Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Academic Job Talk, Part 1

This post is part of the 'Academic Job Interview' series, and concerns what might be the most important part of the interview process, The Academic Job Talk.  Since this could go on for a while, I'm splitting The Academic Job Talk into two posts, one dealing with the presentation process generally, and another focusing on the content of the presentation.

For most interviews for tenure-track faculty positions, you can expect to have to give a talk about your research agenda. While there are some situations where you might also have to give a teaching demonstration, there probably are not many positions where the teaching demonstration would take the place of the job talk (at community colleges perhaps?).

These presentation can serve a number of purposes: 1) Proving that you can actually talk to a group of people (i.e., you can teach), 2) Proving you know what-the-hell you did in your own research (i.e., you're not just a parrot of your advisor/PI/etc.), 3) Proving you have a research agenda that is sustainable and interesting (i.e., you're not the one-idea-wonder), and 4) Proving you can answer questions about your research afterwards (i.e., you've spent more than 5 minutes thinking about your research).

In any case, you want to have a job talk prepared well before you go on the actual interview. The standard seems to be to use a PowerPoint (PPT) Slideshow for your presentation, expecting a questions and answers period afterwards.  I know there are some new presentation software (softwares?) on the block that might be tempting to use instead of PPT. However, I would recommend against anything that won't splurt out a .ppt file unless you're positive you can use your own laptop in the presentation and you're willing to take the chance of technical difficulties.

Yeah, it's kinda like that.
SIDE NOTE: The software Prezi comes to mind as one of those alternatives to PPT, and if you've ever seen a Prezi presentation, you'll instantly know it because of the 'zoom in and out' style of slide transitions.  Here's a criminology related example from the Prezi website. Obviously opinions will vary, but the first time I saw one of these presentations it was REALLY REALLY cool (you might be thinking the same thing after seeing the example).  The fifth time I saw a Prezi presentation, it was just annoying as hell because the magic of the zoom transition had faded, I had no idea where the slideshow was zooming to next, and it can make you feel a little seasick when the zooming also involves panning the screen to various angles. This apparently was such a problem that Prezi had to tone down the camera zoom and pan. I would also get distracted by the bits of text and images I could see *just* off screen at any given moment.  BOTTOM LINE: If you're a master at Prezi and can produce not only 'cool' but also 'professional' looking presentations that WON'T tick off half-blind 80-year-old professors or make the others seasick to the point where they barf on their sweatervests, then go for it.  If you can't do all these things, then just stick to the tried and true Powerpoints and save the Prezi for the undergrad lectures and conference presentations.

For all of the interviews I've done, I've been told to plan to talk for 30-40 minutes, and the remaining part of the hour or so will be for Q&A.  For me, this means typically a PPT of 20-25 slides, although I make sure to check the timing of my show multiple times.  I find when I practice the presentation alone, I talk a little slower than when I actually give it, so if I'm hitting 37 minutes (for example) giving the presentation to my cats, then I can assume it's going to be closer to 32 minutes or so when I do it for real. Just make sure you actually *do* practice your presentation so you know whether something needs to be added ,dropped, or otherwise changed, and so it comes across as practiced and smooth. I also find it helpful to print out the slideshow (as a handout, with 4 slides per page), and have that hard copy nearby.  I don't ever use it, but it's something that makes me feel more in control and, hopefully, this comes out in my actual presentation.

Practice my Powerpoint presentation?

Obviously content is a major part of the presentation, but the 'presentation' of the presentation is also very important. This relates to the PPT vs. Prezi debate (or at least the debate I made up in my head in the last 10 minutes), to the practicing of your presentation, the timing of your presentation, and also to how it is delivered.  Related to that last point, I've found I'm a wanderer when I present.  I have a hard time standing in one position (like behind a podium/laptop), and instead prefer to wander a few feet here or there.  I warn my audience before I present about this habit, and ask them to bear with me. I think this not only helps them forgive my wandering (a little), but it also helps me show I'm human and be humble about my faults (which secretly tricks them into liking me.  FOOLS!!! MUAHAHAHAHAHAHAAAAAAH! Or something.)

Using a wireless presenter
makes you feel a little like
Zeus, got of Lighting,
Thunder, and PowerPoint
Ok, I got a little sidetracked.  In any case, I like to use a wireless presenter thingy, since it not only lets me wander a little from the laptop/keyboard, but also lets me transition slides smoothly, bypassing the *Stop talking, walk up to keyboard, click keyboard, look at screen to make sure new slide is up, continue talking* thing that I've seen a lot of people do when they inadvertently wander too far from the laptop/keyboard.  It also eliminates the audible 'click' from the keyboard that comes with changing slides, which I guess isn't a big deal, but is just one more little distraction that you don't need while you present.  Finally, it seems a little magical, which is a nice confidence booster when you're doing a presentation and it's clear the audience is slightly impressed with the wireless thing. The wireless presenter I like is the Logitech Professional Presenter R800, mostly because it has a spot to hold the USB plug-in dongle so it's hard to lose, and it has an LCD timer on it that you can set for X minutes and it'll silently vibrate/buzz you when you're getting low on time, as well as show how much time is remaining.  It runs about $80 retail, $60 on sale.  There's also a non-timer-buzzer-thingy (R400 version) that is somewhat cheaper but much less awesome.

