How to: give a chalk talk




Recruitment season is in full swing, and graduate students and post-docs are beginning to visit departments vying for academic jobs. The first step to secure one of these jobs, especially in molecular biology and biochemistry departments, is to give a seminar based on your work. Generally, this is easy, as the candidate has likely given this talk several times. And they've practiced. Nothing too new here (although like every step of the process, you need to nail this talk). However the next step -- the chalk talk -- is much more unknown, and strikes fear into the hearts of candidates everywhere [insert dramatic music here]. What is the chalk talk? What are you supposed to talk about? What's the point? And, most importantly, how do I nail it?

Before you start planning the talk, understanding the point of it will help you be successful. Why is the department having you give this type of presentation? Primarily they will want to see two things: 1.) what research will you do after you've left your current lab? Will you continue down the same track? Take a new direction? 2.) how much have you thought about these experiments, and how do you think on your feet? Think of this as a grant review, and the faculty of the Department are your reviewers. They will want to know the same things that you'll write about in your first grant: aims, expected outcomes, alternative approaches.

First of all, use chalk. Or dry erase. Sure, the department might have told you that it's "OK to use powerpoint". Don't. It's not OK. Powerpoint is a crutch. And one of the purposes of the chalk talk is to see how the candidate thinks on his/her feet. Your talk will not go how you planned, and when you give it to 5 different departments, you'll give 5 different talks. Forcing your talk into Powerpoint will be unnatural. Embrace the flexibility, and use the board. Also realize that the department will have nostalgia for the chalk talk, remembering back to their own chalk talk; using powerpoint will kill this and the last thing you want is a disappointed or grumpy audience.

OK, now into the mechanics of the talk. What should it include? Well, you'll get a lot of different pieces of advice here, from different people. Mine is included here. I won't, however, tell you the exact outline you should use, but instead think about these points to include, and it'll be up to you on how to frame your chalk talk.

Put your talk into context. So coincidentally I've listed this first, and would recommend you do this first. Several of the committee members will not have attended your seminar, so it'll be important to put your work into context. I like starting with a working model, drawn out as you explain it, with a summary of what you've done. This will likely set-up your aims.

What's your research theme? At a lot of recent chalk talks I've seen (my Department is recruiting this year), the candidate has given a nice presentation of his/her work, and then they expand to the next immediate experiments and questions, but fall short when discussing the bigger picture. I'm a big fan of the big picture, because it's important to see if the candidate has thought far enough ahead to go beyond the next experiment. Experiments often fail. But the big picture will remain. For example, say you have a great mouse model that you'll bring with you, and you've got a lot of experiments planned. Great, but what does that mean beyond the aims/experiments that you have planned. What new biological insights will you gain from your mouse. Remember, it's just a model.

What are some of the ways that you'll go after this theme? The Department will want to see some of the specific techniques you propose to use. If you've just spent years at the bench, you should be pretty comfortable in this space. Often times, people will present their experimental outline in the form of "aims" of a grant. This is a new strategy, and can work well for some people. This format can also show fundability. This is an important time for you to see how the Department responds to your ideas. Clearly you can address a problem in several different ways, and the Department will have their own way of thinking about your problem. This is a good thing: you can often get better ideas, avoid pitfalls, and come out the other side with a more clear idea of your project. Also, this will help you better realize how your [potential] new colleagues think, how they approach problems, and how useful they'll be to your science. A lackluster Department during your chalk talk will likely be lackluster colleagues.

Which faculty member's research in the Department are you most excited about? i.e. Who do you look forward to collaborating with? What technologies in the Department will help your research? Being able to answer this question (or even better to describe this in your talk) does two things: 1. shows that you've done your homework on the department; 2. more importantly, get's people excited about your work. If a candidate came to me and said, "I'm a neuroscience expert and have a disease model that shows hyperacetylation in the brain; while acetylation isn't the main focus of my work, I'm excited about Dr. Hirschey's work on acetylation and would be eager to collaborate with him using his tools, and pursuing the role of acetylation in the brain in regulating this disease state." When I was interviewing for a faculty position, one of the places told me that it came down to me and one other woman; they offered her the job. Later, I found out the reason was because the overlap between her work and the Department's work, and the ability to collaborate, write joint-grants, and synergize their research efforts. This wasn't a problem with my work, but I probably could have thought more about how my research would have integrated my work into the Department's. So, it seems obvious that a candidate should sell his/her fit in the Department, but go one extra step and think hard about how to do this. When the final candidates are chosen to interview, and then give their chalk talk, each candidate will have an impressive resume, and will have given a great seminar; candidate "fit" will often determine the final candidate who gets the offer.

End with your theme/overview/trajectory. The Department will likely be inviting anywhere from four to 12 people to interview and give a chalk talk. Therefore the department won't likely remember the specifics of your experimental approaches. But, they will remember the great candidate who came in, had an interesting research theme [insert research theme here], wants to collaborate (and described how); and nailed the chalk talk.

Be confident (you know your material well), relax (you've practiced it a thousand times), smile, and go give a great talk.


This is a post in a "How to:" series specifically aimed at scientists-in-training, including undergraduates, graduate students, and post-doctoral fellows. I'd like to acknowledge Frederic Terral of RightBrainTerrain for designing the blog entry artwork and creating awesome art in the public domain.



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