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Lessons Learned (The Hard Way) About How To Frame A Job Talk

Why an academic job talk should be the opposite of a colloquium

I applied for a lot of assistant professor jobs in 2007-2008. I did some interviews, but in the end I got skunked. I did things differently the following year and was lucky to get a job (that I love) at Williams College. Here is one lesson I learned.

If you have a choice between emphasizing practical implications versus emphasizing theory, emphasize theory

Here’s my story: The first year I applied I thought, hey, people always seem to find educational implications of my work interesting. I don’t want to bore my audience, and I know the non-experts in the room will like the talk better if I stay away from theory a little bit. So I emphasized what my research meant for teachers and students instead of talking about possible theoretical explanations.

Big mistake. First of all, your audience in a job talk is not non-experts. It’s the faculty, and especially the ones who know your field best. Their voices are going to have the most weight in the subsequent hiring decision. (And this is why pretending your research doesn’t have limitations is a huge mistake—never lead with the limitations, but don’t hide them either.)

But here’s the more important, and general, issue. Hiring involves very, very long-term decisions. And we all know that what we want in the short term isn’t what our “future selves” want.

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We want chocolate cake. But our future selves want us to chose broccoli. The same has been demonstrated with movie choices. If you ask me what movie I want to watch tonight, I’ll tend to choose a blockbuster that’s just fun. But if you ask what I want to watch next month, I’ll tend to choose more erudite films—the kind I think I should want to watch. So instead of J.J. Abrams’s Star Trek I’ll choose Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet (or something).

When you do a job talk, be broccoli. Be Hamlet. Be that movie your audience thinks is good for them even if it’s not as flashy or a blockbuster. That’s what the audience—in their “what does my future self want” mode—wants. Being “sexy” can backfire big time.

For example: For this blog post I chose to talk about research on movie choices. If this were a job talk I’d consider using a more classic example of preferences shifting over time, such as asking group 1 if they want $100 now or $110 tomorrow and asking group 2 if they want $100 in 30 days or $110 in 31 days.

But don’t go too far! Kenneth Branagh tried to make Hamlet interesting. You can put some salt on the broccoli. In fact, the ideal job talk includes research that people think is good for them but they also find super interesting. The perfect talk makes them think they’re getting something super healthy that also tastes good.

That’s the ideal for a colloquium too, but it’s hard to achieve. The difference is, for a colloquium you can err on the side of Star Trek. For a job talk err on the side of Hamlet.

Stephen Hawking famously put a lot of formulas in the first draft of his bestseller A Brief History of Time. Then his editor told him every formula would decrease sales. So he took out all but one, E=MC2. But here’s the thing: that was for a popular book. It wouldn’t have gotten him hired.

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Nate Kornell, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Williams College.

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