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Demystifying the Academic Chalk Talk


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Chalk Talk Live Chat

Of all the parts of the faculty job hiring process, the academic chalk talk can be the most mysterious. In this live chat, faculty members will discuss their experiences on both sides of the hiring committee, and will answer your questions about preparing, giving, and evaluating academic chalk talks.

Whether you’re a postdoc or graduate student preparing to go on the job market or a faculty member sitting on a hiring committee, this live chat is relevant for you.

Participants are encouraged to submit questions in advance of the live chat in the discussion thread below. You may direct questions to specific facilitators by tagging their usernames: @arianna_maffei @constanza.cortes @farran_briggs @xiong

Related resources:
Video and Q&A: Your Chalk Talk Questions Answered
Webinar On-demand: Demystifying the Academic Chalk Talk


Facilitators

image Arianna Maffei, PhD
Arianna Maffei is an associate professor in the department of neurobiology and behavior at State University of New York (SUNY) - Stony Brook, where her research focuses on understanding how experience and learning modulate neural circuit connectivity and function. Maffei earned her PhD in physiology and biophysics from the University of Pavia in Italy and completed her postdoctoral training at Brandeis University.

image Constanza J. Cortes, PhD
Constanza Cortes is an assistant professor in the department of neurology at the Duke University School of Medicine, where her research focuses on the relationship between autophagy and cellular clearance in skeletal muscle and proteostasis in the nervous system during aging. Cortes earned her PhD in neuroscience from the University of Chicago and completed her postdoctoral training and was a project scientist at the University of California, San Diego.

image Farran Briggs, PhD
Farran Briggs is an associate professor in the department of neuroscience and the Ernest J. Del Monte Institute for Neuroscience at the University of Rochester School of Medicine. Her research focuses on understanding how visual information is encoded by early visual circuits and how cognitive factors, such as attention, alter the way visual information is encoded in these circuits. She earned her PhD in biology from the University of California, San Diego and completed her postdoctoral training at the University of California, Davis.

image Qiaojie Xiong, PhD
Qiaojie Xiong is an assistant professor at Stony Brook University in the department of neurobiology and behavior. She received her undergraduate degree in biological science from the University of Science and Technology of China and her PhD in physiology from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Following that, she completed a postdoctoral fellowship in Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. Her lab is focused on understanding how thalamostriatal and corticostriatal pathways are involved in auditory decision making.

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  • 2 months later...

I listened to the first demystifying chalk talk I really was very surprised that this is also a means for the faculty hiring committee to evaluate one’s ability to teach. Some people are just not born with the ability to write on chalk boards and their real talents are within powerpoint presentations I am certainly one of these persons. Are you trying to replace powerpoint presentations with chalk board presentations and if so what justifies teaching students on a chalk board over an excellent powerpoint presentation which also includes the use of the fabulous internet resources. Even presenting my research ideas I would have lots of difficulties presenting my scientific ideas on a chalkboard.
Thank you Jaadeja

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constanza.cortes

Welcome everyone to our LiveChat for Demystifying the Academic Chalk Talk! We are looking forward to your questions today

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arianna_maffei

Good afternoon everyone!
Thank you for joining the LiveChat. During the webinar I addressed primarily what a search committee looks for in a candidate. I will be happy to entertain your questions on that topic as well as other issues related to the chalk talk.
Arianna

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arianna_maffei

Hi Jaadeja,
in regard to your question, using a board for presenting your future work can be quite useful as it slows down the pace of your presentation and allows the audience to pay attention to the scientific questions more closely. One way to facilitate this process is to write down the goals of your research before starting the chalk talk and think of a few diagrams or visual representation that may help you bring the conversation where you would like to take it.
In most cases you will be using a white board or a large paper pad (I used a real chalk board only once).

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farran_briggs1

In response to Jaadeja’s question, I can add a bit too.

Obviously teaching can be evaluated separately from giving a scientific seminar and some institutions will ask candidates to give a guest lecture to students as a test of his/her teaching. While you will be evaluated on your ability to explain complicated ideas (i.e. teaching ability) during your chalk talk, you should still think of it as a means to showcase your scientific ideas.

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farran_briggs1

To Aabdullah,

I think the easiest answer to your question is that faculty want a good picture of your FUTURE plans during your chalk talk. Your seminar should really highlight the work you’ve already accomplished, i.e. showcasing your skillset, analysis techniques, ways you think about science, etc.

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qiaojie.xiong

Dear aabdullah,
In brief a seminar talk is to show what you have done (how outstanding you are), and a chalk talk is to show what you plan to do (how outstanding you will be).
A good seminar talk is a result from your training environment, experiences, and of course your excellent work. In a chalk talk, you need to show your vision in your field, you plan(s) for your future lab/projects – from big pictures to the detail/practical thinking.

