VIA Chron of Higher Ed: Grim Job Talks are a Buzz Kill

In this essay in the Chron, a Chair addresses a disappointed job candidate about what kept the candidate from getting hired during a campus visit. (Short answer: communication- and especially listening skills in a high-stakes research presentation ).

Here’s a preview:

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.

Though intended specifically for job candidates in literature departments, the takeaway is something that all PhDs entering the job market should consider: learning how to teach effectively almost always entails developing one’s communication skills.  Job candidates should therefore learn how to communicate the value of what they do in a variety of professional contexts.  For one thing, not only does this make them better, more self-assured teachers, it can also help improve their chances in a competitive job market.

So try to become more sensitive to the potential audiences for your research, and try to learn how to imagine how it would operate in a variety of professional contexts, whether these are departments, publication venues, or conference presentations.  As this story demonstrates, this kind of skill in translating your work for others can make all the difference in your job search.



2 Comments on “VIA Chron of Higher Ed: Grim Job Talks are a Buzz Kill”

  1. Miranda Bennett says:

    Dave–This raises a couple of question for me. The CHE essays notes that reading a paper is standard practice at humanities conferences, so is this the expectation for job talks in English departments, or do you look for candidates who incorporate more interactive elements even into their research presentations? Would you echo the writer’s implicit recommendation that candidates invited for an interview ask ahead of time what is expected?

    (For what it’s worth, short presentations are common in librarian interviews, and while we’re rarely impressed by candidates who read a prepared text, we also don’t expect much interactivity [unless they’ve been specifically asked to do a teaching demo, of course].)

  2. Dave Mazella says:

    Hi Miranda, I think that the CHE writer is correct when he says that it’s the candidate’s responsibility to find out the local expectations for the job visit, presentation format, etc. Not to do so would suggest a lack of curiosity about the job and the interviewing institution, which could easily disqualify an otherwise good candidate.

    The question of presentation format has a lot to do with sub-discipline and institutional context. Our linguistics candidates tended to use Powerpoint or Prezi, though I think it would be less common for literature candidates. But the English department here usually expects what we call a “research talk” in which a candidate would present material for 20 or so minutes (generally not just reading a paper), with the rest of the hour taken up with Q&A. But I think it would simply be a bad idea not to ask about these expectations before coming, the same way that you should research the institution before arriving on campus. But other departments may have their own protocols for hiring.

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