You have a whiteboard, a marker, and an hour to convince a department to hire you.  How will you handle it?

Three senior faculty who have been involved in multiple searches and seen numerous chalk talks came together to answer questions about this common interview component.  While these questions and answers are pitched toward laboratory scientists or those blending teaching with lab research, much is applicable to all.

Panelists:

David Cortez, PhD
Professor, Biochemistry and Cancer Research

Anne Kenworthy, PhD
Professor and Interim Vice-Chair, Molecular Physiology and Biophysics, Professor, Cell and Developmental Biology

Christopher Wright, DPhil
Professor and Vice-Chair for Faculty Affairs, Cell and Developmental Biology

A chalk talk is an opportunity for a search committee to see how an applicant thinks on the fly with a stick of chalk or whiteboard marker in hand or, increasingly, a shared screen over Skype.  Unlike a job talk or seminar, in which you’re likely presenting research findings, in a chalk talk you should provide a window into your plan for your research career.  You want to give a high-level view of what you’ll start working on immediately once you’re hired, and how you’ll develop that work into an independent lab, preferably funded by R01s or equivalent grants, over the next several years.  You don’t get slides to help you, but you will have the opportunity to draw and write on a board as you talk.

Like your quals, the search committee will feel free to interrupt you throughout the hour with questions and comments.  Part of a chalk talk’s purpose is to show that you communicate well, have a sophisticated grasp of your science, and can integrate new ideas or tactfully rebut regarding less efficient directions as you discuss opportunities. It’s also your chance to show the committee how excited you are about your work, and get them excited about it as well.

What Makes a Good Chalk Talk?

Most of all, a good chalk talk gives the committee a strategic layout of how you will grow your research program.  Not only do you need to describe your first project, but you need to tell them what your project five years from now is going to be, and what the steps are between those projects.  How will you use a small lab (probably 3-4 people) to publish quickly and get your first R01?  What’s going to be in your first R01?

Tip: Cover all the aims of your first grant.  Don’t get bogged down in Aim 1a.  This is instant death.

A good chalk talk will also show the committee that you’ve thought about how you would fit into their department.  Who would be your collaborators?  Does the department have equipment that can be key to your work?

As well, you need to show evidence that you and your mentor have discussed and resolved how you will separate your science and what you will take with you to allow success as an independent program leader.

At the end of your talk, the committee should be able to see how you think and what you care about.  They should have some idea of who you are as a person, your acumen, mature judgement skills, and definition of the most important gaps that you will be able to address in your chosen field.

What’s the Biggest Turn-off in a Chalk Talk?

All three panelists agreed: Boring science!  By this they meant several things:

  • Science that’s too incremental. Incremental research definitely has its place and you should talk about it, but also talk about some high-risk/high-reward ideas you have, or the exciting places your work could ultimately lead you.
  • Science that’s illogical. The committee should be able to clearly follow how you’re going to get from Point A to Point B in your work.
  • Science that’s too full of jargon or too specific. Remember that most, if not all, of the committee members won’t work exactly in your area.  Pitch your ideas articulately to a broad audience.

Other turn-offs include candidates who obviously haven’t talked to their mentors about how to differentiate their science and grow their program (yes, the committee can tell); the suggestion that you might get spread too thin with collaborations or projects that don’t advance your science; and not being responsive to search committee suggestions—this hints you might be hard to mentor towards success.  (Good response: “That’s a really interesting idea.”  If you can respond to suggestions quickly, do so; otherwise, say something like, “That’s a fascinating possibility.  Let’s talk later.”)

How Do You Structure a Chalk Talk?

Begin with who you are, what you work on, and the wider significance of your work (aka your elevator pitch).  Try to be clear, but not long-winded.  Aim for about 45 seconds; it always takes longer than you think.  After that, get through your most important points, even if you have to frontload them.  Remember you will be interrupted with questions.  One way to begin is to state the three aims of the first grant you’ll write, then fill in the details of how you will accomplish the work.  Another is to note the three most important questions in your field, then how you will approach answering them.  Thinking strategically, you might go with the most tractable one first because the work will be publishable no matter what.  In the worst-case scenario, you’ll have some solid papers; in the best, you’ll cause a paradigm shift.  Either way, you’re set up to make progress on the next question.

Tip: The search committee wants you to enjoy this and to come to their institution (otherwise they would not have invested so much in the visit), and many times they will let you get through the skeleton of your talk before they start peppering you with questions.  Many will allow you to hand out a one-page outline of your talk, or will give you 15 minutes before the talk to write an outline on the board.  (You can always ask the committee chair for this.  The worst he/she can say is no.)

Don’t read from cards—this isn’t supposed to be a scripted talk, and anyway you’re going to get interrupted.  If you must, write extremely brief reminders on cards to jog your memory.  When you do get questions, engage your questioners.  These talks are usually held in a small room to engage a collegial, sometimes candid and challenging, back and forth discussion.  If needed, you can tactfully redirect questions that lead too deep into the weeds, or too far off topic, with phrases such as, “I see some real potential impact there, and I would like to seek your advice later if possible…but I do think that this (your chosen approach) will be feasible as the first approach…”

Some other questions the panel answered:

What are typical questions a committee might ask?

  • What are your biggest hurdles? Does this institution/department have all the equipment you’ll need?
  • Who is or will be your biggest competition?
  • Who will be your first trainee (a postdoc or grad student, or two technicians to begin with?) and what will their project(s) be?
  • How are you uniquely capable of making progress in the highly significant problem you’ve chosen to study?

I’m interviewing at a SLAC or other teaching-oriented institution.  How does my chalk talk differ?

  • If you do animal work, talk about how you can or will use economical animals such as C. elegans, Drosophila, or yeast instead of expensive and often slow mice.
  • Discuss how you will include undergraduates in your research program.
  • Explain how your research will impact/improve your teaching.
  • Before the talk, go ahead and ask things like how much the typical startup package at that institution is (probably less than the one at your graduate or postdoc institution) and what the institution’s expectations for teaching and research are.

How much preliminary data should you include?

Not a lot, because you can’t show it anyway. Concentrate more on your vision.  You’ve also probably given a seminar on your data earlier in the day or the day before, mostly to these same people, so they will be roughly familiar with your data.  (Bonus tip: At the end of that seminar, it’s often attractive for the candidate to give a one-slide preview of your chalk-talk vision.)

Should I mention grants I’ve submitted?

Yes!  This shows initiative and planning for the future, so you can’t go wrong telling them about your fellowship, foundation, career development, or other award applications.  If your proposal wasn’t scored, you don’t have to mention that—that you had yourself together enough to submit is the important part.

Have you seen (or given) a particularly great or spectacularly bad chalk talk?  Tell us how it succeeded or failed, or left you spectacularly disinterested, in the comments.

More Resources:

From the American Society for Cell Biology: Preparing Your Academic Chalk Talk

From University of California – San Francisco Office of Career & Professional Development: Interviewing for Academic Jobs

From Edge for Scholars: All posts on the job search

This article was written by Rebecca Helton of Edge for Scholars based on a panel hosted by the ASPIRE program.

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