Overall, you want to make sure your presentation goes smoothly and comes across as professional, regardless of what you put in it or what software you use to present it.

As noted earlier, I'll have another post soon(ish) about the content of the presentation, but until then, there's a lot of other information about the academic job talk floating around the internet. So to steal from LeVar Burton, don't take my word for it, read the Internets! Here's just a few good posts about it that I found with a simple Google search:

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Academic Job Interview, Part 1

Sorry for the delay in posting these past few months.  This first semester has been a roller coaster ride.  Anyway, back to semi-regular posting! (Maybe.)

This post concerns the Academic Job Interview (*DUN DUUNNN DUUUUNNNN!*)

If you've never been on one, it can be a nerve-wracking experience leading up to the visit, absolutely terrifying while you're on it, and completely exhausting afterwards. Hopefully this series of posts help make planning for it a little easier.

First Things First

The first thing that will probably happen in the interview timeline (after applying, that is), is you'll get a call (maybe an email) asking if you can come to campus for an interview. Sometimes you'll have had a phone interview beforehand, sometimes not.  All of the on-campus interviews I've been on were scheduled a couple weeks in advance, as I recall. So you won't have a lot of notice that you're going on an interview. This means you need to be prepared for an interview invitation to come at any time after you've submitted your application(s) to open positions. So start working on your job talk! (more about this in a future post...)  It also means you need to have interview clothes ready, so if it'll take a few weeks to get that suit tailored to fit right, do it now so it'll be ready when you need it.

When you get the call, you'll need to iron out the details of the visit. This might involve discussions with the search chair, or it might be talking to an admin person instead. In either case, you'll want to confirm the following at some point before the interview:
  • Will you need to book and (more importantly) pay for the flight or hotel expenses yourself up front?
    • If so, what paperwork do you need to provide to be reimbursed?  
      • Realize it may take a few months to actually get the reimbursement, so you'll want to have access to cash or a credit card with enough free space to cover at least a couple interviews (~$2,000?).
    • Side note: In my opinion, if the school is unwilling to reimburse the flight/hotel, you should seriously consider whether you actually want to work for such a (cheap/broke) department.
    • Also, some places in far away locations (Alaska, Hawaii, the UK) might have stipulations that if they offer you the job and you decline, you will not be reimbursed for your travel. Keep this in mind if you're lukewarm about the position.

  • Will other expenses, like meals while traveling, be reimbursed?
    • If so, what receipts do you need to keep?
    • Side note: I wouldn't order alcohol during these travel meals, especially if you need to provide an itemized receipt. Some departments will not reimburse alcohol purchases anyway.)
    • Side side note: These questions on smaller reimbursement things (meals, etc.) have the potential to make you look really cheap and inconsiderate if asked in the wrong way. Be careful with how you phrase these reimbursement questions if you decide to ask about them. Asking about flight/hotel reimbursement, however, is both normal and should be an expected question if it's not clear up front.

  • How will you get from the airport to your next location (whether that's the hotel or dinner if you're arriving the night before, or the department/offices if you're arriving the morning of your interview)?  This might require taking a shuttle from the airport to your hotel (do you book it? Do they? Is it reimbursed?), or meeting a faculty member (or grad student) at the airport (if so, get their contact information).

  • Realize that you probably don't want to barrage whomever calls you to set up the interview with *all* of these questions at once (especially if it's the chair calling you with the interview offer).  Instead, it might be appropriate to send a follow up email about the smaller things, after hammering out the big things first (dates, flight/hotel booking questions, etc.).


In terms of packing for the interview, you need to consider where you're interviewing and what time of the year it will be, as well as for how long you'll be there. Here are a few things to consider:
  • Regarding location/season: If you're interviewing in the South in September, you're probably going to want to dress lighter than if you were interviewing in the Northeast in January.  This might mean packing (or not packing) a pair of snow boots, coat/hat/gloves, or a travel umbrella. For example, I have a wool driving coat with a zip out liner that I love, because it's acceptable outerwear for at least three out of the four seasons, works whether it's raining or snowing, and it looks pretty sharp (in my opinion) when worn over a suit. Something similarly versatile might be a good investment when you're upgrading your wardrobe.

  • You'll need to consider how many outfits you'll need to bring.  For instance, if you're on a one-day interview schedule, then a single suit should be fine (ladies, adjust my recommendations regarding 'suits' accordingly).  Conversely, if you're meeting people for dinner the first evening, having a full day of interviews on day two, and meeting people for breakfast before leaving on the third day, then you'll probably want to bring at least three dress shirts (with three different ties) and a couple of different suits.