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constanza.cortes

Common questions that you may get during your chalk are ‘where do you see this research going in 3, 5 and 10 years?’, or ‘where would you get funding for this kind of research?’ or ‘how would you allocate these aims between grad students, postdocs and/or technicians?’. These are all questions that hopefully you have asked yourself as you prepare to begin your independent research career. Asking your mentors, advisers and colleagues is always a great place to start answering them.

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arianna_maffei

Hi aabdullah,
the main seminar should mostly be about work you have done and published with some preview of your future plans. The committee would be looking at your ability to present what you have done in the past and how your studies tie together.
The chalk talk is a platform for you to show your vision for the research program you are planning to pursue. It may be based on preliminary observations or on some interesting findings from your postdoctoral work. The committee is looking to see how you think and how ready you are to be an independent investigator.

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farran_briggs1

If you get a question you can’t answer on your feet, it’s okay to say “wow, I hadn’t thought about that before. Let me think about it a bit more and get back to you”. Or “I’d really be interested in discussing this further with you offline”. I always tend toward honesty and simply saying “I don’t know” is much better than trying to stumble through a bad answer.

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constanza.cortes

There may certainly be questions that you cannot answer, either because they are way off-track from your field of expertise or because it is something you have honestly never thought about. In either case, a very good approach is to state as much and explain how you would solve it: admitting that you do not know speaks to your maturity as a scientist, and having a collaborative framework where your collaborators will strengthen you in areas you are not an expert in. Statements along the line of ‘… I will seek assistance from experts in the field of X, or connect with strong researchers in the field of Y’ are always good

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arianna_maffei

msapiurka2,
practice is the best way to help calm down for the chalk talk. Once you have an idea of what your future plans are and you have found a structure for how to present them, practicing with colleagues, or in an empty room or even in front of a mirror will help see how your presentation comes across.

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farran_briggs1

Practice as much as you can in front of comfortable audiences first. Then work your way to audiences you know will push you more. Start by talking to your mirror, your spouse, pet, etc. Then try on your colleagues. Do this long before you get to the interview!

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constanza.cortes

Practice,practice, practice! During the webinar I mentioned presenting at open mike nights and outreach events, learning how to use the public speaking jitters to your advantage instead of an obstacle, but find your own venue that helps. Any kind of performing art, be it dance, public speaking or drama will also help!

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qiaojie.xiong

Dear msapiurka2,
Practice! Practice! Practice! If you are not an english native speaker, double the times. Get your PI and close colleagues. Ask them to be as critical (harsh) as possible to throw questions during you presentation.

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farran_briggs1

That’s an interesting idea. I’m not sure it’s the best idea because material in the hands of your audience members could be distracting. But if you have a particular figure or chart that would be helpful, you could pass it out beforehand.

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constanza.cortes

another option is for you to draw that one figure/schematic on the board. If it is something you will be using often as a framework to explain your research, having it up on the board may work

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arianna_maffei

you can do that if you think it is necessary. One thing you can certainly do, and I would advise you to do, is to ask some information about what will be your audience (in some institution the chalk talk is faculty-only, in other places students and postdocs can attend), how long the talk will be and what props will be available to you. This way you can have a better sense of the settings, audience and timing and you can chose to prepare handouts or not.

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farran_briggs1

We’ve had a couple comments about using powerpoint and supporting materials during the chalk talk. I think it’s important to highlight that the chalk talk is really meant to be an open dialog between you and the audience. You don’t want it to be too premeditated. They want to see you think on your feet and engage them. This is in stark contrast to the seminar which is just you and your slides, a more formal scientific presentation. The chalk talk does push us all outside our comfort zones a bit, but it can be an exhilarating and fun experience too!

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qiaojie.xiong

If there are important details that are hard to draw on board, a handout may be a good way. But in general the handout may be distracting.

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farran_briggs1

This can be really challenging any time you get a tough question (in a seminar or chalk talk). Try to relax and take it gracefully. My best defense is usually the literature. I.e. if you have your own results and/or others results to back you up, state those. But mostly, try to relax and consider that the person asking the hard question may actually be really excited and interested in your work.

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arianna_maffei

sometimes what you perceive as harsh criticism may be a person trying to push you a little to probe how deeply you thought about your work. If the results are published, chances are you have already encountered that type of criticism by the reviewers and addressed it. You can give your best shot at answering, and standing your ground. If the situation is becoming hostile for some reasons, you can suggest that maybe you could discuss more in depth after the chalk talk, as you don’t want this to dominate your presentation.

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Maya Sapiurka

What are examples of things that made the extra difference in applicant’s chalk talks that led to one being offered a position over another?

