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Stanford Report, February 9, 2000

Acing the academic job talk: Marincovich gives pointers

BY DIANE MANUEL

On a visit to Vanderbilt University, Michele Marincovich spoke with a dean there who had been bowled over by a Stanford graduate student's presentation of research.

"The dean said, 'You know, he was not necessarily our very top candidate, but he gave such an amazing academic job talk that there was no need for discussion. The search committee said, 'That's our choice.'"

Marincovich paused to let her listeners absorb the exchange.

"So your talk can be that important," she told more than 80 graduate students and teaching assistants who had crowded into the packed conference room.

Marincovich, assistant vice provost and director of the Center for Teaching and Learning, was speaking on Jan. 26 about "How to Give an Effective Academic Job Talk," as part of the center's new series of Professional Development Workshops for teaching assistants.

Defining the job talk as "the final step before a decision is made among candidates on the short list," Marincovich added that it often is the deciding factor in a departmental hire.

"It's the academic job talk that often reveals to [faculty] why they want to hire one person, or don't want to hire another."

Peppering her own talk with example after lively example and maintaining eye contact, Marincovich modeled each tip she passed along to her listeners.

In preparing for an academic job talk, she said, it is wise to keep the audience in mind at all stages.

"Do not take for granted that people know why you are working on a particular question," she said. "Be aware that as a dissertation writer you have a well-known disease, which is that you have fallen deeply in love with your own topic and have forgotten that everybody else may not find it that fascinating, even after you explain it.

"Your job is to help people see why it is such a wonderful area of work."

Like all effective speakers, Marincovich waited until the end of her talk to distribute a handout. But she highlighted and reinforced the main points on the sheet throughout her remarks:

Marincovich said she had distilled the suggestions from talks with faculty in many departments and schools, and from conversations with graduate students who had prepared and delivered academic job talks.

Typically, a job talk is imbedded in two intensive days of a campus visit and sometimes can be scheduled at the end of the second day.

"It's difficult under the best circumstances," she said. "But it might be safest to assume you're going to be doing it under the worst of circumstances."

Marincovich encouraged her listeners to gather as much information as possible about the institutions where they would be interviewing. Find out about research emphases, read up on any fractures that might exist in departments and look at the overall financial health of the schools, she said.

And don't forget to ask practical questions: How long is the talk expected to last? Should I bring a printed copy of the talk? How big will the audience be? Will there be a question-and-answer period?

It also is important to find out what audio-visual equipment is available, and to ask faculty and fellow students about the presentation conventions for the discipline. While geologists tend to use slides, for example, engineers prefer overheads and in many fields PowerPoint is gaining in popularity.

Beyond the practicalities, Marincovich urged graduate students to design their academic job talks in a way that would connect their particular research to larger questions in their fields of study. Someone specializing in a small family of fossils might link his study to questions of climate change, she said, or a person researching silk production by women in south China could talk about economic development in China.

Marincovich said it also is important to look ahead to future research potential.

"When faculty read your dissertation, they can see what you have done, but what they're mainly interested in is what you will do," she said. "They want to see that you will have new ideas, and particularly in the sciences and engineering, they want to know that your ideas will attract grant support."

Marincovich urged graduate students to practice talks in front of their faculty advisers and friends who would be "kind enough to be critical."

When the time comes to give the talk, she added, it might be helpful to remember that "even a great speaker on a great day doesn't reach 20 percent of the audience.

"If you see one person in the audience who is not giving you positive return, don't look at that person again. Look at someone else. Find the smilers and nodders and go back to them a lot!" SR