (in this case, they were given a course textbook and told to teach the first chapter). At the interview, the audience for this teaching demo was comprised of the search committee and undergraduates. 
  • The second scenario was much less structured, with only one instruction: no powerpoint allowed. The candidate was asked to teach a class as if it were an upper-level course, using only the blackboard. The demo only lasted 25 minutes, and the audience was the search committee. In this scenario, a good interview strategy would be to show expertise in a class not currently offered by the university (e.g. to show your potential fit in the Department). For the sake of the audience, it's also prudent to state your learning goals as well as a textbook, chapter, and figures that complement your teaching demo.

We also had an interesting discussion about "illegal questions" - the inevitable queries about your personal life that interviewers aren't supposed to ask (Are you married? Do you have kids? Do you want kids?). Someone suggested that you should be honest - after all, you don't want to insult your possible future colleagues. Another person suggested ways to deflect the question (and address the underlying concern that prompted the question), without answering or insulting: for example, saying something like "If this is about my productivity, I can assure you that I'm first and foremost passionate about my research..." It was interesting to hear different thoughts on this tricky subject.

Overall, our discussion provided a very eye-opening look into the interview process, and I learned a lot. We ended with some final tips and general guidance:
  • Keep your presentations backed up on a thumb drive during all interviews (just in case!)
  • At some institutions (UC Davis is one), admin staff will give their input during the faculty hiring process. So when you interview, keep in mind that every single person you encounter is your "audience" during a campus visit. 
  • Keep a supply of water and energy snacks in your bag - interviews are exhausting, and you will need them.
  • Make a cheat sheet of people based on your interview schedule - note their recent publications, research interests, and other professional activities.
  • Never bluff answers. It's better to just say "I don't know". Or better yet, "I'd be happy to get back to you" - and then take their name and follow-up later with the answer.
  • For phone or Skype interviews, it's a good idea to dress in interview clothes and book a conference room to make sure you feel professional.
  • Make a mental note of people throwing their weight around - if other faculty don't shut them down, it might be an indicator of departmental culture (or indicate people that might have power over your career).

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