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BLEG: Job Talk Dos and Don’ts

February 15, 2012

I’ll be giving a job talk in less than two weeks. I have found lots of great advice on how to construct one—once you get a sense of your school and audience. Apart from those links and the general advice they contain*, I’ve also received some personal tips from a few experienced colleagues. So much for the generalities.

I’ll of course be filling out my talk with specifics related to the history of the great books idea, Mortimer J. Adler, and the arc of my project—as well as future avenues of research. And of course I’ll practice.

I’m blog-begging you today, however, for anecdotal Dos and Don’ts. What has worked for you, and what failed miserably? Or, perhaps most importantly, what failures have you observed in job talks given by others? What should I avoid at all costs?

Thanks in advance for your help! – TL

*I really, really liked the links #1 and #2 from Tomorrow’s Professor and the University of Michigan. And the last link received numerous comments here.


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  1. Ben Alpers permalink

    First, congrats!

    Second, some job talk thoughts (many of these are probably blindingly obvious…some might already be mentioned in the links above, which I haven’t followed):

    • Stick to the allotted time.

    • The hiring department may not specify anything they want to hear from you beyond “job talk” and a time limit. But if they do, give them precisely what they ask for.

    • Remember: you will know more about the topic you’re discussing than anyone else in the room.

    • Treat all questions you receive, even ridiculous and ill-informed questions, with the greatest respect. But don’t be afraid to respectfully disagree with your interlocutors (emphasis, again, on the _respectfully_). If a question seems unusually hostile or unfair to you, chances are it seems unusually hostile or unfair to others in the room, too. Elegantly handling such queries with grace under pressure can earn you major brownie points.

    • In both your job talk and the q&a that follows be prepared to _sell_ your project. Be expansive, but reasonable, about its significance. Try to frame that significance in ways that will appeal to the (probably quite different) intellectual interests of the committee and the department to whom you’re addressing the talk.

    • Throughout the job visit, be interested in (and informed about!) the department in which you’re interviewing. During your visit, balance talk about yourself with questions about the department and the work of the faculty to whom you’re talking (of course, the job talk itself is time to focus on yourself and your work).

    • Remember: job visits are two-way wooing processes. Both directions are important. And both parties need to be convinced to have them result in a happy hire.

    • As much as you want a job, try to be honest with your own assessment of how much you want _this_ job. There are lots of great jobs out there. There are also lots of horrible ones. And very often you don’t know which is which until your job visit. If the department seems deeply dysfunctional it probably means that it’s so dysfunctional that they are incapable even of erecting a Potemkin village for the benefit of their job candidates. This is not a good sign. In extreme situations, there is no shame in turning down even a tenure-track job.

    • Stick to the time limit. Seriously.


  2. Most of my interviews have involved teaching demos, not job talks, but from what I’ve seen:

    Watch your timing: if they’ve scheduled time for questions, stick to it; if they haven’t, make sure you stop in time.

    Depending on the school, the questions may be less about your research as such and more about how you will pursue it at a distance from your home archives and how your research might inform your teaching or engage students, and how you would or would not work it into your broader teaching. Or they may not care a fig for teaching, and want to talk about historiography and reception theory.

    If you usually use technology for a talk, make sure you’re prepared to do without it if circumstances require, and accept it gracefully; if you don’t, be prepared for someone in a later interview to ask how you use technology in teaching.

    Relax: I’ve seen shockingly bad job talks that didn’t derail a candidate. I’ve seen silky smooth ones that didn’t result in a hire. Be your best (professional) self and let ’em make up their own minds.


  3. @Ben: Thanks! I’ll definitely be thinking about my time—getting it down as a practice. And good point about treating even ridiculous and ill-informed questions with respect. I’m not prone to being dismissive in these situations, but it never hurts to be reminded of potential odd/weird angles from the audience. As for sales, I was already thinking about that (i.e. pitching the talk to the audience). Also, I naturally get enthusiastic about my work in these situations. Sometimes recounting one’s work, influences, and place in the field can remind you how much you love your research. And I do love mine. Lastly, my eyes will most certainly be wide open about the school while there.

    @Jonathan: Good points about pursuing my work at a distance from my archival resources, as well as how my research informs my teaching (which thankfully is an easy transition to make in relation to my subject matter—i.e. Mortimer J. Adler and the great books and the liberal arts). …And, good point about getting technology questions somewhat out of the way, perhaps, by using incorporating it in my presentation. – TL


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