Your Academic Job Talk During the Pandemic

As we get closer to the academic job application deadlines, it is time to start thinking about your academic job talk. Preparing a job talk is stressful. Whether or not you get the position is largely due to your performance during the talk. And there are many hard decisions that you need to make that might make or break you talk. This year, there is an added stressor; academic job talks are likely going to be virtual like last year. Preparing your virtual academic talk is not the same as preparing an in-person job talk. I had the opportunity to experience some of the challenges of preparing and doing a virtual academic job talk last season, and in this blog post I will share some of the things that worked and some of the things I wish I had done.


1. Being present

Whether you think it is a good or a bad thing, the decision on hiring in an academic position is largely due to the candidate presence and the impression everyone gets. Being in this largely social profession, you probably have acquired many soft skills about making a good impression. But, these might not be applicable to an online setting, or worse, they might backfire. The best way to overcome this is to experience doing online talks and visits as well as get feedback from mentors and colleagues. Also, record yourself from your computer that you will use giving part of the talk to see what others will see. Can they see the slides, your camera, and hear your voice clearly? Unfortunately, we might not realize that we are using a bad-quality cam or microphone, which might have a significant impact (think of a low-quality microphone that adds noise, which can be really distracting during a talk.)

2. Home not alone

Well, you might not be the only one doing remote work during your interview. If you have a partner or children, it is most likely that they will have to be home for some or all the time while you are in an interview. This would create many opportunities for your small children to be part of the interview. You might stress about this — afraid that it will be deemed unprofessional –and try to avoid it at the cost of added anxiety to yourself and your family. Having been part of both ends of these situations, it is nothing to stress about – it is almost expected to eventually happen for a candidate doing multiple day-long interviews. Not stressing about it and handling it gracefully would actually make a good impression — and who does not like to see a cute child’s face in the middle of a work day! But, it is also good to prepare. If your child is old enough, talk to them about your interview and that if they must interrupt that they do so in a non-disruptive way (depending on their age, for example, I told my 6-year old to enter the room, sit on the bed in front of me and wait for me to talk to him.) For younger kids, they probably would jump right onto your lap. Introduce them briefly, prepare a personal joke/anecdote about this situation (“personal” because by now everyone have heard every generic one already ;-)). And, sometimes, it is better to ask to leave an interview/meeting for 5 minutes to resolve any interruptions rather than being distracted for the whole meeting. Another thing you might ask for is breaks during the day, for example, during an important remote class/exam your child is taking or an important meeting your partner is doing.

In general, think about all the possible interruption scenarios and have a protocol on how you would handle them — do not leave this to the day of the interview. And do not feel that you are stuck to the structure of the interview that the host department sends you. Tell them what you need.

Having said this, it seems that many workplaces have started establishing protocols for faculty/students who need a personal space for teaching or other activities. It does not hurt to ask if you can work from campus during your interviews – or at least during the talk, if you feel that it is best for you.

3. A Talk to an invisible audience: Push through the doubts

One of the unexpected challenges that I have faced during my online job talk is that I cannot see the faces of the audience! We rely on the facial expressions of the audience to know whether what we have said was clear, whether it is trivial, which guide us on expanding, repeating, or skipping parts. Giving the talk to a bunch of avatars was definitely an isolating experience and might exert doubts and anxiety about the reception of your talk. What’s the solution? First, find ways to engage the audience. In parts where there is a transition or insight, ask a relevant question to the transition or insight. Prepare such questions in multiple places in your talk, and ask it if you feel that you did not hear from the audience for some time. Hearing the audience’s feedback and answers would be reassuring about how the talk is received. Second, and most importantly, try to ignore these doubts and push through the talk with your best and most enthusiastic self. Having doubts might reduce your performance and confidence.

4. The technical difficulties

Ah! Technical difficulties. These are the worse. You cannot control them and they seem to happen at exactly the worst time. You should also have a plan and protocol that you would follow if some technical difficulty happens, from small ones to disruptive ones. For example, what will you say if someone’s connection is dropping and you cannot hear all what they say; how many times are you willing to retry connecting to a meeting if it keeps dropping, before you give up and send an apologetic email. Something that is frequent in online meetings is delays. You should be aware if a delay is happening and to realize that you might be speaking over your interviewer unintentionally. Acknowledging the situation would help relieve the situation.

5. Take advantage of the virtual setting

Many of the points above are about challenges and difficulties of doing remote interviews. But, there are advantages, too. Beside the obvious ones, such as not having to travel, deal with jetlag, and being in a comfortable space, there are things that you can do that wouldn’t be possible otherwise. One that I really like is that no one knows what is on your screen and desk. You can have notes, pointers, and other helpful material. For example, one thing I did is that I wrote a transcript of the first couple of slides, which is a part that I always struggle with when delivering talks. Similarly, when meeting interviewers, you can swiftly share your screen to show off any cool demos related to what you are discussing. Prepare to take advantage of this in a way relevant to your talk and work.

I wish you all the best of luck and I hope my experience helps! For anyone interested, I also include the presentation slides that I used in my interview:

You might be also interested in my previous post about writing research and teaching statements:

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