You got an interview for a job, a faculty or a postdoctoral position! But they want you to do a chalk talk. What do you do? What is a chalk talk anyway?
First of all, be sure you find out what this place means by a chalk talk. Some are chalk or white board. Others allow the use of a few powerpoint slides. Some are essentially like a regular talk but about what you will do instead of what you have done. So figure out what kind they want. I would say, if Powerpoint is an option, take it, but use the slides carefully. Otherwise you might seem less substantive than another candidate. If you are lucky, you will get 10 minutes before the interruptions start (we do this explicitly in my department).
There are some things all chalk talks have in common. They should be about a topic for your future research, often three big topics for your first three grant proposals, each with three aims, though you may well not get to all this. Typically we will have brought in 3 to 5 people to interview. We want to pick the person with both the vision to ask big, new questions and the sense to make them feasible. We want someone who can think on the spot, because this shows intelligence. We want someone who interacts in a respectful yet vibrant way. We want someone who understands they will be managing a group, so thinks of projects for group members. We want someone who is not just repeating her Ph.D. or postdoctoral work. I have seen many more chalk talks make the difference between whom we hire and whom we don’t than regular talks, so it is important to work hard to get this right. Since chalk talks are inherently interactive, they are harder to plan for, but remembering these possible pitfalls can help.
Pitfall 1: Problems with your science. One of the commonest problems with new professors is that they are still obsessed with whatever they last worked on. They want to do the exact same project only better. Don’t do this. Think of something new, but similar enough to what you have done before that you are likely to be successful. I think you should have three projects ready to discuss and they should be as carefully thought through as you would do for an NSF preproposal. If your approach will not answer the big question you pose, your audience is likely to figure it out. If your methods are impossible, they will figure it out. The different projects ideally should be related, but they don’t have to be. You could have some safer and some more risky projects.
All the other pitfalls have to do with the particular interactive format of the chalk talk.
Pitfall 2: You never get to the most important project. In a chalk talk, your time is not your own. You do not get to build carefully to the star jewel of your research. I have seen people put a list on the board, mention the third thing is the most important, then never get to discussing it because of all the questions on the first project. A good audience member might try to help with this if you make it clear you want to move on, but that might not happen. So start with the best. You could leave something unsaid so you can also wrap back to it at the end if you have time.
Pitfall 3: You run out of things to say. The flexible nature of the chalk talk means you might not have enough to say if there are fewer questions than you anticipate. Do not let this happen. But don’t just ad lib about projects not carefully planned. Go back to the ones you have presented and give more detail. A chalk talk does not have to be as linear as a regular seminar.
Pitfall 4: You have horrible handwriting. You can bet you are being judged on everything at a chalk talk. Even handwriting and how you use the board can enter in. I have terrible handwriting and a poor sense of space on the board, so I am always glad when slides, even just one or a few is an option. If you don’t have that choice, practice writing on a board. Think carefully about how you use the space. Use fewer words. Don’t cram everything together. Get a friend who does these things well to put some stuff on the board that you give her and then study it.
Pitfall 5: The discussion gets hung up on one point. Sometimes in a chalk talk the discussion founders on one point that may be important or trivial. It does not matter but the group has decided to dig in. It could be a method or a concept. It is unpredictable. Remember, your audience knows each other and they are playing out all the dynamics that have built up over years. If there is a jerk, all the other people know this and you do not need to be the one to deal with that person. Remember, your collegiality is being judged. I recommend that you have a stock phrase memorized, or even several, to move on. Something like “That is an interesting and possibly important point that we can return to if there is time, but I would like to tell you something more about x…”
Pitfall 6: You are no longer part of the discussion. I have seen it happen that the person up front gets ignored as the group argues about something. Few things are as uncomfortable. Remember, this is not your fault. You may or may not be able to fix this. You could try to interrupt with a smile but a firm, loud voice. You could start writing something new on the board that might attract their attention. You could make eye contract with someone you view as sympathetic, hoping they will do something. Wait. If it gets really ugly, you may not want to join this department.
Pitfall 7: You or your science is attacked. In some ways this is the point of the chalk talk. But it should be done nicely. Whether it is or not, the key thing here is not to get defensive. I think a calm smile can help defuse attacks. Remember you don’t have to be right all the time. It is OK to say you hadn’t thought of something and maybe you could talk with that person later. It is OK to ask for more detail, as in “Go on.” It is OK to say those are important issues and to move on to the next topic.
Pitfall 8: You forget to mention collaborators or projects for lab members. A chalk talk for a faculty position assumes you will have others in the lab, undergrads, grad students, or postdocs. Talk about them in outlining your projects. Mention things that could be done in undergraduate etc. time frames. Make these things have some independence. Mention other collaborators at other universities, but not your previous mentors. The ideal collaborator has very different skills from you and combined you can do things neither can do alone.
Pitfall 9: You don’t look like you are having fun. We are picking a colleague for the next several decades for a faculty job, or for several years for a postdoc. We want someone who loves science and ideally has a sense of humor. This is what keeps people going, after all. Show some enthusiasm. Watch some of the Alan Alda videos on science communication. Even though this is more about communicating science to the public, it can help all of us.
Pitfall 10: You are too narrow for the audience. Consider the group hiring you. Are they all scientists? A general biology department? Ecology and evolution? Even if they seem very close, they will not know jargon or even accepted approaches. Use no acronyms. Explain carefully so anyone can follow at some level but experts in your field are not unsatisfied.
Preparing for a chalk talk has some of the same elements as preparing a regular talk, but it differs profoundly in presentation. Prepare, then relax and enjoy. After all, whatever the outcome, you have a room of smart people thinking about your most favorite questions.