Academic Recruitment: Chalk Talks

Academic Recruitment - Chalk Talks

You’ve been asked to give a chalk talk as part of the interview process for a long term academic role.  Your mind is probably buzzing with questions – how do I structure it? what should I include? how long should it be? and what is the point of including it anyway?

To help answer these questions, Prof. Jason Carroll, a speaker at a postdoc event, gave a talk addressing these common concerns.

Why a chalk talk?

Although the chalk-talk isn’t always required, it is an important part of the recruitment process in many institutions.  You need to prepare for it as fully as the research seminar and other parts of the interview.

The panel will be observing how you respond to getting your work pulled apart constructively.  When you are interrupted, do you get flustered?  Can you think on your feet?

It is a chalk talk, not a Powerpoint presentation

Don’t turn up with a slide deck – you will be using a whiteboard and marker pens or a blackboard and chalk. It might sound informal or an afterthought but it’s not. Jason said it’s tough, even for group leaders, referring to it as: ‘The dreaded chalk talk’. He was careful to stress, though, that no one does it perfectly. So, If you are feeling nervous, you are not alone.

Talk about your future plans…

Don’t dwell on your story to date, the panel want to know about your future project and how you will carry it out.  Outline your five year plan clearly and succinctly.

Ensure that you get your key messages up front

Knowing that you will be interrupted means that you need to stay at a high level.  Ignore the specifics, such as details of the experiments that you intend to run.

Jason suggests an opening such as ‘I am going to be looking at x in the context of y, and here are my three goals.’  He suggests that the three goals should be broken down into safe, medium and higher risk objectives.  These goals should not be interdependent – if one goal fails you should show that  plans will be flexible enough for your research to continue.

Don’t dwell on your story to date, the panel want to know about your future project and how you will carry it out.

Make sure that these aims are realistic within the timeframe. Also, ensure that the plan fits with the remit or goals of the institute/department.

Don’t come across as dogmatic.  As the project progresses and the scientific landscape changes you need to be able to show to the panel, through contingency planning, that you will be able to adapt to these inevitable changes.

Worried about forgetting information?  You can use a cheat sheet to remember key figures.  Just don’t copy it out onto the whiteboard.

Remember that you are going to be leading projects for multiple people

Make sure you can justify the composition of your lab.  Why do you need a clinical fellow, technicians or a lab comprised solely of postdocs?  How will this change during your research?

Think about the questions you might be asked and practice answering them

These may include:

What is you first project going to be?

Why you?

Why this institute?

Who are you going to work with from within the institute?

How will you measure success?

Where are you going to get grants from?

What differentiates you from your Postdoc supervisor?

Can you bring your research with you or will you be starting from scratch?

Be excited

Be enthusiastic about your work and what you can offer the institute.  Understand your audience.  Also think about what the institute can offer you.

You need to come across as a good fit.  In addition to good research, the panel want to select the best colleague – you will probably be spending a lot of time together.

Chalk talks are not just for interviews

In fact, the chalk talk in front of peers is often a regular and important exercise for group leaders at an institution even though, as Jason says, it doesn’t feel like it at the time!  You’ll get brilliant minds offering you input on your work,  So, it is a useful skill to have if you are planning an academic career.

For more info on academic careers

By Heather Smith

Handshake – a guide for postdocs

Postdocs, meet Handshake

As a postdoc, you might be wondering how to utilise Handshake Cambridge – the new digital platform recently launched to connect with the Careers Service.   
Whether you are thinking of pursuing academic research or looking for opportunities beyond the ivory tower (or both!), we wanted to make sure you were on track to making the most of this innovative careers development platform. 

In a hurry? You can book an appointment and complete your profile later… 

Do you have an interview looming? Or maybe you need urgent help with a fellowship submission?  Perhaps the deadline for a job application is fast approaching? 

Do you have an interview looming? Or maybe you need urgent help with a fellowship submission?  Perhaps the deadline for a job application is fast approaching? 

When you first activate your Handshake account, you will be prompted to fill in your profile, which may seem daunting, and in ways, irrelevant to academic careers. 

Don’t worry.   

You can skip this step by simply pressing the “EXIT” in the top righthand corner, and then access the Careers Centre from the top menu bar, where you can book appointments, workshops and events. You can always return to filling out your profile later by clicking on “My Profile” under your initials.  

Access postdoc careers workshops and events  

We continue to offer a great range of workshops and briefings specifically tailored to researchers for careers in academia and beyond. Booking now takes place for all these activities through Handshake  

Academic careers on Handshake  

Handshake might look like it’s only for career options outside academia but it’s not. It’s a gateway  to a rich range of academic career  resources  to give you the best chances to you present yourself. 

Handshake might look like it’s only for career options outside academia but it’s not. It’s a gateway  to a rich range of academic career  resources  to give you the best chances to you present yourself. 

Through Handshake, you can quickly access our CV and Cover letters guide for PhDs and postdocs to help you prepare for interviews in academia and beyond . We’ll continue to add curated resources for you. 

See what’s on offer outside academia and start connecting with employers 

Interested in exploring ideas for careers outside of academic research? 

Handshake Cambridge is an powerful tool to help you consider this.  

As more people and organisations join Handshake, the opportunities to connect directly with employers and fellow postdocs and find jobs increaseAnd, of course, the more complete your profile is, the better chance you have of making relevant and useful connections.  

