On FB a couple of weeks ago, I posted a link to a fabulous blog post from Aimée Morrison, which looked at the differences between the standard conference presentation and the “keynote;” I noted that in many cases, what passes for the “job talk” is effectively a keynote presentation. Given how many people shared and liked the post, I thought I’d take it a step further here. We’re currently revising our materials for people on the job market, and so I thought I’d try my hand at providing a more comprehensive account of just what the job talk entails. While some of this advice may be specific to my own field (particularly with respect to job market timing, e.g.), most of it is probably general enough to apply more widely. But of course, ymmv.

Please feel free to add, question, complicate in the comments, and I’ll credit as I edit.


What is the job talk?

For many tenure-track (or tenured) positions, the final stage before a decision involves inviting 2-4 finalists to campus for 1-3 days (aka “the campus visit”). As part of that visit, the finalists are asked to give a research presentation, a talk that is typically longer than the average conference presentation, and involves a certain amount of audience interaction (questions and answers, or Q&A). So, for example, a candidate might be asked to speak for 35-40 minutes during an hour-long session.

It’s important to understand that these specifications are variables, subject to revision on the part of the department. Some departments may expect shorter or longer talks, some may prefer that you speak more extemporaneously, and some may have particular topics that they wish you to address. (I’ve given a job talk, for example, where I was specifically asked to spend about 10 minutes talking about my teaching and how my research fed into it.)

As a candidate, you should always make sure that you understand the expectations in terms of timing, topic, formality, etc. And hiring departments should be explicit about them, especially if they expect something atypical. (Having run afoul of this myself, I have strong feelings about the professional ethics of making expectations crystal clear.)

The job talk is important for a couple of reasons. First, it’s often the one time when a candidate can address the entire hiring department. There will be some people in the department for whom the job talks are the only time they’ll have a chance to see the candidates, and their evaluation will be disproportionately influenced by those presentations. Second, the presentation is the one part of the campus visit over which the candidate has complete control. A frequent refrain in job market advice, one that I repeat myself, is that candidates should only worry about those things that they can control. The research presentation is the candidates’ opportunity to be their best selves.

So, yeah, it’s important.

When is the job talk?

I mean this in a couple of different ways. Chronologically, campus visits mostly happen in our field from late January to early March, after semi-finalists have been interviewed, school is back in session, and search committees have had a chance to narrow down their shortlists. This is not a hard-and-fast rule, however; my research presentation at Syracuse happened in late November, for instance.

The advice that I give is that the job talk should “begin” during the summer prior to the year that a candidate goes on the market, however. For me, it’s the same principle as dressing for the job you want rather than the one you have: I think it’s important to assume that you’ll be delivering at least one research presentation, and to begin planning it early. For those working on their dissertations, this can mean focusing one’s attention, for instance, on a chapter that might form the basis for a talk. In the same way that a candidate should be thinking about the writing sample ahead of time, I recommend giving the same kind of thought to the job talk. An ounce of planning being worth several pounds of panic, and all that.

Certain kinds of chapters aren’t going to lend themselves as well to research presentations as others; I’m thinking here of literature reviews and/or data reports, for instance. This doesn’t mean that pieces of those might not prove relevant, but neither is likely to support a 35-40 minute presentation for an audience much less familiar with your work. An audience is more likely to remember the conclusions you’re reaching than the data, evidence, or texts you used to get there; research presentations typically center around claims rather than grounds.

Because the market is itself a full-time job, it’s exceptionally rare for a candidate to accomplish significant work on a large project if they are also engaging in a full search (and/or teaching, and/or handling family and social obligations). Everyone (myself included, once upon a time) goes into a search vowing that they are the exception, but the truth of the matter is that large projects (like dissertations) rarely change much from September to March. And so that prior summer may be the last chance to engage in significant preparation for the talk.

This is an important thing to remember, because the final piece of “when” is that candidates don’t receive a great deal of advance notice. It’s possible to receive the call for a campus visit mere weeks in advance of the event itself. To use my own experience as an example once more, I had only 3 weeks from the date of my call from Syracuse before my campus visit. While it is certainly possible to generate a job talk from scratch quickly, if your goal is to present yourself in the best possible light, a campus invitation should be the final stage of your process, not the first.

Why the job talk?

Or rather, why should candidates take the research presentation seriously as an opportunity? Aside from being the one part of the campus visit that one can control, the research presentation, because of the way it’s set up, is an ideal venue to accomplish several goals.

First, it’s a chance to express gratitude. This can be easy to forget, especially if the visit doesn’t have the desired result, but it is “an honor just to be nominated.” A large number of people, whom you may or may not even meet, have spent a great deal of time and energy reflecting on your accomplishments and they have endorsed you as a potential colleague. That matters. I myself have formed lasting friendships with people as a result of visits I’ve gone on and with people who have been finalists here at Syracuse who weren’t ultimately hired. I wish that, over the years, I’d personally been better about expressing my appreciation for this part of it.

Second, it is an opportunity to demonstrate that this endorsement was deserved. The research presentation is the best way to make your qualifications and interests come alive for your audience, to represent your work as significant and exciting, and to demonstrate that you know your stuff.

Finally, though, I think it’s important to understand that the research presentation isn’t just about the candidates’ accomplishments to date. It’s about helping the search committee and hiring department make a decision about the future of their program, and frankly, whether or not you should be a part of that future. I don’t mean here to make this sound more intimidating than it should–goodness knows that the job talk is high stakes enough as it is. What I mean to suggest, though, is that strong job talks have an element of futurity to them, a sense that there is still work to be pursued, interesting questions to ask and answer. Perhaps it’s too fine a distinction, but the research presentation should be open-ended rather than, say, unfinished, if that makes sense.

