The Job Talk

Most departments will ask you to give what is commonly called a “job talk” during your campus visit. What is a job talk? It is a presentation you give about your research. Since talks are so specific to your area, it may be most helpful to run through a few facts and suggestions:

  • Don’t be shy about getting as many specifics about the talk as possible. Different English subdisciplines, and different departments, may want slightly different things. For certain disciplines, our department likes candidates to speak to how their work is “English Studies.” In other disciplines in our department (like literature), we don’t advise candidates to take time to do this. Ask how long, what kind of audience they expect you’ll have, and if there’s anything specific they would like you to address.
  • Make sure the talk is appropriate for the position. If you are interviewing for a position in English Education, don’t present on a seminar paper you once wrote about Oliver Twist, even if it was awesome. Unless that paper was really work in English Ed and Oliver Twist was just a cool framework.
  • The job talk is NOT a conference presentation. You are not just reading a paper on some very specific topic decontextualized from your larger research agenda. Rather, think of your job talk as a teaching opportunity — you will be teaching your research, where you fit in your field, and the past and future arc of your research to an audience of mostly nonspecialists. Do not stand there and read. Interact with the audience, move around, have visuals or handouts, get them all engaged as you would your students (but no pop quizzes! :).
  • Don’t just present a chapter of your dissertation. In fact, it’s very cool to present work that you didn’t send in your writing sample or that goes beyond your dissertation. If you do depend upon your dissertation, try to bring in parts of many chapters to show your whole argument, then use specific examples to ground it and keep everyone interested. 
  • If you present on a topic beyond your dissertation, do mention your dissertation and how your brain got from your diss topic to this new project. How is it all connected?
  • Tell a story. Feel free to be much more casual in your job talk than in a conference presentation and tell your audience how you got interested in this research, what your a-ha and not so a-ha moments have been, where this is going next. The best job talks move fluidly between close analysis — look how deep and cool this all is — and the big picture — look how far we can take this, how this could help your field, how much I have to write these next 10 years!
  • Practice, practice, practice. Cheryl and I would be more than happy to set up a mock job talk for you and get an audience together for your to rehearse in front of. Go over this thing many times for many people.
  • Different schools may need different job talks. Don’t just put one together and expect it will fly everywhere. You can (and should) be more theoretical at some schools than others, more discipline-specific at some than others, more aware of the curriculum at some than others. Talks generally run about 40 minutes presentation time, 20 minutes for Q & A (departments schedule the research talks for an hour on your itinerary. If you get 40 minutes to present, do NOT go over. In fact, try to stay under. Because . . .
  • The Q & A period is the most important part of the job talk. Sure, your talk may have been brilliant (yay!), but can you answer questions respectfully, thoughtfully, enthusiastically? The faculty will be trying to figure out how you fit there, whether you have thought about your research from different perspectives, whether you have an awareness of the broader implications of your work.
  • What can be most helpful in a mock job talk is practicing answering questions about your presentation. We can’t predict what kinds of questions you’ll get, but most likely you’ll have a couple faculty wanting you to connect what you’re doing to what they’re doing (though they don’t ask it like that), someone perhaps asking you to explain how you would teach it to undergrads, someone questioning the theoretical framework or lack thereof, etc. Treat all questions with great respect. If you don’t understand a question, ask politely if the speaker will repeat it or explain more what they mean. If you can’t think of an answer, you can be honest and then try to get back to it later. Tying together different questions is a great strategy, in fact.
  • Above all else, stay good humored. Have fun! This is one of the only hours in your life when YOUR research and your research alone is the center of attention.