Karen Kelsky

Founder and President at The Professor Is In

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The Professor Is In: How to Deliver a Halfway-Decent Job Talk

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I have to write a job talk! How do I do it?

I have a post on job talks, called ”Dr. Karen's Rules of the Job Talk.”

But more is needed. I'm deep in job-talk editing the past month or so, and I'm really startled at how bad many of these are, and with no good reason. It's not the research that is bad, or the ideas of the writer, or the candidate’s credibility for the job. It's the talks’ lack of simple organization, and their failure to grasp of the ethos and point of the genre.

So here’s a simple checklist for your job talk:

1) Do you have a clear one-paragraph intro that lays out the topic and sketches the basic plan of the talk? Don't argue with me about this; just do it. "Thank you for having me. Today I'll be speaking about XX. In the talk, I'll be exploring XX from the perspective of XXX and will be relating it to XXX. I will show that XX is XXX, and ultimately argue that XXX can be understood as XXX." Seriously, this is not that hard.

2) Do you resist the temptation to open with a vignette? No? For the love of god, get rid of the opening vignette. Yes, I know that you think it’s all perfect for illustrating everything that is amazing and interesting and colorful and compelling about your topic. But guess what? We can’t follow it. You’ve been working on this project for 10 years, and know the place and time and context and dramatis personae like the back of your hand. We’re hearing it for the first time, and know nothing. We can’t follow your damned vignette. Remove the vignette.

3) Do you take about two paragraphs to explain your topic clearly for first-time listeners? Just because you've spent a decade on this stuff doesn't mean we know the first damned thing about it. Think “undergrad lecture” for (only) this small introductory section. Basic. Simple. Clear. Just the facts. No theory, no disputes, no rhetoric. Go all advanced on their asses later, but right here: undergrad lecture.

4) Do you advance a clear and logical argument through the rest of the body of the talk, using your "stuff" (ethnography, literary texts, historical material, etc.) to advance theoretical and conceptual arguments? Do not go overboard with either your stuff and stories or your theory and concepts. The stuff and stories must ground the theory and concepts, while the theory and concepts must illuminate the stuff and stories. Balance is all.

5) Do you eschew excessive citation of other works and sources? This is the classic grad-student move, and it's tiresome. This is not your comps! You don't need to pay obeisance to 15 other scholars or bodies of work. Briefly and efficiently cite just one or two scholars as a kind of "pivot" to your talk—at the moment when you move from describing a phenomenon to analyzing it conceptually. Point briefly to their innovations or interventions, and then quickly move to your own original and distinctive argument.

6) Do you have an original and distinctive argument? Do you state that clearly by the end of the talk? It should look like this: "From an examination of XX and YYY, we can conclude that XXX may be understood as XXXX." This is not a bunch of wimpy-ass shit like "and so I shed light on ..." or "and so I contribute to the literature on ..." or "and so I want to add to the excellent work on ..." This is not dependent, or derivative, or additive. It is your own original argument.

7) Do you include a conclusion that briefly summarizes what you've covered, restates the argument, and then points outward to the broader disciplinary import of the work? If you can’t show that you contribute to a discipline or field, then you’re not getting a tenure-track job.

8) Do you have decent visuals that illustrate the points of the talk while obeying a few basic rules of design----limited text on each slide, plenty of blank space, images that make sense to first time viewers (undergrad lecture standards apply here too), graphics and text large enough for the audience to see from where they are sitting, a manageable amount of content, no weird and bewildering diagrams or flowcharts filled with tiny, illegible labels?

9) Do you insert pauses for interaction with the audience? Yes, it is the norm to work from a paper. But that doesn’t mean you need to dryly keep your eyes glued to it.

Do I sound irritable? I am. By the time you get to the job talk, you should know how to give a basic research talk. Your department should have explained this, and you should have pursued opportunities to learn this.

There are occasional variations in the genre: Some places want only a teaching demo, some want a quick survey of both current and future work, and so on. My advice for these variations would differ. But if you’re being asked to give what is still the default job talk—the 45-minute research paper discussion—then this is your checklist to avoid the worst and most common self-sabotaging errors.

Dear Readers: Have a question about the academic job market and/or professionalization? Send it to me! I welcome any and all questions related to the job market, preparing for the job market while in graduate school, coping with the adjunct struggle, and assistant professorhood. Send questions to me at gettenure@gmail.com.

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