Ten Habits for a Highly Successful Job Talk

Posted by sepoy on March 02, 2005 · 6 mins read

As you may or may not recall, I applied for some jobs this year. So yeah. Moving on from that subject, my glorious university has some openings in my department this year. For the past 6 weeks we have been hearing the job candidates. These are all good people who, I know, are on many other shortlists around the country. They will all get hired somewhere. As I have gone to these job talks with the explicit understanding that I may very well have to duplicate this performance elsewhere, I took some mental notes. Below is my first draft of observations as a "audience" member. I think if the world was fair; if roses were red, violets were blue and i loved her; these habits would get you the academic job. But, we all know how the real world works right? [hint: no, I do not love her].

1. Show us that you are a scholar. One easy way: Show us that you have read others who have worked on your broader thematic questions and you have something to say about it. Don't drop names. Drop methodologies.
2. Have broader thematic questions. Be self-aware as a scholar. What is it that you are doing? How is it that you are doing it? How does your complete and utter mastery of mimamsa in the RgVeda help the incoming graduate student who wants to study textile patterns in 19th century Madras? Broader themes, people. I had to repeat myself already.
3. You should have two conclusions: a material one to your presentation and a broader one to your thematic issues. Address the question of relevance, of connectivity, of future inquiries and collaborations. Take the 5 minutes.
4. I personally would like to hear a narrative: A set of questions, a body of evidence, your search through the archives, your findings, your contentions, your analysis, your conclusion. But not a "personal" narrative. No need for that. Or if you are able to cohere your chapter into bookends of contemporary issues/questions, it can be worth sitting through. But if all else fails and you just worked on some lame-ass boring shit for 10 years of your life then at the VERY LEAST, have a SET OF QUESTIONS: don't just paint a word picture that I have watch dry for 40 minutes.
5. Your talk should not take any more or any less than the scheduled time. You should not drone in a monotonous tone. Sit up straight. Make eye contact in one or two spots. Sip water at key places before you restate your case. Breathe. Smile. Smile. Smile. Like a maniac, if need be. Appear relaxed as possible. Use your body effectively. Raised hands, fingers etc. to highlight your points. Remember that unlike a panel where there are three other heads to distract an audience, there is no other distraction in the room except you. No one has ANY choice but to watch you. A lump on the seat is not a good impression.
6. Handouts, movies, shadow-puppets should be used VERY carefully. They distract, break narrative flow, create unnecessary headaches. If you use handouts, use them at one or two specific times. Do not constantly interrupt yourself to go between the handout and your recitation. Whatever it is you want them to learn, ain't that important. Movies, etc.: if you have to use them, do them at the beginning and then get on with the business.
7. Make a list of the top 5 things that the hiring institution may ask you to do. If "teaching" comes up in your list, I'd say lets give it some thought, eh? Know the institution. Know their pedagogical styles. Have some concrete ideas of course matter, course texts, techniques that you will employ. Feel free to share this information with anyone who asks you.
8. Answer every question. The first 2 or 3 are KEY. The audience will look at your demeanor, how you handle the question, how specifically you answer it, how seriously you consider it. Be direct. Make eye contact. If you have an answer, deliver it and shut up. Don't hem, haw, stretch out your little victory. Move on. If you don't have a clear and direct answer, you should be able to bullshit for a minute MAX and shut up. No need to build castles of dung either. DO NOT LOOK LIKE YOU ARE AVOIDING THE QUESTION. And don't get into intellectual pissing contest with the questioners either. Yes, we know that you are the smartest walnut in the Great Grains Cereal but they all HAVE a job and you DON'T. Have conviction in yourself but be brave enough to admit that you might have to look into this or that. No harm.
9. Stories are so good. A small anecdote from the archives or from your research trip can really bring to life the pygmy people you study. Please keep your stories for when you go drinking with your buddies.
10. So what are you selling? Yourself or your dissertation? Who are these people going to bump into in the hallways? Sit on committees with? Chat with uncomfortably on Friday teas? Have extra-marital affairs with? Plot the destruction of the pathetic lives of grad students, who show signs of intellectual awakening, with? Build cliques and clans and tribal structures with? You or Your dissertation? Depending on your answer, please adjust everything above.


Sin | March 02, 2005

And this is exactly why I put my plans for academia on hold. Well, mostly because after having to sit on the job search/tenure committees at Georgetown's English Department, I'd have slit my wrists at one more mention of the post-colonial paradigm. I mean seriously. They were lecturing a Pakistani. One, in particular (Edward Said's protege, whom we later hired), was so godawful condescending when explaining subaltern states to me that I was just a few seconds away from beaning him with a copy of my thesis. Still, he redeemed himself later on.

sepoy | March 02, 2005

Sin: "Still, he redeemed himself later on." Thanks for the laugh, mate.

Sivani | March 03, 2005

I might be blind, but I have been unable to find an email address for you on the site (and I don't fanatically google people who might have good reason NOT to want their email addresses public). Which means I am butting in, off-topic to ask whether you've read Amitav Ghosh's Glass Palace. He speaks strongly about the "native" soldier's experience and perception in the British Army during the Second World War period. Feel free to contact me at my given email address, or not.

S¯nee | March 03, 2005

1. How do you feel now?? 2. Great Tips - especially the no. 8 -

Jonathan Dresner | March 03, 2005

Sin: one interviewer actually asked me a really dumb question as part of the interview to see how I handled it. I know it was deliberate because the guy actually had done graduate work in the area (which I discovered later in the interview), and this was a "I saw Shogun once" quality question.... I imagine this was a condescension filter. Neat tactic, though I've never tried using it myself (our interviews are so structured, and I never think of it when we're planning the questions).

sepoy | March 03, 2005

Sivani: Sorry, I do not mean to hide my contact. It is now featured prominently on the right - inviting drunken missives from my fans. Yes, I have read Glass Palace. And the army bits were my fav. parts. The historian in Ghosh is much better than the romantic in Ghosh.

Sin | March 03, 2005

Oooh. Drunken missives. Just don't put up your phone number, or you WILL be receiving drunken telephone calls. I have a habit of doing that. Yeah, the professor did redeem himself. It turned out that in a paroxysm of Fanon-esque guilt, he was willing to buy me drinks every night after work for about three months. At the urging of his own conscience, no less.

Ms. World | March 03, 2005

Great post and I`m not an academic or looking for a job! Thanks for the peep into academia!

Paris | March 05, 2005

I think you're leaving out all those important steps that an enterprising young seeker in the field of academe could take in the years leading up to the great job talk moment. Our friends of the gentler sex will find novels such as Pride and Prejudice, Middlemarch and Vanity Fair most instructive to their ultimate goal, a tenure track position at a university of great repute. Less important than comportment in the interview setting and choosing a field of research is the subtle art of establishing one's self at the feet of a powerful male patron of good income who can then shepherd the career of the young lady to the point of ultimate fruition.

sepoy | March 05, 2005

Yes, Paris. You are right on mark. I wish I was Becky Sharp.