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.