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:

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the helpful post! Looking forward to part 2.