• December 20, 2014

Grim Job Talks Are a Buzz Kill

Committees and Meetings Illustration Careers

Brian Taylor

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close Committees and Meetings Illustration Careers

Brian Taylor

You were one of only a handful of candidates we invited to campus. We wanted to like you.

Hell, I wanted to love you. I am your potential future chair. When I became chair, I knew that bringing in strong faculty members was my best chance to leave a mark on the department and the college. I also knew that job searches were a drag on the little boat I would be trying to navigate through waters strewn with budget cuts, increased teaching loads, and fussy-somewhat-overworked faculty members. So I wanted the search to be over and for you to be here already.

But then your job talk started and my throat went dry and I felt that thumping in my temples.

Grim job talks are a buzz kill. And let's be clear, your problem was not bad scholarship. Out of 70 or more applicants, only Houdini could get an invitation for a campus visit these days with terrible scholarship.

Instead, you stumbled in one of the following five ways.

You didn't do any research on the norms of our campus culture. That misstep is easiest to illustrate with an example. I chair a humanities department in a medical school. One of our candidates came to the podium, pulled a file of papers out of a leather folder, and started to read his talk. And kept reading. And it was all over.

A humanities department in a college of medicine might seem like a good place to read one's paper to the crowd. After all, many papers are delivered that way at humanities conferences. But in medical schools, papers are never read to a group. In fact, to a faculty member in a college of medicine, that is so unusual as to garner confused looks.

Medical schools are moving toward interactivity, and reading a paper reveals that the applicant doesn't know our culture or, worse, is (gasp!) part of the old guard.

That may seem unfair. It is unfair. If the candidate had known our culture, he would probably have delivered his talk differently. But he wasn't the only candidate. And he'd been given the same chances as the others who took the time to ask us—in advance—what a good job talk might be like.

So ask about the details. Do people read their work during the talk? Do they use slides? Should I expect questions from the first moments or after? Who will attend? Will students be there, or just faculty members? Will the faculty be from a variety of departments or only from the one to which I'm applying? Is there a specific audience I should keep in mind as I direct the major points?

You presented a single, well-thought-out project that had no future. As a chair, after hiring and investing in someone (including mentorship, space, and research start-up money), I dread the thought of having to send that hire packing a few years later. It's brutal on the faculty member and on his or her innocent family, and it's a morale killer in the department. And, selfishly, I don't want to sit at an administrative meeting with the dean only to have one of the other chairs say, "Hey Dan, what happened to that rising star you were singing about a few years ago? (snicker, snicker)."

If you present a great idea but the future work is unclear, then I will be unable to support your candidacy. Map it out for me. Tell me about the next three projects that could come from that first one.

Even better, arm me to help you. If there's grant money out there or some other relevant concrete data, tell me. I want to know if students are attracted to this area of scholarship, if research assistantships are available, or if someone won a prize for related work. Help me see what buying into your work will buy for us so that I will be prepared when I go to the dean to get resources for you.

You didn't use the opportunity to demonstrate your teaching ability. Scholarship is critical to landing a job and getting promoted at research-oriented institutions, but as administrators try to do more with less in many departments, we need the double- or triple-threat faculty members who can be both successful scholars and good teachers.

At a minimum, I need low-maintenance teachers who aren't going to generate a massive revolt by students when their professor is perceived as showing favoritism, giving an unfair exam, or taking an arrogant approach to learners.

The biggest giveaway that you, as a candidate, were teaching challenged was when you marched through the job talk like a scripted soldier, assuming we would all understand.

Good teachers say things like, "I notice there's a range of experience in the room. For those of you who haven't been following this area with the obsessiveness of a hound, let me just get everyone up to speed." During the talk I hope to see interactivity and an engaged audience. Ask us things like, "Show me hands, how many of you would guess. ... " Give us a teaser at the beginning. Draw us in.

Then there is the way you handle questions. That is when I get anxious because I know my faculty are great critical thinkers and they are going to ask tough questions. Are you defensive or respectful of other good ideas? Can you dodge the overaggressive faculty member? Are you self-deprecating or huffy? I don't need you to know every corner of literature on a topic. I do need you to be diplomatic with colleagues. Respond to a challenging question about some obscure piece of work with, "Hmm, that's a great point, and because I'm not immersed in that area, I haven't read that work yet, but I'd be very interested in learning more or even collaborating."

You presented a great talk on a topic that was too far afield. No kidding: When we sculpted our job description, we meant it. We really are looking for someone with expertise in the ethics of genetics research, and we expect to hear a talk on that topic. We're OK with some wandering, but if your talk is on fruit flies, our doors close.

This situation is especially touchy because the applicant often leaves the talk feeling fantastic. "Wooo-hooo, they loved me," the candidate thinks, and we were fascinated by your talk. But then a faculty member will stop me outside my office and say, "Well, too bad, if only we needed someone with fruit-fly expertise." And that will be that.

You shut down when something unusual happened. Life is unpredictable. Sometimes a computer that worked fine yesterday decides to go on a holiday today. Sometimes security warnings, projector bulbs, microphones, or storms throw us a curve ball. When the unexpected happens, the applicant needs to smile, offer to do the talk using finger puppets, and get on with it.

Fragile faculty members are a drain on our system, and more important, on me. If they need a certain temperature in their office (within two degrees), can't function if their mailbox gets moved, and panic if the class times change, then life will be hard on all of us. I need faculty members who can help nourish our fragile students even in tough circumstances, not suck away all the resources because they themselves can't tolerate life's normal insults. I will handicap a talk delivered under less than ideal circumstances. Stand up and teach me something.

I think many faculty members view job talks the way I do: I am giddy whenever I go to one. I'm high on the ether of potential, the magic I saw in your letter of introduction, your vitae, the fascinating things you've done and the promise of what you might do. I'm already rehearsing the negotiations I'll need to have with the dean to get resources for you. So when it's time for you to give your job talk, don't let me down.

Dan Shapiro is a professor of medical humanism and chair of the humanities department at the Penn State College of Medicine.

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