Chalk Talks. A second type of talk you may be asked to give on your interview visit for an academic position is a more informal presentation called a ‘chalk talk’. Some places will ask you to give these, some will not- and the format varies between institutions. I know of departments that ask you to prepare a short PowerPoint presentation for your chalk talk, others that ask you to use the board and go sans slides- and use actual chalk, and some that don’t give you an idea of the format up front. If the place that you are visiting falls into this last category- feel free to politely ask the search committee chair prior to your visit if the search committee prefers a particular format. Who will be the audience for this? Attendance/invitation also varies- sometimes these talks are open to the entire department faculty, sometimes not… so attendance may not necessarily be predictable.
Although when I was a candidate I found giving chalk talks a little scary, as a search committee member I LOVE THEM. Especially if the candidate comes prepared to talk about their first planned R01 submission in detail (as they should!) …. Specific aims, experimental approaches…the whole 9 yards. You should also have in mind your goals for the far future and can talk about these at the end time permitting – but for the guts of the presentation you should really stick to the details of the first 5 years. Giving such a presentation will be infinitely easier if you have already written a federal grant and have thus had to do the hard work of logical planning of next exciting experiments, and you have already thought about the pitfalls and alternate approaches. It is very likely that you will get asked about these during the chalk talk.
Now, as I mentioned these presentations are informal. A VERY BRIEF introduction may be useful to remind people of your direction, and bring anyone that missed your seminar up to speed. When I say very brief- I mean a few minutes at the most. Then, you will start talking about how you will spend the next 5 years of your professional life… and this will rapidly evolve into more of a discussion with one-on-one questioning. Use the chalk for outlining where you are going and drawing simple diagrams or flow charts for overall experimental design or individual experiments. Handle each question as best you can, almost everything is fair game, and NEVER NEVER behave defensively toward your questioners. The faculty want to know your plan, they want to know whether your plan is realistic, they want to know if your plan is fundable-so this is all fair game.
A word of warning- these chalk talks can head off in many different directions, and you may feel that the discussion is getting away from you. Remember that part of your role is to keep the discussion on track toward where you want to go- so don’t be afraid to carefully and TACTFULLY steer things.
I actually prefer the ‘chalk’ format as opposed to the PowerPoint format for the chalk talk. When a candidate writes on the board there are no intricate slides to hide behind- this format so informative about if a candidate can break things down into the essentials, think on their feet, handle a critical audience, direct discussion. … not to mention the reason why the candidate is there in the first place- you can see what level of planning has been done for their future research program, and in what detail.
Questions you might encounter during a chalk talk (outside of the science itself which will be different for each of you)…wow, these can be all over the map… but I have encountered the following:
1. What project will you give your first rotation student, graduate student, postdoc, undergraduate?
2. What are the funding agencies to which your work is relevant?
3. How will you differentiate yourself from your postdoc advisor- will that person become a competitor? (i.e. is your project sufficiently separate from hers/his?)
4. Who is the major competition for you in your field?
5. Do you and your proposed work occupy a unique niche in the field?
6. What is the major question that your work seeks to address?
7. What are your views about teaching?
I know there about a million more, I’m hoping that readers with experience on search committees will leave their favorites in the comments to this post!
FYI- PhysioProf has also previously posted about chalk talks… I link his post so that you can also benefit from his insight!