Guest post on the tenure talk by Liz Haswell

The Unique Nature of the Tenure TalkIMG_1106

Here is Liz Haswell‘s take on talking for tenure.

The Tenure Talk. If your department has these, you’ve known it’s on the horizon for years—but it can be terrifying once you actually start putting one together. The good news is that by now you have been on both sides of many seminars, job talks, and talks at meetings, you have experience giving lectures, and you could talk about your specific aims in your sleep. The bad part is that The Tenure Talk is unlike any presentation you’ve given before. It’s a PhD defense, job talk, and student recruitment pitch all rolled into one. You have to explain what you’ve been up to all this time, make a case that you are poised to accomplish even more, and make sure everyone understands why your work is interesting and/or important.

I gave my Tenure Talk this past September. Below I list what I thought worked and what I would do differently next time (though I hope I do not have to!).


  1. 1.     I explained our research and its impact at different levels of detail. It’s important to know your audience and to tune the level of jargon and experimental detail appropriately. Faculty members in my department are ecologists, evolutionary biologists, neurobiologists, molecular biologists, biochemists and even a science historian (! My group is interested in the mechanisms by which plants sense and process mechanical information such as gravity, tension, stress, or force, and we’ve been investigating the structure and function of a family of mechanosensitive ion channels in the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana. I wanted the introduction and summary sections of my talk to be intelligible to everyone in the department, but included specialized slides in the middle for the plant molecular biologists (who would be interested in the detailed phenotypes of mutant plants) and electrophysiologists (who would appreciate the unique characteristics of these channels).
  1. 2.     I covered about 75% of what we have published over the past 6 years and are working on now. You want to remind your audience of the highlights of your past work as an assistant professor. However, I found it was pretty challenging to highlight both old and new stories without resorting to “And now for something completely different”, like Monty Python. I spent a lot of time crafting a written outline before getting down to slide preparation in an effort to make our papers (both published and in preparation) as logically connected as possible. Some material simply had to be left out, such as our early results from a forward genetic screen for mutant plants that are insensitive to gentle touch.
  1. 3.     I made the argument that my lab is on an upward trajectory. It’s important to make clear that your most productive days are not behind you. Fortunately we are embarking on a new project that is considerably outside my current wheelhouse, so at the end of the talk I emphasized how this new line of investigation—developing tools that would allow us to watch mechanoperception live—would broaden our impact on the field and enrich our current research.
  1. 4.     I employed a metaphor to convey the message (not the content) of the talk. Imagery gives your audience a way to think about your talk separate from scientific details and conclusions. I used the idea that what we’d uncovered so far was “only the tip of the iceberg” and then stretched the metaphor from there. I felt that if the audience took away only one message from my talk, this was the one I’d like it to be.



  1. Reduce the content. It is impossible to talk intelligibly about everything that you are proud of and every future direction you thought of while preparing your talk. I was forced to skip an entire section of my talk that I couldn’t get to in the time allotted. According to my usual equation, I had 50 slides for a 50-minute talk, but I had crammed so much information onto each slide to reach that magic number that each slide took more than a minute to get through.
  1. Try a PowerPoint alternative. It is difficult to convey visually how different projects are connected by concept or methodology using your standard slide show. I wish I’d given Prezi ( a try so that themes could be highlighted gracefully instead of through text or clunky animations.

About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
This entry was posted in Life in a biology department, Seminars, Tenure and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.