Unsolicited Advice: Job Search (Pt. 8)

Job Talks – This is a huge subject so be patient…and feel free (as usual) to add in the comments anything I forgot! PhysioProf has also previously posted on this subject… so compare and contrast …

I have a list of things I think about when I think about giving a great seminar- and when giving a job talk you want to give a GREAT seminar that people are going to keep talking about (in a good way!) after you leave. You must hit a home run at this task and doing this requires thoughtful preparation of how the talk is put together, how much information to include and what slides to use.

Chose to talk about your very best science, the most interesting and potentially big payoff-in-the-future story that you have, and the main story that you are planning to carry on with when you start your lab. Then you have to be able to effectively sell the story– and sell it to people who probably, and for the most part, are not experts in your chosen field.

Preparing the talk
The golden rule for organizing a good talk is as follows below. This strategy is very effective and I highly recommend sticking to it.

1. Tell them what you are going to tell them.
Plan to deliver 10 or so minutes of introduction. Keep it simple without dumbing it down. This is easy to say but as you will discover is not so easy to do effectively. Chose your slides to go from somewhat general big picture down to specifically where you are going to lead them in the talk. You must sell the topic so that people understand why they should care about this area you are going to pursue and how it fits into the big picture (on their dime at first, and this morphs into why this is a fundable area), and draw them into the next 40 minutes of your presentation. And stay away from excessive jargon- I love hearing talks about yeast genetics and the cell cycle- but I hear the abbreviation CDK this-and-that more than a couple of times and I promptly shut down. There are ways to prevent drowning people in jargon- so try to limit your use thereof…
Some specific hints for this section include:

A. Place a slide directly after your title slide that has an overview with several bullet points of what you will cover (put in an example), you will systematically move through these points in your talk.

B. Sell the importance of your project in the context of the big picture.

C. Move from general to specific- so you can seamlessly get down to the data.

D. For organizational purposes place a slide with the relevant bullet point from the overview at the beginning of each section (see example).

2. Tell them.
Plan about 30 minutes to cover your exciting story (and I don’t mean your life story, or the complete story of your development as a scientist). You have set the stage with your introduction, now you move on to the second part of your talk where you cover the actual DATA. Carefully choose the data slides you are going to show- you don’t NEED to show every Western blot you have ever done, it’s not a matter of quantity- it’s a matter of showing what is sufficient, necessary, and exciting enough to make your case. You must deliver a coherent and interesting story. If you use the same technique or read-out over and over -try to break it up a bit if possible… don’t show 30 straight minutes of Western blots- people will leave with their eyes glazed over and knowing you sure know how to do a Western blot. If you have a couple of useful diagrams or flow charts, keep people on the track with these.

3. Then, Tell them what you told them.
At the end, summarize your data in the context of the current state of the art understanding in the field. Plan about 5 minutes to talk about where you are planning to take this project in the future. I would make a couple of slides on this and introduce each question to be addressed (specific aims are perfect for this) in your 5 year plan BRIEFLY, mention why each is interesting and what general approach you will take to each question. If you can summarize the long-term goal in 1-2 sentences (not on a slide) that you speak at the end, that would be great too.

Specific hints for preparing your slides/presentation:

1. Limit the use of technical jargon.

2. Stick to 45 minutes, and plan on 10 minutes for questions.
And when I say stick to it, I MEAN IT.

3. Keep it simple without dumbing it down!… and if possible tell a story.

4. Limit the use of TEXT on slides.There should be no more text than absolutely necessary on slides- you want people listening to you, not reading the slides.

5. All text that appears on slides should be readable from the BACK of the auditorium. This means 18 point or larger, and all in BOLD.

6. Use simple, uncluttered slides. Don’t just cut and paste from a previously published paper- go back to the original figures and lay out the slides in the best format for a presentation! Make the lines darker and bolder and in a color that can be seen even in the brightest room – i.e. every part of the figure should be visible from the back of the room! (This one came from Bugdoc, who is quite right!)

7. Make sure that text on figures is readable from the back (i.e. the axes on graphs, the text over the Western) is readable from the back of the room, so if the audience was so interested in the figure that they didn’t hear what you said- they can still interpret your data. (also from Bugdoc & Mad Hatter)

8. Do not put things on the slides that you are not planning to talk about and can’t answer questions about.

9. Remember that much of your audience probably isn’t an expert in your area …
although there will probably be a few people who overlap with you closely.

10. Make the titles on your slides mean something.
Don’t just put a generic description of the assay (Western blot of xyz), instead describe the

11. Use simple diagrams when possible, to keep your audience on track, and to summarize.

12. Spell check absolutely everything you plan to put on the screen!

Ok, I’ll be back to talk about the actual delivery of the talk in another post… feel free to comment on anything I left out here…


11 thoughts on “Unsolicited Advice: Job Search (Pt. 8)

  1. Keep slides simple and uncluttered, so that your conclusions will be clear. Some people feel tempted just to cut and paste multi-panel figures from their publications, but those data and labels can be very hard to see from the back. Speaking of which, I always appreciate well labeled slides, so that if the speaker accidentally forgets (oops) to mention what the axes of the graph were or which molecule is labeled with FITC and which is labeled with Texas Red, I can read them for myself.

    Per one of DrdrA’s comments, it is important to build the story – starting with simple models and predictions and then showing how you tested aspects of your model can be one useful approach. In contrast, avoid completely linear transitions for your talk, i.e., first we did…, next we did…, then we tried, then we did…, etc; this is less engaging to your audience than posing a compelling question and then leading us through a few slides to the answer.

  2. Excellent advice for any presentation, not just a job talk!

    Also, for people who work in interdisciplinary areas and are applying to different types of departments, it can be helpful to “slant” your talk based on the interests of your expected audience.

    Regarding legibility, data figures should also be legible from the back of the room. No graphs with pale yellow lines, etc.

  3. Academic-

    I’m still asleep- you think 10 minutes of introduction is too long? Remember you are probably talking to people who probably aren’t experts in your area, so they deserve a little background. In my next post I’ll come around to the actual practice and delivery of the talk itself.

    BugDoc and Mad Hatter- Excellent points all. I should have said that everything on the slide should be visible from the back of the room that includes labels on axes etc.

    Also BugDoc- good point about keeping things uncluttered, better to go back to original figures and modify rather than cut from a published manuscript.

    As for style- I am a white background, black text, with only occasional color used to make a point… kind of person. I do use pictures and diagrams- to help keep people on track but fancy backgrounds, animation etc… don’t work well for me. If the data is really impressive I want people to look at the data and not all of the other gimmicks.

    PhysioProf- I linked your previous post to this one so people can look at both posts and take away what they want. I am very much about spelling things out the nitty-gritty.

  4. I use around 10 minutes of intro, sometimes it feels long, but you need to get everybody to the point where they can understand what and why you did what you did.

    Another thing that I do is include ‘working models’ as I move through the talk at key points. I feel like that when speaking to a group that is not really familiar with your methods and results, it helps every regroup and understand how it fits in to the overall hypothesis.

  5. Academic-

    10 minutes intro on a 25 minute talk would be a bit long- but for a 45 to 50 minute talk 10 minutes of intro should be just about right!

  6. Didn’t quite guess still what kind of a story it should be. As for the time limits – it’s ok, applicable. But as for the introduction I doubt so much time should be devoted to it.

  7. hi there
    i’m so pleased that i saw this website. that article was so nice. thanks again i bookmarked this website.
    are you planning to write similar articles?

  8. Pingback: Things Sci needs to know | Neurotic Physiology

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s