“Get a job, Ken!” Part 7: Research/Proposal Talks and Meeting with the Chair

The research talk and proposal talk are arguably the most important parts of the on-site interview. This post, part seven in the “Get a job, Ken! series” delves into both, as well as the final meeting with the department chair.

My first piece of advice for those preparing for an on-site interview is to purchase and practice with a slide-advancing remote (a.k.a. a laser pointer or ‘clicker’). I find it tragic when a great scientist appears incompetent because they don’t know how to use a borrowed clicker. It’s worthwhile owning a clicker that you know like the back of your hand. In fact, for young graduate students, I recommend investing in a clicker and practicing with it as soon as possible. I am partial to the Logitech Wireless Presenter (The author declares no competing financial interests).

The Research Talk

Standard seminar talks have one primary goal, to share science. Research talks during an interview have two additional goals. The first is to briefly introduce your area of research and lay a foundation for the concepts and techniques relevant to your proposal talk. This groundwork will allow for extra time during the proposal talk (vida infra) to discuss your ideas. Of course, it’s important to seek a balance since not everyone who attends your proposal talk will be at the research talk, and vice versa.

The second goal of the research talk is to demonstrate your teaching skills. The presentation will be open to all faculty and students—basically any involved in the hiring decision—and they’ll be asking themselves: How engaging and eloquent is this applicant? How well does he or she explain new concepts? What kind of teaching methods do they use (analogies, examples, images, etc.)? How good is she or he at answering questions?

I have seen way too many talks that care more about demonstrating “I’m smart!” than actually communicating ideas. In these “I am so smart” presentations only two or three audience members have the expertise necessary to follow along past the first few slides. Please be assured that the audience already knows you’re smart, competent, and can publish complex ideas in top-tier, peer reviewed journals. They want to know if you’re also able to share your ideas with non-experts (i.e. students).

The research talk will generally be scheduled for one hour, which will include a short introduction and a ten minute question and answer session at the end. I made sure to avoid 1) going over the allotted time because it can imply time management issues or 2) finishing the presentation in under 30 minutes, which might  suggest a lack of content/results. I did my best to aim for a 40-50 minute presentation. Most audience members will not mind if they get to leave a little early.

Also, presenters usually have about 15 minutes to prepare before the talk. But be forewarned that when earlier meetings run long, you’ll have to jump into the presentation without any prep time.

Proposal Talk

The job interview proposal talk is a lot like a graduate student proposal talk (also sometimes known as a qualifying exam) but with a slightly different focus. The primary focus of a qualifying exam is to defend your ideas.  In addition to defending your ideas during the job proposal talk, you’re expected to provide tangible ways of pursuing the ideas and mentoring young researchers along the way. Similar to the written proposal, the general outline for most proposal talks is 1) introduce a problem that needs to be solved, 2) mention how others are trying to solve it, 3) introduce how you are trying to solve it, and 4) discuss why your method is better and 5) mention the possible implications of your work.

I started my proposal talk with an outline slide. While everyone was getting situated they were able to view the slide and familiarize themselves with my flavor of research. Below is an outline slide example:

Not all audience members will have read your proposals or attended the previous research talk, so you’ll also want to briefly introduce a few important concepts while explaining your research plans. In all likelihood, you’ll be the foremost expert on your proposed research area since they wouldn’t have brought you in for an interview if they had someone already in that niche. You’ll also be asked a number of questions. In addition to the questions from the phone interview (previous post), here are several questions that colleagues and I were asked during the proposal talk:

  • What type of group structure do you envision for your research program?
  • In terms of personnel, what would your lab look like?  How many graduate students/post-docs/undergrads in 5 years? In the long-term?
  • How do you plan to integrate students into your research projects?
  • What will be your approach to mentoring and supervising student progress?
  • Which proposal do you like most?
  • Which proposal is likely to give results the fastest (I.e. which is safe and which is high-risk/high reward)?
  • Which proposals/projects could new students work on right away?
  • Let’s say that next summer you’ll have 2 graduate students and 1 post-doc, what projects would you start them on?
  • What do your proposals have in common? Or what is your proposals central overriding theme (synthesis, electrochemistry, mechanism, etc.)? How do you define yourself as a chemist?
  • Does your proposed research projects depart from your mentors’ work and if so, how?
  • Are you aware of any competitors in the areas of your proposed research? How do you feel about competing with them?
  • Given the courses that are in the U of X handbook, which courses would you prefer to teach?
  • What preliminary results do you need to get in order to go after major grants or a career award?
  • What happens if a fundamental aspect of your proposals fails? Could you still salvage a paper and what would the community learn from that “failure”?

All of my proposal talks were either during or immediately following lunch on the third day. The length of the talk varied between 60-90 minutes, but the number of slides I actually made it through varied depending on the number of questions posed by the audience. In one of my interviews the audience only asked scientific questions so I got through everything in under an hour. In another interview the audience asked at least 30 minutes worth of logistical questions about teaching classes and running a research group so I didn’t finish the presentation in the allotted 90 minutes. Since the presentation portion is so unpredictable the best you can do is put together a presentation where you hope for the best, but are prepared for the worst.

Final tip: Be genuinely enthusiastic about your proposals. If you are not excited then it will be difficult for your audience to be excited too.

Meeting with the Chair

The last formal meeting of the interview will most likely be with the chair of the chemistry department. While sometimes casual, the 30-60 minute meeting was much more business-focused (i.e. startup funds and lab space). This meeting might have been my favorite part of the interview because it included a tour of my potential lab and office space. The tour was my  first real glimpse into what it might be like to run a lab in that particular department. I would walk through the rooms envisioning students working on my research and thinking about where I would put the UV-Vis, potentiostat, fluorometer, etc.

This meeting isn’t time to negotiate space, but going into the meeting it’s helpful to have an idea of what kind of space you’ll need during the first 5 years. Ask yourself: Is your research going to be focused on synthesis or characterization? If so, how many fume hoods? How much bench space? Do you need room for laser tables? Do you need/want proximity to departmental equipment or researchers doing related work? Most of the chairs I met with already had a rough idea of what space I would need based on my background and proposal, but they still ask for my rough estimate. I recommend touring your current advisors space and taking an inventory of how many hoods and square footage they have per person as a starting point.

You’ll also likely be asked—either in this meeting or even before arriving—for a rough budget estimate. For the most part, this budget will include the major pieces of equipment needed to conduct your research and their estimated cost. Although unusual, I sent my budget proposal to the department chair a week before I arrived on campus for the interview. I wanted to show I was serious, had done my homework, and that I was prepared to run a research group. My biggest concern was that the budget I proposed was off the wall, but I followed the suggestion of others. A reasonable budget proposal will depend on your flavor of research (spectroscopists are more expensive than synthetic chemists are more expensive than theoreticians). Also, top 50 schools budget proposals (including personnel) are usually somewhere between $500,000 and $1,000,000 while top 50-100 research institutions are usually somewhere between $300,000 and $750,000.

During this final meeting I also was given an update on the faculty-hiring timeline. I’d find out when the last candidate would be interviewed, when the committee planned to meet for a decision, and when I’d likely hear the department’s decision. In practice, the actual timeline more often than not ended up being about 2-4 weeks longer than the estimate.

One Comment

  1. Nabila Adilah says:

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