Campus visit and job talk advice

WOC Ph.D. is back, baby, with a couple of boffo posts about 1) what to expect on a campus visit, 2) how to prepare for and deliver a successful academic job talk, and 3) how to dress for a campus interview.  (There’s an extended dance mix version for the devoted fashionistas, or a hit single that will probably suit most academics.)

I especially liked the post about the job talks.  I have also made colossal mistakes in my job talks, but let’s not dwell on the past, shall we?  Prof. bw tells you everything you need to know.  Please listen to her advice, especially the part about practicing it alone, practicing it in front of friends who can critique you, and make sure you’ve got your timing down.  She offers an extremely useful model for a 30-minute talk–disciplinary conventions vary, but you can probably adapt it to your needs.  (And by the way, even if they say you can have 40 or 45 minutes, aim for 30.  You want them to be clamoring for more, MORE after you finish, not checking their watches and ready to bolt after a token three questions.)

Prepping the Talk:

  • 5 minutes – what are you going to do and why is it important: you should outline the contribution your work makes without putting it in opposition to any major theorists. You never who is in your audience, they could be those theorists, married to/dating/partnered to or otherwise friends with those theorists or they could love their work. Best to state simply and clearly what contribution you are making to the field.
  • 7-10 minutes – methods and theories: so we know who influenced you, what you are working with, and how you did your work
  • 10-13 minutes – findings
  • 5 minutes – state what you did again and give us a wow factor including where you are going with your work in the future and/or how your work fits into interests at our uni

Your paper should be jargon free, written for lay people not experts, be conversational in tone (not monotonous or dry), and should resonate with the areas we are looking for. If it is a R1 you should also point to places for further research as you talk or at the end, if it is a teaching college try to work in brief comments about aspects of the research that feed into teaching while you talk or at the end.

Bring useful visuals. No one wants to watch you read for 30 minutes.

I would add:  visuals are nice but not essential if you’ve nailed the format, tone, and tempo of your talk.  I’ve seen some job talks that had lots of great images, but weren’t coherent or well-organized.  If you’re going to use images, use them (as you probably do when you lecture) to help organize the talk and facilitate your delivery.  If you use images, you should analyze them and demonstrate how they work into your arguments–don’t just use them as pretty wallpaper.  Also, I would urge you not to give a job talk that closely tracks the writing sample you sent.  Most people in the interviewing department won’t have read your writing sample, but it’s really going to cheese off those who spent an hour on your prose to have to spend another hour listening to a re-hash of the same paper.

As my contribution to this post, I’d like to offer some advice to interviewing departments:  please remember what it was like when you were the poor sucker in the black or navy blue suit, and treat hir the way you wish you had been treated at the time.  Please, for God’s sake, don’t fall asleep during a job talk.  The talk may not be the most exciting thing going on that afternoon, but it is the host department’s responsibility at minimum to be courteous and STAY AWAKE.  Also, don’t ask basic questions about the candidate’s research that could be answered with even a cursory skim of the application letter and C.V.  That is just disrespectful, and even borderline contemptuous.  If you haven’t read the file, just stay quiet, stroke your beard (if you’ve got one), and nod along knowingly when the candidate answers an informed question.

Finally, job candidates should heed Prof. bw’s words here:

Remember 98% of the people in the room at either of these events is rooting for you to be competent and interesting. Nothing is more painful than watching someone you know is probably really talented come undone b/c of fear, stress, or some SC drama that has leeched out your confidence. 98% are not invested in attacking your research or your general interests and we will throw you easy questions to make you less nervous or to counter the other 2% But we are also looking for someone who can do the specific job for which we are hiring and we are going to ask questions and look for insight into whether you are that person. Stay calm, entertain, transmit the key info, and you’ll be fine.

Seriously–if you’ve been invited to campus, then the vast, vast majority of people you’ll meet will want you to knock it out of the park.  We want to be impressed and bowled over.  We want you to do well for selfish reasons, because we want to have three or four fantastic candidates we’d feel excited about hiring.  We also want you to do well so that you feel good about us, and maybe even think that we’d make great colleagues.  Believe me, if you blow it, no one wins.

