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

Taking on a fellowship interview panel from your home

Fellowship interview panesl

Despite a national lockdown, some funders are still going ahead with fellowship interviews remotely.    Anne Forde gives some tips for defending your proposal from home

Postdocs tell us it’s intimidating entering a fellowship panel interview in the hallowed halls of the Royal Society, the Wellcome Trust, the Research Councils and other funders.

Despite the lockdown and public health emergency we’re living through, some funders are still going ahead with fellowship interviews remotely. Last week we’ve been working with postdocs to help them prepare.

So what do you do if you have to defend your proposal from home?

Here are some tips we hope will help in our brave new online world. Some of the advice applies to face to face fellowship interviews too.

Make every minute count

Fellowships interviews are short. Most are done and dusted in 30 mins so make every minute count.

Find out what platform the funder is using and practise using it. Your ‘venue security’ is important too.

Everyone who gets to a fellowship interview has an excellent proposal.

What counts at the interview is getting the panel excited about your research questions. It’s impossible to be memorable if you don’t look or sound like you believe in the work. With stress levels understandably high, you may come across as dry or uninspiring.

Introverts fear not, you don’t need to fake an upbeat personality. Try to imagine how happy you’d be doing this work and making your discoveries… so look like you actually want to do the work.

Practise the tech

This will ease your nerves on the day.  Find out what platform the funder is using and practise using it.  Your ‘venue security’ is important too.

Try to do everything humanly possible to make sure you are not interrupted at home during the interview (mobile phones, deliveries etc).

Practise your talk with someone who’s in a different location, get them to record it on the platform and listen afterwards.

Sound check – don’t sound like you are talking to dolphins

Practise your talk with someone who’s in a different location, get them to record it on the platform and listen afterwards.

You may have sounded great in your room but your connection might not be doing you any favours.

I had a practice session last week with a postdoc going for a Royal Society University Research Fellowship. With a great project and an articulate and convincing candidate, what could go wrong?

The connection was poor on the postdoc’s side so about every 5th word dropped on my end and this detracted from an otherwise great delivery. Have pity on the panel members who say interviewing all day is exhausting. Video interviewing is even harder work for them. If you lose their understanding, however briefly, their energy and interest levels will drop.

Using a decent style headset and a microphone will go a long way. No one likes listening to a distorted voice which sounds more like you are underwater talking to dolphins.

Aesthetics and poise matter

In our world now turned upside down, this seems superficial and trivial but it matters. Stand up when you give your talk. This is a natural way to present and you will look and feel more confident.

Put a big arrow at the webcam so you remember to look at it, rather than always gazing at the sea of panel members’ faces.

You can look at the interviewers while they speak, but focus on the webcam when you reply. I’d recommend answering their questions standing too. It’s hard to get a good visual angle sitting down, and many people look like they are just about to go downhill on a rollercoaster, or unwittingly rock back and forth as they answer questions which can make the viewer feel unnerved or even seasick.

Don’t have a messy background.

The panel are distinguished but even intellectuals can be irritated by a view of an untidy bedroom or distracted by your intriguing book collection. If you would like to have notes, limit it to key words and consider using post-it notes near the camera. Otherwise, you could end of shuffling papers or reading notes during the interview, which will be obvious to the interviewers.

Put a big arrow at the webcam so you remember to look at it, rather than always gazing at the sea of panel members’ faces.

Keep your talk to time

Do not dare overrun on the intro talk.

The funder will give you an allowed time limit. It’s better to have less content and be under time. Panels are notoriously irritated by people who run over. Don’t incite their wrath or give them the opportunity to cut you off.

Get a grilling from academics and peers

90% of the questions will be project specific so ask people in your dept and those outside your specific field to give you a tough online practice.

It probably won’t be fun but you’ll be primed if the panel start to pick holes.

Book a practice with the Careers Service Postdoc team

We’ll push you on the broader questions of ‘so what’ and ‘why you’.  Activate your Handshake account and book an online session with us and we can practise on the platform you need to use. We also have a hoard of specific feedback and interview questions from most of the fellowship schemes. Email us and we’ll send these and you can browse the perennial fellowship questions online.

It’s over and you’ve survived

When it’s over, make sure your video and sound links are off before you do whatever you need to do to relax. When you’ve recovered, we’d love to hear how it went.

Good luck.

What we know as of 30 March: Royal Society is interviewing using Zoom. The MRC were proposing online interviewing but have changed to the interview candidates providing written feedback on referees’ comments.

Anne Forde, Postdoc Careers Adviser

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