  • I recommend packing 1 more dress shirt than you think you'll need, because you never know when you'll spill something on the shirt in the middle of the day and not want to wear it for an evening event.  I also recommend using the same 'one extra' rule for t-shirts, underwear, ties, and socks. It's a relatively small increase in 'stuff' to pack, but a huge increase in 'oh sh*t' insurance.

Things to remember
There are a few other things I wanted to mention that don't really fit anywhere other that a miscellaneous category of things to remember/do/prepare for.  So here it goes:
  • Don't cut your hair right before you leave!  You don't want to get a horrible haircut and be stuck with it on the interview (or if you do it yourself, f*ck something up and have to buzz it completely off the night before and end up looking like a big scary ex-convict... don't ask me how I know this.)  If you need to, I'd cut your hair a couple of weeks before the interview, since you'll have enough time to try and fix it if something does go wrong, but it won't be enough time to look 'shaggy' in the mean time.  Of course, if you rock the buzzcut normally, then disregard this advice and keep on keepin' on.
    • Side note: While I like to think I looked like a big scary ex-convict, after the haircutting incident, realistically I probably looked closer to Louie CK...
Yeah, that's about right.
  • Dress comfortably, but professionally.  For instance, if you have a 'lucky' dress shirt that you feel really comfortable in, like how you look in it, etc., then wear that on your 'long day' (or whatever day you have to give your job talk).  This, of course, is assuming the dress shirt still looks good and doesn't look worn and shabby.  If you end up feeling more comfortable then (I think) that should come through in your interview.  For the same reason, I always buy a new pair of dress socks whenever I have an interview or give a presentation. Weird, I know, but there's just something about a brand new pair of socks that makes me feel more comfortable and confident (plus, I don't have to worry that the socks I packed have a hole in them I didn't notice before, or don't match each other).
Dr. Cable Guy was wondering if you
log-transformed your independent variables...
  • Relatedly, you can never overdress for the interview. I don't care if all of the other faculty are wearing jeans and flannel shirts with no sleeves ala Larry the Cable Guy.  You can't go wrong if you wear a suit (as a guy, at least -- again, ladies please adjust the advice accordingly). Even if you feel overdressed, it's much MUCH better than if you were seen as under dressed. If you feel absolutely uncomfortable wearing the whole suit for the entire time, then maybe lose the tie in the one-on-one interviews if it feels right (but keep it nearby for when you do the job talk or meet with the Dean).  Still, when in doubt, stay dressed up!
  • Bring a notepad/folio, and use it! I never understand when job candidates come for an interview, ask questions, but never write anything down. Writing things down during the one-on-one interviews, and sometimes during the Q&A session after the job talk, shows that you're interested in what people are saying, and also allows you to refer back to your notes after the interview is over. There is simply no way you'll remember 12 different faculty members' answers to 20 difference questions over the course of an 8 hour interview day without writing things down.
  • Bring your job talk's .PPT file on a USB drive (also, email it to yourself), and bring hard copy printouts of the slides. Best case scenario, you won't use the printouts, or might refer to them only during your flight to the interview. Worst case scenario is you have to deal with technology problems or a bad setup of the computer equipment, and have to refer to your printouts during your job talk or load your .PPT from your USB drive.  If you don't have a .PPT, you should seriously consider if your presentation skills are good enough to hold faculty members' attention for 30-45 minutes without .PPT visuals to refer to
  • I like to use a wireless presenter mouse thingy when I do my presentations, whether that's at job talks or conferences. I always make sure it's packed in my carry on. For under $100, you don't have to be tethered to the laptop, and this is especially useful if you are a wanderer/ambler when you present (guilty).
    • Side note: I really like this presenter mouse.  It has a timer on it that 'buzzes' you when you're getting low on time.
  • Bring a bottle of water and some portable, fairly clean snacks (e.g., Powerbars).  You'll be talking for hours at a time, possibly with few chances for a water fountain or snack break. Having access to a bottle of water and a Powerbar or two can help keep your energy up (and stomach in line) during the marathon days that make up the job interview.  This will also help you from pigging out during the lunch and dinner meetings, allowing you to ask and answer questions more easily than if you were shoveling food into your mouth due to starvation.
Overall, it should be clear that there is a LOT of stuff that comes with an academic interview, even before you even get on the plane! This is just a small sample of things to consider.  

Future Posts
In the interest of keeping posts relatively short and digestible, I'll be breaking up posting on The Academic Job Interview into different parts.  Here's some of the future planned posts that I'll eventually get to:
  • The Job Talk
  • Meetings with Faculty and Grad Students
  • Post Interview Stuff

In the meantime, here is an excellent post on how to act when you're on an academic interview:

Image Credit: Louie CKCable Guy,