The Academic Job Talk


The "job talk" is perhaps the single most important thing you’ll do during an academic interview. On the basis of your presentation, you’ll be evaluated as a scholar, teacher and potential colleague. A dynamic talk is likely to result in a job offer, while a poorly organized, flat or uninspired presentation will almost certainly eliminate you from consideration.

Here are some key points to consider as you prepare for an academic job talk.

Before the Talk

Different institutions and disciplines have different expectations about the length and format of the job talk. Make sure you know what is expected of you. Attend job talks in your department. Listen to how faculty members evaluate the talk, then figure out what works and what doesn’t. Use this information to guide your preparation.

Find out who will be attending the job talk. 

Knowing your audience will help you decide how specific or technical you should make the presentation. For example, if the audience is primarily undergraduates, you’ll want to spend more time explaining the significance of your work. Also, ask about the format of the talk so you’ll know how much time you’ll have.

Your research talk will probably be related to your dissertation, but remember, this isn’t a dissertation defense. Dr. Jonathan A. Dantzig (2001), professor of mechanical and industrial engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, advises: “Make sure that everyone who attends your seminar learns something.” He notes that a good job talk should answer the following questions:
• What problem have I worked on?
• Why would anyone work on this problem?
• What is significant about what I have done?
• How has my work made progress on the

He offers this sample structure for a 45-minute
research job talk:

Content Time
Target Audience Detail Level/Purpose
Background 15 Everyone present A non-expert would understand it
Your Approach 10 People in related fields Show you know the field
Your Results 10 People in your field Show that you are the expert on something
Summary 10 Everyone present Relate your results to the big picture

Prepare an organized presentation. Good presentations have a beginning, a middle and an end, often referred to as the “3 Ts”: Tell ‘em what you’re going to tell ‘em; Tell ‘em; and Tell ‘em what you told ‘em.

If you choose to use a Power Point presentation, don’t use complete sentences on your slides,because you’ll invariably end up turning your back to the audience and reading the slides verbatim. Instead, follow these general rules:
• Two- or three-word phrasesfor each point; avoid long sentences
• Generally one topic per slide
• Title for each slide
• Generally no more than 6 words per line
• Generally no more than 6 lines per slide
• Larger font to indicate more important information
• Font size generally ranging from 18 (body text) to 48 point (headings)
• Bullets to highlight your text items
• Don’t overwhelm your audience with fancy fonts, shaded backgrounds or custom effects (for example, words or phrases that fade or dissolve or graphics that fly in or out). These “enhancements” are sure to distract the listener from your presentation.

For more tips on creating effective PowerPoint presentations, see the Graduate Connections article: Tips for Creating Effective PowerPoint Presentations. If your material is too detailed to put on a slide, consider using handouts instead. Be sure the information is not too complex and that any tables, charts or graphs are clearly labeled. Finally, make sure you bring with you enough copies of the handouts with the pages stapled together.

Now that you’ve prepared your presentation, practice it. Practice in front of your adviser, some fellow graduate students, and at least one person who knows nothing about your subject matter. Perhaps invite some undergraduates to the mock talk. Get their comments, then practice it again. Make sure your seminar is at an appropriate level for the various audience members (e.g., faculty, postdoc fellows, graduate students, undergraduate students). Get as much feedback as you can.

Practice it again. Time yourself. If you’re using slides, figure out which slide corresponds to the halfway point of your presentation. That way, you can tell whether you’re going too slowly or too fast–while you still have time to do something about it.If you’re running short of time during the talk, it’s better to cut a pre-planned optional section in the middle than to be prevented from giving the conclusion. And don’t try to include every minor detail. Keep the big picture in mind.

During the Talk

Remember that an “extemporaneous” presentation– planned thoroughly in advance yet delivered in a spontaneous manner –will be far more convincing than a scripted one. In other words, don’t read your presentation. Keep in mind the purpose of your talk. You are not delivering a research paper.

Ask the audience to hold questions until the end except for brief questions of clarification. Otherwise you’re likely to get interrupted and run out of time.

Start by providing an overview of the topics you’ll be covering. Be sure to explain near the beginning why a non-specialist might be interested in your work. Near the end, be sure to explain why your substantive conclusions are of importance beyond the immediate topic of the work.

Maintain eye contact with the audience. Choose people at various locations in the room and systematically sweep your eyes around to be sure you engage the entire audience. Avoid standing right in front of the projector. You’ll end up obstructing the view of people near the front, and you’ll also be partially blinded by staring into the projector’slight. If you use a laser pointer, slowly circle around the item you want the audience to attend to, instead of trying to point at it directly. If you point and you’re nervous, your shaky hand will be greatly exaggerated by the laser beam.

Don’t stand in one spot during the entire presentation. Make use of both horizontal and vertical space when speaking. When asking or answering questions or emphasizing a point, move toward the audience. Create presence. Be unpredictable in your physical movement, but don’t pace back and forth.

After the Talk

The question-and-answer session following your talk can be as important as the talk itself. The best way to prepare for this portion of the job talk is to anticipate the kinds of questions that might be asked, then practice responding to them. Often thebiggest challenge is to understand what the questioner is asking.

Pause before you reply.If you’re not sure what the question is, ask for clarification by restating the question in your own words and asking if that is what the questioner meant. It’s okay to take notes on the remarks from the audience, especially on an interesting point that you hadn't considered. And it’s not a crime to say, "I don't know. That’s a great question and it would make a great follow-up research project." (Just don’t answer every question like that.) Finally, never, ever argue or become defensive with the questioner.

In the end, remember that the job talk is not another defense of your work. You don’t have to prove your competence. Instead, consider it a demonstration of your ability to contribute and collaborate as a potential colleague and as a clear communicator. That’s what your audience is most interested in knowing.

The Academic Job Search, Rice University Career Services Center.

Jonathan A. Dantzig (2001). Landing an Academic Job: The Process and the Pitfalls. Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, February 22, 2001.

Perfecting The Job Talk by Professor John Eadie, Department of Wildlife, Fish & Conservation Biology, University of California, Davis,