By Jena Pitman-Leung, Ph.D., Career Consultant, Propel Careers
You've done it. For almost a decade you've worked your tail off during your Ph.D., and worked even HARDER as a post-doc. You published well, schmoozed at conferences, presented your data to adoring peers, served on committees, written chapters/commentaries/reviews, trained legions of undergrads, grad students, and technical staff.... and after sending out 50 job applications, you've landed an interview at one of your top choices. The search committee chairperson informs you that you will be expected to give a departmental seminar (piece of cake), meet with faculty (no problem), have lunch with the students (they'll love me), and give a chalk talk (a what?).
The "chalk talk" is an object of mystery to most people on the academic track. As PhD students and postdocs, most of us are not privy to the inner workings of the departmental hiring process, and if we are in a small department, or one that is not hiring, we may never experience a faculty search first hand. Those of us that do may not have the opportunity to ask our advisers what goes on behind that closed door for several hours. Thankfully, while I was a postdoc, my department was expanding and interviewing many highly qualified candidates for an assistant professor position. My adviser served as Chair of the search committee one year, and was happy to indulge my endless nosy questions about the candidates, the interview process, and the opinions of other faculty members. I learned a lot from him about what distinguishes one candidate from another. In many cases, it was not the quality of their publications, or the seniority of their postdoc advisor that gained them the stamp of approval; it was the quality of the chalk talk.
A chalk talk is very individual, and can vary by institution, but is most often an "informal" data proposal/ brainstorming session that involves the candidate writing out their research plan on a chalkboard or white board and presenting it to the search committee. It can be a daunting process for people who have not been trained to think or present data this way, and it is easy to falter. The best way to impress the search committee is to be ORGANIZED in advance. Here are a few tips for how to stay organized and give a great chalk talk:
1. Approach your chalk talk preparation like writing a grant application. Prepare a list of Aims with experiments, outcomes, interpretations, and alternative approaches. Plan enough experiments to get you through the first ~5 years.
2. As with a grant application, plan some "doable" experiments with a high likelihood of working, using techniques that you already know. Plan additional experiments that may be riskier, but could produce much higher profile results. Make it clear that you know that these experiments are risky, but show excitement and bravery and a willingness to learn and venture into new territories.
3. Research your potential new department. Show them that you are interested in the department by suggesting potential collaborations and interactions with your colleagues, ie. borrowing expensive equipment that they already own, or sharing expensive equipment that you plan to purchase to further their research.
4. Try to stay as relaxed and non-defensive as possible when asked questions by other faculty members. Be open to new ideas, approaches, and suggestions. But don't let them pull you off course or deviate too much from your plan.
5. Be as concise and direct as you can be. Try not to get yourself into a hole that is difficult to get out of, avoid pitfalls by leading the conversation.
6. To stay on target and keep your thoughts organized, write out your plan in bullet points. Ask if you can arrive 5-10 minutes early to the room where your talk will be held and write the bullet points on the side of the board. If you can't arrive early, bring a piece of paper with you with your plan written on it, and refer to it, or take a few minutes to transfer it onto the board before you start. Write legibly, and do NOT erase your plan. As you proceed, use the entire remainder of the board for figures, illustrations, etc. Add to or subtract from your plan as you go, but not so much that it becomes difficult to read. Leave the plan as a lasting impression on the search committee. It will also help them to organize their thoughts as you progress through your plan.
7. PRACTICE. If you have a group of peers who you trust to give you constructive feedback, and who are willing to dedicate a few hours on a weekend, buy them some pizza a beer and practice your chalk talk with them. Even going through the exercise of writing your plan out on the board will help ease your nerves, and may help you to identify a more efficient way to organize your thoughts.
The chalk talk is, in the words of my adviser, "the part that should close the deal". It is your chance to really shine, to interact in a positive way with your potential future colleagues, and to express your enthusiasm for the years ahead, and finally becoming independent! Good luck to all of you who reach this important milestone!
Thanks to my postdoc adviser, Scott Waddell (Oxford University), for contributing to this article.