Arthur Spirling (Professor of Politics and Data Science at New York University) spoke at Hilary term 2022’s DPIR Alumni Career Conversation. Here are some tips from his presentation on giving a great academic job talk (the part of the interview process when job market candidates present their research to prospective employers in academia).
Attend other people’s talks (successful assistant professors) and think about their strengths and weaknesses as you prepare your talk.
Prepare! Know your talk back to front and upside down. Write a draft four weeks before your talk and practice your talk every day you’re on the job market.
Keep your slides minimalist and clean: slides should be there for your audience, not for you. If you are introducing a slide with ‘I’m not sure you can see that’, chances are it’s a bad slide! Try to avoid too many equations/notation; it typically does more harm than good and can lose/alienate people.
Emphasise broad appeal: your talk should be broad-based and appeal to as many people as possible. Explain the general importance of your work to motivate interest, for instance, point to examples in the news.
What is your contribution? A key selling point is often the new data that you’ve gathered – by describing this smartly and succinctly and highlighting the newness of your contribution (in terms of size/process/depth), you’ll communicate your work ethic and ability to execute future projects.
Own weaknesses early on: you could say “given this is observational data, causal inferences are difficult…” If you represent your research findings objectively this immediately cuts down an obvious critique of your talk.
Don’t read a script, or your slides: it will appear stilted and inflexible. Best to be conversational though precise in style.
Your conclusion: summarise what the paper did, but reiterate the contribution, not the introduction. Be optimistic and expansive but not delusional. Be circumspect and thoughtful but not triumphant.
Welcome questions: avoid saying “no questions during the talk” and don’t be defensive when asked a question. Do be respectful, direct, and calm in your responses, and do make eye contact. If you don’t know the answer, that’s OK – try to say something intelligent that shows you’re thinking about the issues or give a brief response perhaps suggesting that you revisit the point later.
Finally: try to project calm, assertive energy; keep it clear, coherent, clean and concise, and - once done - put it out of your mind!