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2014-07-25 - On Candidate Job Talks

As promised a bit earlier this year, I wanted to offer a bit of insight on the faculty interview process, particularly based on observations from this most recent hiring cycle. For this post, I wanted to focus on the candidate talk and offer a few pieces of advice / commentary.

The "job talk" is one of the more challenging parts of the visit. You are tasked with presenting a complex topic that you have toiled on for the past N years over the course of an hour. In some sense, the hour for the presentation is both a blessing and a curse. You now have the time to properly cover your research but the longer time makes it tempting to try to cover too much or to lose focus over the course of your talk. You need to convince us that your research is both difficult but yet make it accessible enough that we appreciate it.

Depending on the size of the institution, the job talk may be the only chance for a candidate to get face time with large portions of the faculty body. While one could argue whether or not the job talk perhaps receive is overly emphasized with regards to the evaluation of candidates, my anecdotal experience has been that the talk serves a fairly good proxy for the candidate. If I can grok (understand for the non-CS folks) what the candidate is talking about and be excited about the work, there is a fairly good chance that grant agencies and reviewers will also be excited. For an institution such as my own at Notre Dame with a critical emphasis on teaching quality, it also tends to serve as a strong indicator of future teacher evaluations.

The job talk is your time to shine or your time to sink. Make the most of it. No pressure, right?

I might be a bit of an anomaly but I look forward to both giving and attending job talks. Great faculty speakers / visitors are wonderful, giving me bits of wisdom or insight that would have been quite time consuming for me to gather otherwise. It is truly a delight to see a great talk. For a few of the talks though, one sometimes appreciate the newfound digital gadgetry as a means of escape. There is a great comic from Ph.D comics on identifying faculty / student status by virtue of what one does at a seminar.

While in the next post I will focus on a few of the do's with respect to the job talk, there were a few glaring cases that stood out from our spring round of interviews that serve as good pieces of advice on what not to do:

  1. Go over time: Going over time is a cardinal sin for the job talk and a surefire way to doom your prospective job candidacy. It implies a lack of focus and a lack of preparation for the talk that tends to overshadow whatever fantastic work you might have done. For a conference or workshop talk where one is squeezed into 15-20 minutes, sure, a bit of overage is frowned upon but it is not catastrophic. For the hour-long job talk, catastrophe. Knowing that you have a full hour and significant time to prepare, it implies a lack of respect for faculty time and a distinct lack of practice. You should have your talk down to the minute and be able to vary your cadence / speed as questions and circumstances dictate.
  2. Lack of focus: For many young aspiring faculty candidates, you have a treasure trove of research available for your talk. After all, it was your research and CV that distinguished you enough to land you the interview and having a reasonable accumulation of publications was a necessary pre-condition. That being said, we don't need to see all of your research. Pick a topic (or two if you are brave) and give us a spectacular talk and vision related to that talk. Anything with three or more topics tends to be far too shallow. Moreover, having three or more topics is a surefire way to make sure you go over time.
  3. Too much ra ra, not enough research: One of the new trends that I noticed this year was that a few talks ramped up the salesmanship. While most of us are not experts in your particular area, we are in a reasonably close technical field. Hence, glossy overselling that might work for press releases, tends not to work as well for a faculty audience. While some salesmanship is a necessity these days, one should carefully aim to achieve a good balance of technical goodness with overt salesmanship / vision. Roughly 5 to 10 minutes seems to be reasonable with anything more than that tending to be negatively perceived by the faculty.

Next post, I will offer a few pieces of advice as do's for job talks.

2014-07-25 - created by Aaron Striegel

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