Preparing your academic chalk talk

chalk talkIf you are one of the lucky applicants to score an interview for a tenure-track academic position, you will want to do everything you can to ensure that your interview is successful. When applying for this position there is one component that is regarded as the most important, yet most underestimated part of the interview: the “chalk talk”. As a graduate student or postdoc, you rarely have the opportunity to sit in on a candidate chalk talk, and thus this crucial element of the interview is mysterious and difficult to prepare for. Frequently, postdocs are well-practiced when it comes to presenting their research to a large audience. However, outside of the grad school qualifying exam, they haven’t stood before a group of expert researchers and described their future research goals armed with nothing more than a marker and a whiteboard. The UC Berkeley Postdoc Lunch Club recently covered the chalk talk in a discussion led by Professor Michael Rape. I will summarize the meeting and outline general and specific tips for giving a successful chalk talk. The most important tip: practice! Ask your PI and other PIs from your department to sit in on your practice chalk talk. They have been through this before and they interview new candidates every year. Also, see if you can attend some of the chalk talks at your institution.

What are they looking for?

The chalk talk is an interview tradition that allows the interviewers to answer the following questions about you as a candidate:

1) Would you fit in as a colleague in their department?

The selection committee is hoping for someone who will speak their mind and contribute ideas. You want to come across as a nice person who is enthusiastic about your work. When you are speaking, try saying things like “this experiment yielded the exciting result that…” or “I think this is incredibly important because…” You want to demonstrate your passion for science and discovery. Do not be overly critical of past failed experiments. Frame any setbacks as opportunities to shift course or make an unexpected finding. This is not the time to be negative or have self-doubt. Remember that this is also a chance for you to judge if your interviewers will make good colleagues. Take notice of their behavior as a group and their approach to scientific questions.

2) Are you an independent thinker?

The selection committee will be looking to see if, through the course of your postdoctoral training, you matured into an independent thinker. During the second part of your chalk talk (described below) you will discuss your future research aspirations. Spend time reviewing the literature in any fields you propose to enter. Expect someone to ask you how your research will diverge from your PI’s work. You should prepare for this by having a conversation with your PI before you interview.

3) Will you be an effective communicator and teacher?

The very process of the chalk talk will tell them whether you are an effective communicator. Clarity is essential. Organize your thoughts (see below) and prepare as you would if you were giving an undergraduate lecture. Even if the institution does not have a teaching requirement, this is a valuable trait because you must train your lab members and share your research in the future.

4) Is there an opportunity to collaborate with you?

They will want to see that you know how to collaborate. When applicable, discuss how you have worked with others in the past to further your research. Credit those who actually performed the experiments that you are describing. The faculty will be looking to you to bring fresh ideas, a new approach, or novel techniques to advance their department. You should spend time prior to arriving studying each faculty member’s website. Jot down a few ways that your research could complement theirs and mention it when you get to the appropriate part of your talk. The same is true in reverse, they want to know that you are interested in THEM too! Mention how one of your research goals could benefit from the expertise of a particular faculty member. You should also elaborate on ways that the institution and department offers an ideal environment to carry out your research.

How to organize your talk:

Use the board. They may allow slides, but it is in your best interest to write out your thoughts! Don’t be afraid to throw out the PowerPoint entirely. This allows them to see HOW you think. It also enables you to slow down the time, truly engage the audience, and encourage thoughtful questions. Since you will be writing things down, obviously what you write needs to be legible. This is harder than it sounds, so pick up a marker and practice writing out your title and aims. If you intend to draw any pictures or diagrams, practice that in advance.

Start with a blank board. Begin by writing out your title. This should be one sentence that they will use in the future to associate with you and your work.

Write 1-2 bulleted list points to outline the major previous findings from your postdoc. Keep this general (i.e. no details, enzyme names, mutation sites, etc.). Don’t assume that everyone attended your research seminar.

Write out the titles of BOTH of your TWO aims. This is so the group doesn’t get too caught up in aim 1, leaving no time for the essential aim 2. Avoid squeezing in a third aim, which can distract from your other two aims. You especially want to avoid running out of time before getting your concluding “BIG picture” aim.

AIM 1: The title of your first grant (your R01).

This aim is based directly from previous findings. Ideally, you have already drafted your first grant. This is useful preparation for your interview. The sub-aims will stem directly from the aims of the grant. Tell them that THIS is the project that you will start your lab. It must be feasible and fundable. Describe in detail the project with which you will give to your first graduate student. This demonstrates your commitment to teaching and that you are prepared to hit the ground running. Summarize by telling them how the results from this aim will lead to novel, important, and exciting questions. This leads you straight into aim 2.

AIM 2: The BIG picture.

This aim may maintain the same general topic or tools, but be otherwise unrelated to aim 1. This is your opportunity to let your passion for research show. What problems do you intend to solve or gaps in knowledge do you intend to fill through your career as a researcher? It is okay to propose use of new techniques or a new model system as long as you know what you are talking about and demonstrate that you know how to tackle it.

In summary, the chalk talk tradition is a critical component of the academic interview that can be done well, and even enjoyed, when you sufficiently prepare. While you are being judged on many attributes, this informal setting affords you the opportunity to interact with and evaluate your potential future colleagues. Review the literature in your field, structure your aims, and practice. Good luck!

About the Author:

Ashley Rowland is a postdoctoral fellow in Michael Rape's lab at the University of California at Berkeley studying ubiquitin regulation. She is interested in understanding the regulatory mechanisms that control neural developmental programs and cell fate. She earned her PhD with Gia Voeltz at the University of Colorado at Boulder using live-cell microscopy to uncover coordinated functions between the ER and endosomes. In addition to her research she is passionate about improving STEM education and advocating for diversity and access. Email: Twitter: @AshAnnRowland