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Tuesday, October 16, 2012

10 Tips for Giving for a Job Talk that Doesn't Suck

My FIU colleauge Joelle Moreno (who is our Associate Dean for Faculty Research and Development) offers an updated version of her job-talk tips, which we posted last year. As hiring season ramps up this week, hope people, on both sides of the process, find these helpful.

Remember you are salmon swimming upstream

Every school that paid the big bucks to attend the meat market is bringing back a slate of candidates.  It may only be six, but more likely it is ten to twelve.  This means that the faculty is exhausted before the first candidate even arrives.

Most of you have received bad advice.

If the 75 job talks I have attended over the past dozen years are any indication, most faculty candidates have been advised that the goal is to convince the faculty that you are a deep thinker and the smartest person in the room.   This is bad advice.  Your goal is to be interesting, to make us understand why you care, and to leave us wanting more.

1.              Don't be Boring

Your most important and challenging task is not to convince us that you are smart.  Assume that all of the candidates we have invited to campus are smart.  You have 30 minutes to make us care about your ideas and your work.  The best way to do this is to explain why you care.

2.              Be Clear

Use road maps and signposts.  Begin with a road map for your talk that explains why you are interested in this topic and what you hope to accomplish in your talk and your research.  Use signposts to signal transitions (e.g., "I'll begin with a brief discussion of the legal history."  "Now I will explain why recent developments in behavioral economics provide new insight.")  If we can’t understand what you are saying and where you are going -- what hope do our students have?

 3.              Don't be Slick

If you try to sex-up your talk, name drop rock star academics, or imbue your talk with jargon or highfalutin theory, you don't sound smart, you sound arrogant. 

 4.              Be Organized

Start strong and end strong.

 5.              Don't be a Techie, Unless....

Don't use PowerPoint unless you plan to show us:  (1) pictures (e.g., If your work focuses on the environmental impact of particular regulations on a rare spotted songbird; show us the bird); or (2) a simple graphic that illustrates complex information (e.g., a graph showing trends, a timeline).  If you must use PowerPoint, do not trick your slides out with fancy animations or cute cartoons. 

 6.              Be Prepared

A good job talk provokes questions and debate.  This is not a happy accident.  You must make this happen.  If you present your ideas clearly and explain why these questions are interesting, we will engage with you.  The best way to provoke good questions and comments is to practice giving your job talk to three of the smartest people you know -- who know nothing about the subject -- and then revise based on their suggestions.

7.              Don't be Unrealistic

Don't waste time during your talk regaling us with the details of your brilliant and ambitious research agenda.  We know you are just starting out, so claiming that you have shattered the paradigm or forced Professor X to reconsider 30 years of work are just spurious nonsense. Instead, near the end of your talk raise three provocative questions that you intend to explore in the future and invite us to respond.

8.              Be Relaxed, but not too Relaxed

Use notes.  It is a short talk and you need to stay on task especially if you are interrupted with questions. Besides, Spaulding Gray needed his notebook and he was a more interesting speaker than any of us will ever be.  But don't ever read anything especially a PowerPoint slide.

9.              Don't be a Suck-Up

Do not tell us that at dinner last night our colleague Bill offered wonderful insight that has really changed the way that you are looking at these questions.  Even if you are genuinely nice person who hopes to befriend our entire faculty, you sound like an obsequious sycophant.  Besides, Bill may be the biggest and most vacuous blowhard on our faculty (we all have at least one); so you are not sucking up, you are sucking down.

10.           Be Reasonable

Do not, under any circumstances, speak for more than 30 minutes.


Finally, remember it's not just what you say, it's how you say it.  Communicate your enthusiasm.  Use your voice (volume and pacing) for emphasis.  Use your space; don't trap yourself behind the podium.  Make eye contact with us and assess our interest.  If we start to look bored, change it up, throw us a question, or grab our attention by telling us the most interesting thing you can think of about your work.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on October 16, 2012 at 08:33 PM in Immigration, Teaching Law | Permalink


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Nothing about the process of getting a law teaching job is obvious. To say that it is indicates a total loss of perspective. Great candidates drop the ball because they have not received enough mentoring. I appreciate this and Prawfsblawg's other, related efforts at sharing more information about expectations and how the process really works.