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qiaojie.xiong

First of all don’t be afraid of it … be confident. If you disagree with the criticism, say your explanation logically and calmly. If you agree with that, just embrace it (no one is perfect) and add your thoughts.

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farran_briggs1

Excellent question! From my experience, the candidates that do the best are relaxed, confident, and very engaged with their audience. They are comfortable fielding questions and okay letting the discussion wander to a point. But they also can manage the room and bring the discussion back to their main points.

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arianna_maffei

msapiurka2, this is a great question!
well thought ideas explained logically and clearly typically win over the committee. Being able to convey ideas is very important both for getting a job offer as well as for future grant applications, so it is fundamental to practice until one can be proficient at this.

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constanza.cortes

Applicants that can engage in a productive dialogue, that can accept criticism and can also defend their research are usually the most attractive to hiring committees. Remember they are evaluating your critical thinking and peer-to-peer relationships during the chalk talk, as well as your science

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qiaojie.xiong

Vision in your field, confidence throughout the interactions, and the ability to engage the audience are the key points.

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Thank you for your replies. Who dreamed up the idea of having chalk talks? It took me a long time to persuade my staff to move away from the chalk board and to use powerpoint presentations.
I am very glad that I am not in the job market because I would fail having to use chalk boards or whatever you want to call them. Job interviews must take forever with people writing on chalk boards.
Thank you Jaadeja

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arianna_maffei

In general a good chalk talk is well organized and logically presented. If you can convey your ideas with confidence and be able to address criticism by building on published work and your own preliminary data, you are already doing great.
One thing that I would like to add is that you need to do your homework: go to the website of the department you are visiting and look up the research interests of you audience. This may help you predict some of the questions that you will be asked.
In addition, consider that you are presenting work that will be done by postdocs and students, being able to design your research plan with experiments that can be carried out by people with different levels of expertise may be good.

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constanza.cortes

In preparing a Chalk Talk, you also want to look at the research currently ongoing at the department/institution you will be joining. Are you interested in collaborating with any of them? Do you share any research interests with them? Linking existing faculty to your own research aims (ie. ‘…in my undertaking of Aim 2, I will answer some important questions in the field of Y, which may connect directly to research being done here by Dr. Z’) can strengthen your position as a candidate as they will see how well you fit into their established faculty

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farran_briggs1

It’s also always good to remember that you are the expert in your particular area of research. Let that give you confidence.

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Submitted question:

As faculty on a hiring committee, what are some debriefing approaches for chalk talk presentations?

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While applying for positions (Faculty, Postdocs) is it better to have a balance of chalk talk and powerpoint presentation?

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qiaojie.xiong

It is also important in time controlling. During the chalk talk there may be questions distracting your direction. Always keep in mind that you are the driver, and remember to get back the discussion to your main focus and keep your talk flow in your plan.

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arianna_maffei

Jaadeja, you may want to look at the chalk talk as an opportunity to talk about your ideas with future colleagues. The board is just a prop, I am sure you have talked about your work with colleagues at meetings. It is just an extension of that. The primary difference is that you are trying to convince people of your vision. This is what we do all the time to recruit lab members, when we write papers or grant proposals, so in a way is another medium to communicate our science. I still do chalk talks in my lab meetings when I want to have feedback on a grant proposal, it turns out it is quite useful.

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farran_briggs1

Typically the seminar (i.e. with powerpoint) and the chalk talk are two separate presentations. I would not recommend trying to use powerpoint for a chalk talk. Again, the purpose of the chalk talk is to engage more directly with your audience, not repeat your scientific presentation.

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qiaojie.xiong

The seminar talk is a powerpoint presentation mainly about the work you have done (maybe a little bit touch on future direction), and a chalk talk is a separate talk focusing on your future plan (usually happens the day after your seminar talk or the second visit of the interview). They are not competing.

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arianna_maffei

Information you may receive regard the composition of the audience, the style of chalk talk for a particular department: do they prefer a presentation of your vision and ideas or are they expecting a grant-like type of presentation? I have experience both styles when I was on the job market, but in my department we like the grant-style.

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farran_briggs1

You may or may not get a lot of directions and/or feedback on your chalk talk. Committees usually are somewhat hands-off in terms of directions because they want to allow you to use the time however you feel appropriate. You may get some feedback from faculty after your chalk talk, but I wouldn’t expect it. Instead, I’d practice in front of colleagues to get feedback prior to the interview.

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Maya Sapiurka

How much time should be spent on background? Should we assume that some of the people did not attend the seminar?

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Yes of course I have done this but that was just en famille. This chalk talk seems to be a new method for hiring persons. Appreciate your responses. What about delivering lectures are powerpoint presentations still allowed. I can’t imagine teaching neuroanatomy like I do without powerpoint.
Thanks
Jaadeja

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