Why are chalk talks so hard?

Have I ever heard a good chalk talk? Do they really even help us make a wise decision? I can think of some spectacular failures in hiring the right person based on the chalk talk in the past at another institution. Should we even have chalk talks?

I’ve written before on how to avoid problems with chalk talks. But how do you give a really good one? From our perspective, we want you to give a great chalk talk. We want to have a hard time picking our candidate. So the first thing we should do is give you as much detail as possible as to what we want to see in the chalk talk.

In the Biology Department at Washington University in St. Louis, we want to hear from you without interruption for the first ten minutes. After that, we may really sideline you with questions. I’m not sure that is a good thing, but that is how it is. So you have to prepare for a talk that will take from 10 to 50 minutes. After the first 10 minutes, the talk might need to go in different directions.

Here is some advice that might help in my department and might even help generally.

First, don’t use chalk, or markers if at all possible. Use Powerpoint or something like it. But keep it simple.

Don’t assume people all went to your main talk the previous day, so a little overlap is all right, but it should take the form of going into more detail on your main ideas.

The main thing the chalk talk should do is to show what ideas you are going to be pursuing first. It could be in the form of a proposal plan. If you have already written and submitted a proposal tell us about it. Present a problem in the field and your exciting solution and why you are uniquely poised to solve it.

Remember, when you become a faculty member you are a group leader. It is no longer about just what you do, but about the whole group and how you will lead others to do cool research. I like it when people talk about what they will do and what others in their group might do.

Do all those things that make you look like a great colleague, with potential collaborations, energy, enthusiasm, eye contact with at least some people, and clear organization.

If the talk is entirely derailed by questions, try to bring it back to what you want to talk about. Bring it back to research, to the main questions. Look like you are excited and enjoying yourself. After all, this is all eyes on you with a very interesting dialogue. It shouldn’t be hard. Don’t get off on your fringe ideas, your side projects, your teaching, or your outreach excessively. But all of these are great to mention as part of the package. Maybe that is what makes the chalk talk so tricky.


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 Interviewing, Jobs, Talks, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Why are chalk talks so hard?

  1. Pingback: How do you get an academic job in biology? | Sociobiology

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