Posted by: Awesome | Nov 1, 2012 4:21:28 PM

Meatmarketeer, my personal opinion is that "My thesis is X" is helpful (or at least make it very clear what point(s) your article is trying to make). The "my thesis is X" phrase wakes the audience up. If you leave it to your audience to find your thesis in your talk, you may be disappointed.

Posted by: Sophomore | Oct 22, 2012 7:51:42 AM

Have a look for the frequently asked questions, before attending the interview. Answer the questions confidently with a smile.

Posted by: Health tips | Oct 22, 2012 1:29:47 AM

When people suggest candidates clearly state a thesis, is it enough to hit the high points (identify a problem, explain theoretical framework, prescribe the best fix), or do you actually recommend an unsubtle "My thesis is X" so no one can miss it?

Posted by: meatmarketeer | Oct 21, 2012 12:26:30 PM

Anon @ 2:30pm. I agree, but I would estimate that only about 10% of job talks hit all 10 of these points. As such, I think it is probably worth posting.

Posted by: Sophomore | Oct 17, 2012 3:11:55 PM

This could fall under #2, but I would add: "Clearly state your thesis." It is amazing to me how few candidates do this. You don't want to have the faculty members wondering what the claim(s) of your article are.

Posted by: Sophomore | Oct 17, 2012 3:08:42 PM

Sometimes, stating the obvious is necessary and helpful.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Oct 17, 2012 2:54:40 PM

I agree that this posting doesn't really saw much that isn't immediately apparent.

Posted by: Anon | Oct 17, 2012 2:30:01 PM

hmm... I did use powerpoint for a job talk once and I think it helped me and the audience ... but then again, i was indeed showing a picture of an endangered songbird

Posted by: Jessica Owley | Oct 17, 2012 1:14:08 PM

Great insightful commenting AnonLawProf. I appreciate that this blog allows anonymous posting - particularly for those of us who are on the market. However, I feel that if a law professor has something to say, he or she should sign his/her name on it, particularly where he or she is not describing his/her own experience on the market, which may or not be too personal to share.

Thank you Joelle. These are useful tips. As someone giving a job talk in a couple of weeks, I appreciate the advice. Some might think them obvious but the job talk is quite different from other presentations and for people who haven't done one before or don't have the opportunity to do a practice one, these tips can be helpful.

Posted by: anon | Oct 17, 2012 1:07:36 PM

Glad to hear it from such a close friend, Orin. (See what I did there?)

Posted by: little orphan annie | Oct 17, 2012 11:07:56 AM

I agree with a lot of these, but I think 3 and 9 are debatable. One professor's being slick and a suck-up is another professor's being sophisticated and collegial. YMMV.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Oct 17, 2012 11:05:23 AM

Great job stating the obvious . . .

Posted by: AnonLawProf | Oct 17, 2012 12:05:10 AM

It varies among schools. While there may be some correlation to rank, other factors, such as geography, affect it. Going only on my own experience at FIU, we bring back that many to account for: 1) loss of people who don't do well on the callback and thus don't get offers and 2) losing people who do get offers to higher-ranked and/or geographically-or-otherwise more favorable schools. We have found our yield is low, so we need to bring more people through. On the other hand, I have friends at 2d-tier schools who bring back four people for one or two slots.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Oct 16, 2012 11:23:58 PM

Thanks for re-posting these tips-- those of us gearing up for job talks can use all the help we can get. I will say I'm not sure what constitutes "high-falutin' theory" versus, you know, plain-old appropriate theory, unless you think theory covered in the paper should be omitted and the job talk should focus more on doctrine.

I was extremely surprised to hear the 10-12 estimate! Any thoughts on how that number varies at e.g. a tier 1 vs. a tier 3 school?

Posted by: little orphan annie | Oct 16, 2012 11:13:19 PM

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