Two outstanding science bloggers, Geeka and Katie, have just returned from job interviews, Geeka for a post-doc and Katie for a faculty position. They have posted their fascinating and valuable impressions of their experiences at their blogs.
They have also each thanked PhysioProf for earlier advice that they considered valuable in their interviewing, and I am understandably pleased to have been helpful to them. Below the fold I highlight some of what they say, and amplify on a few things, but I urge readers to visit their blogs for their full stories.
Geeka just had a job interview for an academic post-doc position in the biosciences. In her last pre-interview blog post, she expressed concern that at the last minute she found out that her job talk was scheduled for "60 minutes", and that she would need to expand from the 20 minute talk she had prepared to a 45-50 minute talk.
In a comment, I suggested that she prepare a 35 minute talk:
If you prepare to give a 35 minute talk, you start at five minutes after the hour, there are a few questions during the talk and a few more afterwards, the whole thing will be done by five minutes before the hour, and people will be grateful and think very highly of you for finishing in a timely fashion.
If you prepare to give a 45-50 minute talk, you are pretty much guaranteeing that you will not finish until five minutes after the hour at the earliest, and potentially even later, and some people might be annoyed and think poorly of you (even though it might be irrational for them to do so).
Bottom line: It is *much* better to err on the side of too short than two long.
Then Geeka commented back:
I get 'set up time' scheduled, so I was sort of assuming that I would actually get to start on time, although that doesn't account for stragglers. But these are *very* good points. I may shoot for a 40 minute talk.
After which I assured her:
If your seminar is called for 4PM, it is highly likely that the organizer won't begin until 4:05PM to allow stragglers to enter the room, and don't forget someone is first going to introduce you. Trust me: prepare a 35 minute talk.
After returning from the interview, she posted her impressions, which included the following:
A wonderful shout out to PhysioProf because I made my presentation 34 slides, and that ended up taking 50 or so minutes. He was right.
Well, it certainly is gratifying to be "right", but it is even more gratifying to hear that Geeka's job talk and interview went very well. Go to her place for more details. And remember, no matter the context, for a "60 minute" seminar slot, you should prepare a 35 minute talk. There is absolutely no upside to preparing a longer one.
Katie also just had a job interview, this one for a faculty position. She had lots of wonderful things to say about her experience that should be of great value to job seekers in the biomedical sciences. Here is a particular point I would like to address:
I think it can be challenging to assess your audience a priori and put together something with the right balance of explanation and respect for their current knowledge.
It can be challenging, but this is exactly the right thing to be thinking about. You need people to understand what you are talking about, and you need people to feel smart as they listen to your talk. If you make them feel stupid, they will hate you. Thus, it is *always* better to err on the side of too much background information. It is much worse to have someone feeling stupid because they don't understand what the fuck you are talking about than it to have someone feeling like you are telling them things they already know.
It's been my trend to say something like, "I wanted to give some insight into the formation of my hypothesis and give you some sense of why I think the work is valuable."
The impulse to provide this kind of conceptual outline for the talk is absolutely correct. However, as I pointed out in the comments to Katie's post, this can be framed more effectively for purposes of a seminar:
Using this kind of language can come across as a lack of confidence in the validity and importance of your work. While it can take practice, especially for women who are socialized to be more self-effacing than men, it is better to use language like this:
"I am going to describe to you the evidence for the hypothesis that..."
The point isn't to focus on your personal journey--which can connote contingency or particularity--but rather on "the" evidence for "the" hypothesis. The evidence and the hypothesis have their own reality that is independent of you personally. Rather than telling a personal story, you are unveiling an eternal truth about the universe.
"This work is valuable and important because..."
Again, this shifts the focus from you and your human contingency to the eternal essence of the work.
The key assumption of science is that it is grounded in generalities about the natural world that are independent of the personal particularities of any individual scientist. Using language like I have suggested taps into this deep-seated assumption, and piggy-backs on its authority.
Also, the statement "the point isn't to focus on your personal journey" is only applicable to the context of a seminar presentation. In more informal contexts, both at interviews and in general, a compelling story of your personal journey in science can be *very* effective at generating support and interest.
This is something that can pay off handsomely if you spend some time and effort on crafting an appealing way of conveying the story of your journey. And women on average do better at this than men.
Katie also graciously thanked PhysioProf for some pre-interview advice about dealing with questions and one-on-one meetings with people:
Oh, the questions. This is actually the tough part for me. PhysioProf is right - interest in people's research and interests makes them happy. (And I know I mention him a lot lately - my mom would ask if I had a crush on him - but it's because I can't comment on his blog. It's all intense and scary and I don't like to risk offending people! He does not seem to share that problem, which kind of fascinates me even as I'm befuddled. Anyway.) So I made a conscious effort to remember to ask people to tell me a bit about what they do. Then I asked for clarification, complimented them when I thought something was cool, asked where they wanted to go in the future, etc.
There is nothing that makes someone like you better than if you show interest in them. This is a very basic fact of human nature that must be exploited in the interview process. Of course, it helps a lot if you genuinely are interested in other people and their research.
One final point: Katie is truly an amazing writer, with a wonderfully evocative attention to detail, as exemplified in this excerpt from another post at her blog:
I took a shower - one with excellent water pressure and my very own soap and shampoo and conditioner and face wash - and felt completely clean for the first time in a week. I had my pick of pajamas and moisturizers. It was delightful.
That sure does sound delightful, doesn't it?