Squadratomagico also weighs in today with some general advice on the campus visit.  I especially liked this bit of basic job interview etiquette for job-seekers:

Show interest in others, and connect. Perhaps the single most common mistake I see campus interviewees make is forgetting to ask reciprocal questions of their interviewers. The conversations you will have on campus will chiefly be about you — your training, your research, your teaching, your path to tenure — and it is easy to be seduced by the potential narcissism of this setup. Do not fall into the gaping jaws of this trap: remember your manners and ask your interlocutors about themselves, too.Your potential colleagues are far more likely to gain a positive impression of you if you make them feel that you genuinely are interested in them as people and as academics, rather than conveying the impression that you are the sun around which they revolve. So draw them out, express interest in their work: inquire about what they are researching and writing, how they teach, and so forth. And try, to the best of your ability, to make a personal connection to their answer: suggest that your work intersects with, or parallels, theirs in some way; ask them to recommend readings on a particular topic; request advice and offer low-key (i.e. not too brown-nosy) compliments.

You don’t have to have read every book that everyone in the department has published–but you should read all of their web pages and have some clue as to who everyone is.  Your obligation to know something about the people in the interviewing department increases with the proximity of their research and teaching interests to yours.  If someone has published a book or won a major award recently, that’s handy information you can use to compliment someone and invite them to talk about their research.  Print up their web pages and keep them handy–skim them over before you meet your potential future colleagues for lunch or dinner.  It’s really, really bad form to turn to the chair of the department and a leading scholar in hir field and say, “So, Sidney, what do you do?”  It’s even worse for you when Sidney is also (for example) a modern European historian, and so are you.  Like the faculty member who couldn’t be bothered to read your file, that’s disrespectful, if not borderline contemptuous. 

(Squadratomagico’s job interview posts are part of an ongoing series–see campus interviews, part I:  appearance, and she has also posted some golden oldies here, too.)

Dear readers, do you have any other advice to share with either interviewing departments or job candidates?

14 thoughts on “Campus visit and job talk advice

  1. why thank you for the shout out. 😀

    “I’ve seen some job talks that had lots of great images, but weren’t coherent or well-organized.”

    This comment and the one you make about not repeating your writing sample are spot on. I remember doing that way back when and then watching eyes roll. (oops)


  2. Yes–many mistakes were mine, too. It’s funny: in some cases, I knew I did a great job, and yet wasn’t offered a job. In some cases, I knew I was good, but was treated badly by the host department. In some cases I made mistakes, and was offered the job anyway. My mistakes were in misjudging the content of the talk, but in no case was I unprepared: practice, practice, feedback, and more practice. That’s the key.


  3. Hi — thanks for the link!
    And you’ve hit on one of my pet peeves: people who use images as decoration. Unpack them, people! They should be part of your evidence! I’d rather have an entirely oral talk, than have visual evidence presented and ignored.


  4. Good post with a lot of helpful advice.

    You could say this about a lot of good places: “Seriously–if you’ve been invited to campus, then the vast, vast majority of people you’ll meet will want you to knock it out of the park. We want to be impressed and bowled over.” But in some contentious depts. there may already be a fight brewing and someone may be looking to take down the person supporting your candidacy. You shouldn’t worry too much about what’s going on behind the scenes, but also be ready for different types of visits. One of my friends was practically hazed at an Ivy League campus visit, but then when the first two choices turned down the offers, my friend got the job. (And was then bullied for a few years, but that’s another post.)


  5. With all the discussions of what people should wear for interviews, I thought I would point out that I have been going to job talks for around 25 years now, at four different institutions (my grad school and three employers) and I only remember what the candidate was wearing in one of them. The clothes really, obviously, did not fit. Nevertheless ze gave an impressive talk, got the job, and subsequently got tenure and is a distinguished member of the profession. The point of which is: yes, you want to make as good an impression as possible, but really, the wrong shirt is not going to disqualify you.


  6. Rad–I think that’s right. Don’t take it personally if you’re not treated well. It probably isn’t personal, but rather the result of years of in-fighting. (Well, it might be personal, but if it is, it’s the sign of a truly and deeply screwed up department!)


  7. Ruth–your point about clothing not mattering that much is a good one. I’ve never seen anyone dressed truly inappropriately for a job interview–the clothing has been pretty much the uniform standard, and so I can’t remember anyone being especially well dressed or poorly dressed. Clothing is not the thing to worry about, if you’ve packed appropriately. Practice, practice, practice the job talk!