How to write a job talk?

The conditions surrounding the research presentation (timing, length, advance notice) can vary substantially, but those conditions are shared across everyone who’s participating in a job search. When it comes to the actual production and execution of a presentation, however, the personal style and distinctive topics of the individual candidates have as much, if not more, to do with the talk, so it’s difficult to offer concrete, generalized advice. Morrison’s essay is a good place to start, and I also recommend either or both Garr Reynolds’ and Nancy Duarte’s work on presentations. Reynolds’ Presentation Zen changed my presentation life in several ways. Some of the advice that I consider crucial:

Medium. In a presentation, you normally have three media available to you: your voice, the projector screen, and any handout that you might provide. Reynolds is particularly critical of what he calls the “slide-ument,” the attempt to make a PowerPoint slide do the work of a handout, through excessive text. It’s okay to make use of all 3, but make sure that you treat them appropriately–if you want your audience to look closely at an extended textual passage, for instance, handouts are perfect.

Accessibility, which I mean in two different ways. As you pay attention to media, you should be thinking about which of them is best for your audience. So for example, if you’d like to provide a bibliography for your talk, you can certainly include it on a final slide or a handout, but you might instead put it online and give your audience an easily memorable URL (or put that on a handout). You should be asking yourself throughout your preparation what the best means of access to the various portions of your presentation are for your audience.

But I mean this in terms of inclusivity as well. I’ve become increasingly convinced of the importance of building accessibility into my presentations from the start. For example, after doing some basic research about font legibility, I use Avenir Next almost exclusively for presentations, relying on size and weight for contrast, as opposed to multiple fonts. (Part of my choice is that AN is also an iOS font.) I rely on a small handful of colors (usually 2-3) for the slides, and pay pretty close attention to light-dark contrast. When in doubt, I add drop shadows or strokes to heighten it. If I script, I bring extra copies in a couple of font sizes, and if I don’t script, I make time to do one of those slide-guide printouts and jot my notes there as one of the ways that I practice. I wouldn’t say that I’m perfect about all this by any means, but over the last few years, I’ve really tried to think more carefully about reaching the broadest possible audience for my talks. And if you think about it, this seems an obvious goal to have for the research presentation.

Modularity. Because there are no hard-and-fast rules, it’s not inconceivable that a candidate might receive invitations for talks of different lengths. An audience expecting a 30-minute talk isn’t going to look kindly on a 45-minute talk that’s delivered at 150% speed, especially if the presentation is scripted. The easiest way to deal with this variability is to approach the research presentation as a series of shorter pieces, to treat it as modular. Think about examples, and which of them can be inserted or deleted without affecting the overall message of the presentation. I tend to save a couple for the end of a long talk that I can mention or not depending on how I’m doing for time.

Visuality. Whether it includes slides or not, every research presentation is visual; the audience will be looking at the speaker, at a screen, out the window, etc. I’m a strong proponent of slides, though, because I believe that engaging an audience visually, when done well, can reinforce and extend a talk in productive ways. Sometimes this means including names of sources and.or keywords on my slides, so that it’s clear what I’m talking about. More often, though, I find myself thinking specifically about the more easily visualized portions of my work. In other words, when I’m thinking about a talk, I shape my topic according partly to how well it will translate into a slide deck. As I’ve gotten into this habit, I’ve found it easier and easier to accomplish. I’m drawing a bit on Dan Roam’s recent work here, because I think that slides, even if they’re mostly textual, can help to communicate conceptual relations through some basic diagrammatics (see also Drucker on this).

Scope. A common mistake that took me a long time to shake was to translate presentation requirements into word or page counts. I don’t know that I’m great at this yet, but I try now to think in terms of blocks of time, during which I might read, speak, explain, demonstrate, show, etc., where each block has a central point, and my talk stitches those points together in a coherent way (ideally!). This has partly to do with modularity, but for me, it is also about matching the various scopes of those points carefully. If I want an audience to take away a central thesis, then its proportion to my talk should match, and the relationships among the parts of a presentation should not be nearly as complicated as they can be in a piece of writing. (This is sometimes where I get into trouble.)

Scripting vs Speaking. There are plenty of people who will criticize a presentation that is scripted and read aloud rather than spoken. As someone who’s struggled with almost debilitating stage anxieties, please allow me to suggest that you ignore those people. It took me close to 15 years to develop the confidence to speak from notes/slides rather than a script. I have seen dazzlingly talented readers and dismally weak speakers; the method of delivery is far less important than the presenter’s ability to prepare the talk appropriately for that method. Your guide in this matter should be your own level of comfort and confidence, and no one else’s. If you rely on a script, it should be an actual script, not a single-spaced copy of your presentation. Include stage directions if you need to, about making eye contact, slowing down, referencing a slide, taking a sip of water, etc.

Regardless of your delivery style, practice practice practice. There are lots of ways to do this — one of my favorites involves using Keynote to record a copy of my slides along with my presentation so that I can actually devote myself to listening to it (as opposed to trying to deliver and listen simultaneously). Get feedback from people who will be honest with you, and with enough time to allow you to revise.

Fun? I really enjoy the contexts surrounding research presentations, whether they are conferences or campus visits, but it’s taken a long time for me to be able to dull the edges of the anxiety that such presentations provoke in me. I know others for whom presentations are a genuine pleasure. My guess is that the high-stakes nature of the job talk exerts a multiplicative effect, regardless of where we lie on that spectrum. So I can’t quite conclude with the suggestion to enjoy that process, but I can say that preparation and practice go a long way to making the research presentation a little less anxious.