Filling out your interests on your profile is also key to letting us, the Careers Service, know what areas you are interested in so that we can send your information about opportunities and information in the sectors you like (similar to the CamCareers emails in our old system.) 

Be mindful of uploading an academically focussed CV as Handshake will autofill your profile using this information.

Be mindful of uploading an academically focussed CV as Handshake will autofill your profile using this information.  Building a profile that highlights key elements of your research career and includes relevant activities and interests outside of your primary research focus is key to utilising Handshake to transition out of academic research.  

For a step-by-step guide and tips, check out our blog post on building a great profile for students.

Register for Handshake now

Don’t hesitate to contact us through postdocs@careers.cam.ac.uk – our team is always ready to help you on your career journey.  

Our Postdoc Careers Advisers are standing by to help you with your career.

Postdoc careers advisers

 

Pictured from top to bottom are Diane Cardwell (AHSS), Anne Forde and Sally Todd (Life Sciences), Susan Gatell and Sonali Shukla (Physical Sciences).    

Weighing up job offers – how to make the best choice for you

photo of balanced stones

Sally Todd, postdoc careers adviser, discusses the factors to take into account when considering job offers.

The other week I saw a postdoc who had the good fortune to have a number of job offers.  In case you ever find yourself in a similar position, I thought I’d share some of the criteria (not all of equal weight to her) she was using to help her decide which was the best next step for her.

Would she enjoy the job and be likely to succeed in it?

The postdoc I met was weighing up a lectureship, an in-house fellowship that would lead to a tenured position and a prestigious, fixed-term fellowship.  They were at different types of institution in different countries.  She was considering:

  • Would she be able to do the research she wanted?
  • Was there suitable infrastructure in place?
  • Could she access the data she wanted?
  • What sort of colleagues/collaborators would she have?
  • Would she be able to attract good staff/students?
  • How much teaching would suit her?

If you’re comparing jobs outside academia, consider which components of the job really attract you, and what circumstances and support you would need to do it well. For example, for a job in science communication, would you prefer more written or verbal communication?  How well you could communicate the science might depend on access to source material and deadlines.

When you are making a choice, it’s worth thinking about where you want to be further down the line.  What will you gain to help you secure the next job or promotion?

Would the job help her career in the longer term?

  • Would she be able to fill gaps on her CV/ acquire new skills/ make herself more employable?
  • What training would she be able to access?
  • Would she be able to raise her profile?

When you are making a choice, it’s worth thinking about where you want to be further down the line.  What will you gain to help you secure the next job or promotion?

Person standing on arrow on ground
Find out more about careers options for postdocs on our website

What were the terms and conditions of the job?

  • Would she (and partner/children accompanying her) like to live in that location?
  • How much job security was there at the end of the probationary period/fixed term contract?
  • What were the salary and other benefits?

T&Cs are not just fine print, they can have a profound impact on whether a job is right for you.

What else would be important to you?  Do add a comment!

 

Seven things I learned about applying for fellowships

At the Postdoc Careers Service, we’ve got lots of experience in helping postdocs applying for fellowships. At our event in December, Fellowships: what you need to know, it was great to hear our advice being backed up by the real experts – fellowship holders and academics who sit on review panels. But among the standard tips and tricks we expected to hear about, there were also some new nuggets I’d love to share with you.

Get new ideas by attending talks outside your discipline

You’ll probably have heard advice to ‘read around your subject’ and find the questions that interest you, but Prof George Malliaras gave some very specific and practical advice: at conferences, seek out talks, especially the general level ones, which are running outside the sessions for your own community. This is a great way to get perspectives from outside your discipline, and to look for that all important space in the field you can call your own.

Don’t assume good networking means rubbing shoulders with the great and good

We all know that conferences are an important way to expand our network, and seek future collaborations and job offers. But asking a question at the end of someone’s talk marks you out as a ‘scientist’ and not just a schmoozer.

Write an opinion piece to stake a claim to an area of research

BBSRC David Phillips Fellow Sebastian Eves-Van Den Akker suggests writing a short opinion piece as an easy way to demonstrate independent thought on a particular area of your field. Get this piece published, and you have peer-reviewed evidence of expertise in an area you can call your own.

A fellowship is a benefit to your host, not just to you.  Play this to your advantage.

Prof Florian Holfelder pointed out that as an independent fellow, you are not tied to your host PIs project milestones, so you may be able to try things out which are considered too risky for a grant-based project. This could be an attractive proposition to put to a potential host.

If a fellowship doesn’t offer research costs, make sure you choose a well-resourced host.

Your choice of host is important for many reasons. As URF-holder David Fairen-Jiminez said, you want a host that doesn’t just allow you to work there, but wants you to work there. Working with a new PI could be really exciting – being there at the start and setting up a lab could offer you new skills, and the PI has a lot of boring stuff to do so as the first postdoc you could have a lot of freedom. But if your research is expensive, a well-established lab might be safer.

Don’t let your proposal fail by confusing a fellowship project with your long-term research vision.

Your vision is broad – it’s what you want to do with your academic life. Don’t confuse this with your fellowship proposal, which is only one component of your vision, and has to be the right scale for the time of the fellowship. Where will you be at the end of the fellowship? Structure the project to deliver this.

Even professors do interview practice

Dry runs are tough but make a difference. Seasoned fellowship panellist and professor Steve Russell stressed that even senior academics have practice interviews too. Don’t be embarrassed about asking for help.

For more tips from our event, watch the video!

Liz Simmonds, Postdoc Careers Adviser

 

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