  8. I once saw a candidate dress inappropriately for a job talk in Texas. Ze wore a rumpled sweater and jeans. This might have been ignored had ze not also made it abundantly clear that ze considered our unit beneath hir great talents. That, though, was exceptional and I really think that person had decided they didn’t want that job at all.

    I would add to the need of practicing (and practicing a lot) the need to practice in front of people who know nothing about your research or your field. Your dissertation committee and friends likely know your dissertation project well enough that they will unconsciously fill in gaps in your presentation. Somebody totally outside your field, however, will have a fresh perspective.

    Finally, if you are interviewing at a university in a small town, don’t, for the love of GayProf, talk about how terrible and boring it was to go to grad school in a small town.


  9. More good advice, friends. I heard one story from a friend about a young woman on a campus interview who wore very short skirts and revealing tops. My friend’s comment was, “did she not realize that she was on a job interview?” The weird thing (to me) is that the job candidate was from a very staid and proper Ivy with a fantastic record of placing its students. But then, sometimes the Ivy schools do the least job preparation because they think their students’ prestigious affiliations will speak for itself. Wrong, wrong, wrong.


  10. From what I have found, the standards for job talks vary tremendously by field. I attend a lot of these talks, mostly in the sciences but also in the humanities. (I am often asked to sit in on the talks by applicants for positions in the history or philosophy of science.) From what I have seen, the really good talks are about the same quality in every field. However, the bad talks in the humanities are much, much worse.

    I attribute this to the fact that, contrary to what you might expect, people in the sciences get much better training in oral communication. In physics, we would never consider hiring somebody who hadn’t already given at least a dozen talks at conferences, as colloquia, etc. On the other hand, I’ve spoken to interviewees in philosophy who haven’t given a single other talk in the last 2-3 years. And the people with little experience tend to be the ones giving the bad talks. In other words, the best practice for a job talk is giving other talks. Indeed, if you have to put your job talk together from scratch, you are already at a disadvantage. I put together my job talk with material from two earlier talks I done, which covered the same material but at different levels.

    And this brings me to one of my points of advice. Job talks should not be geared either to a general audience or aimed solely at specialists. Rather, it would be best to include some material at each level. You want to appeal to interested people in the department, who have enough knowledge that they can understand why your conclusions are important but won’t be able to follow the detailed arguments. Half or more of the talk should be pitched at them. However, you should take some time to wow the specialists with the intricacies of your work. Otherwise, they just have to take your word for it that your results are really as meaningful as you say.

    On the subject of graphics, I cannot recommend them strongly enough. Doing presentations electronically makes it easy to incorporate graphical elements. I studied design as well as physics, and one crucial principle is that people remember information they are presented with much better if any text is broken up with some graphical elements. The graphics don’t need to be of any deep significance. When I talk about high energy astrophysics, I include pretty pictures of nebulae and quasars. (Historians can substitute photographs or maps of the places they are talking about.) There is no need to talk about these graphics for more than a sentence each, if they are not particularly informative, but there mere presence will liven up a presentation and make it more memorable.


  11. While I agree with a lot of what Buzz said, I do think that pitching to the middle is best (at least in humanities and social sciences) as the audience can be quite large and varied. The experts in the room will ask “expert questions” and that is the time to shine. If you get too technical you will lose the “lay people” in the audience; in my post I included a talk by someone with a highly specialized field in library sciences, while I critiqued her tone and delivery, she does a really good job of bringing in key info and breaking it down in accessible ways. I think that has been one of the most effective strategies I have seen while on SCs (and I do them a lot b/c I fill several quotas).

    as for clothes, it always blows me away how much people stress about clothing. But more than that what my colleagues and the internets say about people’s clothing and my own experience mentoring working class students for whom all of this is new, make me more sensitive to the stories of mocking, humiliation, and disqualification that do go on. (But like I say in my tongue-in-cheek posts about the issue, clothes cannot get you a job or, in most cases, prevent you from getting one; and I don’t think most of us care as long as you do well on the job talk.)


  12. Pingback: Labor Day 2009: will work for internet connection and library card? : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

  13. Great site – just got turned onto it by one of my students on the market this year.

    Let me second other comments about dress. In my experience it doesn’t matter as long as you stick within a certain range, not too elegant but not shabby. Dress as others in your field do when they give conference papers. The comment about the short skirt reminds me of a sunk candidacy at my own institution. The talk and the rest of the visit were superb but some of the senior women were outraged. Why take the risk?


  14. Pingback: The Job Market – MPG

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