Cover Story

Interview day: You've met so many people in the department that you can't remember anyone's name, and you've answered so many questions about yourself and your work that you barely remember your own name.

But you've got one critical step to go. One that could mean the difference between getting an offer and staying on the market a bit longer--the job talk.

Department heads considering academic candidates say they look to the job talk--an hour-long presentation of a candidate's research followed by a question and answer period--to see if prospects can demonstrate what they'll need to flourish in a department, as a researcher, teacher and colleague.

That one hour should include a solid grounding in the science of psychology and show your ability to capture and hold the interest of potential colleagues and students, a clear sense of where your research will take you in the opening years of your academic career, and an understanding of how your work fits with a department's research and teaching priorities.

"In many cases, the job talk may be the one opportunity a candidate has with a captive audience, and to really communicate what their research is all about to their potential future colleagues," says Frederick Wertz, PhD, chair of the psychology department at Fordham University.


Content: What the search committee wants

At Fordham, the job talk is actually called the research talk, and candidates present them during the department's weekly colloquium, says Wertz. Candidates also separately instruct a class of undergraduates, where they demonstrate their teaching abilities by presenting a one-hour lecture on a topic worked out between the course instructor and the candidate.

At many other universities, such as Colorado State University (CSU), the talk gives candidates a chance to both present an example of their research and demonstrate their teaching skills based on how they explain their work to the audience, says CSU department chair and professor Ernest L. Chavez, PhD.

When it comes to evaluating a job talk's content, Wertz and Chavez say department heads want to see:

  • Solid methodology. Demonstrate your ability to investigate a question in a scientifically rigorous and sophisticated way. Describe a study you conducted, explain how it worked, present your data and describe how you reached your conclusions. Try to include work that has been published, so you can cite the journal reference.

  • Where it’s going, and how it fits. Explain your next step in your research, how you intend to get there and how your work fits with the department's overall research direction and priorities.

  • Strengths and limitations of research. Show that you have a detailed grasp of your research, but acknowledge the limitations of the data you've collected.


How to prepare

Developing a successful job talk takes a willingness to spend enough time preparing for the presentation that you know it backward and forward, says Tonya Dodge, PhD, a professor at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

Dodge, who received her doctorate in social psychology from the University at Albany in 2003, interviewed at three schools during her job search. To get ready, she presented her job talk to four separate practice audiences of professors and students from different branches of psychology at her university, and ran through it many more times by herself.

"The more times you say it out loud, the more comfortable you'll become with it," Dodge says.

Whenever and wherever you get a chance to deliver your job talk, take it-whether it's part of a brown bag lunch series with fellow students or at a regional psychology conference. Also run through the talk on your own time as Dodge did, experts advise.

Besides helping you deliver your job talk smoothly, presenting the talk to different audiences will help you prepare for another key segment of the event--questions, says Jennifer Harman, PhD, who's in her second year as a CSU psychology professor.

In most talks, there's about 40 minutes of presentation, with 20 minutes or so left for questions from the audience. Harman says she anticipated the tough questions people might ask during her job talks by listening to constructive criticism of her research methods and conclusions during her practice runs.

Psychologists from a different concentration than your own will probably ask questions related to their own fields, says Harman--often questions you might not have thought of on your own.

"If you know ahead of time what the questions might be, you can say 'I have a slide for that,'" Harman says.

From a department head's perspective, the question period is a chance to assess how well candidates think on their feet when challenged, Wertz says.

"If it's a question that's difficult, it's a great opportunity for a candidate to show how much thought has gone into their work," he says.

But if you don't completely understand a question, ask for clarification. The pause will give you an extra moment to think through your answer, Dodge says. If you still don't know the answer, don't try to bluff your way through, she says.

"They'll catch it, and they're evaluating you," Dodge says.

Above all, avoid getting defensive if a questioner points out a limitation in your research, and explain how you want to address that limitation in continuing work, experts say.

Another important part of preparing your talk is knowing your audience, say Dodge and Harman. Ask someone from the department search committee who will be attending your talk. Will it be professors from one section of the department, or professors from across several specialty areas in psychology? Will there be students present, and will they be undergraduates or graduate-level students?

Knowing who will be in the audience will help you decide what aspects of research to emphasize in the presentation and the level of detail you need to build into the talk.

Finally, Dodge and Harman advise, schedule a half hour or 45 minutes of free time before your talk to relax and rehearse. Think back on some of the questions interviewers have asked you, and see if you can work in some points that tie in to those questions.