20,000 Leagues Under the (Academic) Sea — The Chalk Talk
Arguably, the part of the job interview where most of us mess up
This post is part of a series about the academic job search and application process. Find all posts here.
In a previous post I tried to give you an overview of how my application package looked like. It was definitely a lot of work but somehow enjoyable. I like writing, and I love to shape my ideas and philosophy on paper which I think helped to go through the whole process with relative graciousness.
Or maybe I didn’t dread it so much because the part that I was truly terrified of was the infamous “chalk talk”.
To be honest with you, I hadn’t heard of “chalk talk” until the point that I started thinking about the academic job market as a possibility. Someone casually mentioned it. I googled it, with not a lot of success, and asked professors which, if anything, made the whole mystery a little bit more cryptic.
Thankfully, at that point my institution and their newly established “Postdoctoral Affairs” office decided to throw a session where a professor came to explain what search committees expect in a chalk talk. Funny enough, they didn’t show us what a chalk talk looks like (spoiler alert: it is NOT a PowerPoint presentation) but gave us invaluable advice on which things to include and how. It turned out to be extremely accurate, and advice that I religiously applied to my own presentation. With that, and my own recent experience, I’m hoping to give you a better idea of what a chalk talk is, and what to expect. But remember that this is based on MY OWN experience, and there’s no wrong way of presenting as long as you’re clear, confident, and well-prepared.
But What is a Chalk Talk?
The chalk talk will generally take place in a meeting room, and will be attended by the search committee and a bunch of other faculty members. Sometimes it is open to other trainees, normally those who are about to enter the job market themselves in the next cycle. It feels more informal than a seminar (or job talk) but just because it is in a smaller room and a lot more interactive. However, it is arguably the most important part of the interview, and the moment where most of us mess it up.
Despite its name, it rarely involves a blackboard and chalk. It is usually a whiteboard and dry erase markers. Generally you’ll be allowed a few minutes before the start to prepare the board in case you want to (and you should) write something on. Occasionally they offered me the possibility of presenting one or two PowerPoint slides but I always declined. This is not common to every place, so you shouldn’t rely on having the resources in the room to present any kind of digital content.
This is how I planned out my board to look like at the beginning of my talk.
I always tried to stand on the side to leave the board visible. When attendees entered the room, only my aims, my title and my graphical abstract were on the board. The so-called “write-draw-erase” area was left for me to write and draw whatever corresponded to the aim that I was addressing, always keeping it clear and writing just the minimum necessary to follow my presentation. When I was done with that aim, I would erase and move on to the next.
Is this the right way of doing it? I don’t know. Some people opted to leave everything on the board as they were writing, but to me it felt overwhelming to end up with a board full of information. At the end of my presentation, the only information left was still my title, still my graphical abstract, and my aims with little summarizing notes. That was my style and how I felt more comfortable presenting my ideas, and I suggest you find your own style and what makes sense to YOU.
What’s to Consider
Don’t lose track of time. They will stop you at exactly 1 hour on the clock. There will be no mercy, so make sure you stay within the time limit. Have extra content prepared in the unlikely event that you finish your presentation before time and there are no more questions (this never happened to me). Be also prepared to cut down from here and there if you see you’re running out of time (a lot more likely to happen). If you don’t have a clock in sight, have your own nearby.
They generally give you one hour. Prepare to talk for 30 minutes. The rest of the time will be filled with questions and comments from faculty. I was told that I would probably be unable to finish a chalk talk, and though I completed all of mine in the exact time I had allotted, it was a struggle on several occasions. Hence my next point…
Be assertive but polite. Stay focused. Be ready to get interrupted after the first minute and to be challenged on every single point of your presentation. You’ll encounter that one person who enjoys asking a string of endless questions. My policy was to move on after two questions in a row from the same person. I would politely suggest them to continue the conversation later so I could move on and finish within the hour. You don’t want to come across as rude, but you also don’t want to go off your topic or to have a dialogue with just one faculty member in a room where everyone is evaluating you.
Write clearly on the board and keep it tidy. Some people are not very good a t writing things on the board, so try to write legibly. I would advise not to spend a lot of time turning your back on the room or stay quiet while writing/drawing elaborated pieces. I think having a good flow is important, and it shows you have your ideas very well organized. Find your style and do what you’re comfortable with.
Don’t take anything personal. Think of the chalk talk as an intellectual discussion. I personally enjoyed talking with so many different faculty around the country, discussing my ideas, their flaws, and their strengths. I think after all my interviews, my proposal came out stronger and better.
What to Bring to the Chalk Talk
Your own set of dry erase markers. I used only two colors. They will provide you with markers, but they rarely check prior if those markers actually work. If you bring your own you’ll be certain that your writing will be visible and that you won’t be struggling pressing the marker against the board to get out that last bit of ink. This way you also get to use the colors you want to draw and write with.
Water. · You’ll need it after an entire day of talking. Chalk talks were normally scheduled after lunch, and on the second day. You’ll throat will be dying at that point, believe me. I talk a lot, and interviews just drained me.
Your own clock. I don’t use a watch, and so I had my phone handy in case there was no clock in the room. I recommend against this because cell phones are distracting, in case you haven’t noticed. In hindsight, I should have brought a timer with me.
Comfortable clothes. I actually put quite a lot of thought on which clothes to wear. I was going to be standing in front of people, moving around the room, lifting my arms, etc… I didn’t want to wear anything that was not “my style” or made me feel awkward. I guess I don’t need to specify that you need some common sense and “dressing comfortable” doesn’t mean showing up to your interview with a Cannibal Corpse t-shirt… You’re still in a professional setting and interviewing for a position, and unfortunately and inevitably, everybody judges.
The most important thing of all: remember this is your project and your ideas, no one has put more thought into it than yourself. You are the best person to answer their questions. Find your style, keep calm, and carry on.