Unsolicited Advice: Job Search (Pt. 10)

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!


19 thoughts on “Unsolicited Advice: Job Search (Pt. 10)

  1. Great post! Actually the only real value added in my post that you linked to beyond what you explained concerns “allies” and “enemies” in the audience:

    Well, PhysioProf is now going to share with you an inside super-secret fact about the chalk talk that most job candidates never find out about until it is too late to help: In the audience at your chalk talk you will have both advocates and enemies. Your advocates have decided, for whatever reason, that they want you to come across as appealing as possible. Your enemies have decided, for whatever reason, that they want you to come across as un-appealing as possible. (There are many possible reasons for faculty members to adopt these attitudes, but are not really relevant to chalk talk tactics. If people are interested, we can discuss this in the comments.)

    You need to figure out who is who. This is because the questions you are asked by your advocates are designed to lead you down a path that will benefit your chances of getting a job offer, while questions asked by your enemies are designed to lead you down a path that will diminish your chances.

    How do you tell who is who? For the most part this is an intuitive thing. There are a few rules of thumb, however.

    If you want to see these rules of thumb, you’ll have to follow the link. MWUAHAHAHAHAH!!!!!

  2. PhysioProf-

    I really liked that super-secret inside information that you posted… I myself wasn’t savvy enough to figure this out during chalk talks when I was interviewing- even though I left a couple of individual meetings and dinners with search committee members with a strong feeling about who wanted me to be successful.

    Got a top 10 list of your favorite generic chalk talk questions..?

  3. This is fantastic. I have had a bunch of interviews, and so far only 1 had a chalk talk (where I feel like I did very well, but my opinion doesn’t matter). However, have a return trip coming up, and a chalk talk is on the schedule. Thanks to both you and PP for these timely tips.

  4. Tom-

    I’m pleased that you find this information useful! 🙂
    Good luck on your 2nd visit… I probably won’t finish all the things I have to say about the first visit by the time you are having your 2nd visit…

  5. I myself wasn’t savvy enough to figure this out during chalk talks when I was interviewing

    I wasn’t either. And I am pretty sure I blew my chances for one particular position, because I declined to go down that road that an ally was inviting me to.

  6. A couple of other points I learned the hard way, either through my own experiences or from being on a search committee.

    (1) Don’t assume that the people attending went to your seminar. DrdrA is right on that you should not spend too much time on intro, however, don’t just launch into your aims (like I did once; thankfully, the very helpful Chair gave me a friendly hint about it later). A 5 minute bullet point recap of your work that will lead up to the proposed research for the chalk talk is key to making sure everyone is on the same page.

    (2) Make sure you really research the nitty gritty details of your proposed experimental system. This sounds obvious, but I have been surprised at the number of times candidates (otherwise excellent) proposed complex animal models, but upon being questioned about the details, clearly had not thought through the potential and serious down side of using such models. If you are challenged on your system, engage in a discussion about the pros and cons of the system. The point of people challenging you is not to show you up (hopefully), but to explore how you think. Justifying why your model is advantageous but also being willing to consider other avenues can be one way to gracefully sidestep a potentially painful situation.

  7. BugDoc-

    Both oh so important. There will be busy faculty who make one or the other (seminar or chalk talk) but not both. Don’t leave them out if they can only make the chalk talk!

    Also- about the nitty gritty- VERY VERY important point!

  8. I’m curious–how often do junior faculty in their fourth or fifth year actually find themselves doing what they thought they’d be doing in their 5-year plan?

  9. Had a chalk talk last week.

    went very well.

    I think some of the tips I read here served me very well.

    thanks all!

  10. Pinus-

    WTG!!! Congratulations… I’m going to have to speed up my writing the next parts because you are outstripping me with your progress…

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  13. This thread is really old, but I’m obsessively googling about chalk talks so I might as well ask..

    I just had my first job interview at a big university. This was a place I would have been thrilled to go to. I thought everything was going really well. My interviewers were hinting that I would be invited back, and one of the search committee members told me that I could have my pick of places as a candidate. I submitted a research proposal that was clear that I was keeping the same technique but applying it to different systems. I have one ‘safe’ yet significant project (but not very expansive) and another ambitious but risky project that I obtained funding for (and a collaborator who is an expert on this system) and was likely to serve as a jumping off point for the focus of a research lab. I knew of at least one lab who was working towards the same goal, and I prepared an answer for why I thought I had an advantage. I also reached out to a senior professor at the university (not on the search committee, not in the department) using different techniques to study the same system, and he responded enthusiastically to my stated goals, at least I thought so.

    This senior professor came to my chalk talk (it’s open to any faculty), which was the last event before I left for the airport, and he was highly critical of my second project. When I inevitably got the ‘who are your competitors’ question I responded with my practiced answer. This professor then interjected that he has a collaborator applying the same technique to study the same system and that they were much further along than I was. This was a complete surprise to me and threw me off guard. I responded with some lame but not defensively, like “it’s really good to know of additional competitors” and continued with my presentation. However, I was completely thrown off and kind of fumbled the rest of the aims (forgetting my bullet points and the order I wanted to present my logic) because I was blindsided by this new information and upset I learned about it during my presentation of future research. I also thought it was likely that his detailed questions about my experiments were so that he could tell my competitors exactly what I am up to.

    I figure I’m not going to be given an offer now that this has happened. But at the same time, I feel like it really wasn’t my fault that this happened and as a candidate there’s nothing I could have done to foresee or prevent it. This was pretty much my worst nightmare. Obviously now I’m really worried about my project too. For professors reading this, if you were part of a search committee where something like this happened to a otherwise very strong candidate, I’m curious.. how would you view the candidate and the situation?

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