Thursday, April 12, 2007

Breadth v. Depth

I don't want to stress out anyone who is going through faculty job interviews, but I've seen a number of interview talks lately, and wanted to make a few general comments about them. It has been very interesting discussing the architecture of these talks with my own students, especially those who are facing job searches in the very near future. They are looking at these interview talks with different eyes, seeing themselves (we all hope) standing up there giving talks like these, and that is kind of an awesome feeling.

* To anyone giving this kind of talk: The Talk is not the only chance you have to impress people. In fact, our department is considering offering a position to someone who made some classic talk errors (see below), but who impressed people otherwise, e.g., in individual conversations. *

Some of my students told me that it was obvious to them, even in talks that were far from their own expertise, when a candidate just wasn't ready for the questions, even ones that might seem obvious. They wondered if the candidates had practiced for a friendly but critical audience before the interview. Some people just get nervous and don't deal with questions well for that reason, but usually you can tell if that's the reason or whether they are unprepared for questions.

My senior grad students seemed most surprised that some of the candidates didn't bother to explain at the beginning why anyone should care about their research. They just dove into the details, perhaps to demonstrate deep knowledge of their specific research subjects. I was particularly happy about this reaction, as it is something I emphasize over and over with my students, even if they are just giving an informal talk in the department. Depth doesn't have to be at the expense of breadth -- it's all in the balance. I think this recent spate of interview talks was the first time some of them really saw how critical it is to get attempt this balance.

It is possible to get the balance wrong with over-emphasis at either end of the spectrum. I think there is a broad region of acceptable balance, but for some reason, many speakers seem magnetically attracted to one of the extremes. Getting the right balance is an art, and requires practice and a lot of advice and critical input.

I should start scheduling next semester's in-house talks right now -- I bet I'd get a lot of volunteers from the senior grad students.


Anonymous said...

This is good advice to anyone giving a talk. Our department is also doing a lot of faculty interviews right now, and it has been very beneficial for me and my fellow grad students to attend and discuss them afterward.

We have also noted that many speakers have not given good motivation. You can get lost in the details, but if you still leave the talk with an understanding of the the what and the why, then I think it was a good talk.
We have had several excellent speakers, and several bad ones. The worst speaker we had appeared as if he had not even reviewed his slides. He had typos and grammatical errors (he was a foreign speaker, but still, these were obvious mistakes), and there were times when he appeared unprepared. So practice, practice, practice!

yamp said...

I normally see people making mistakes at the narrow end -- they spend the whole time going in to minute detail about their research in an effort to convince the audience what amazing work they have done. What the candidates forget is that most people in the audience are from different reaearch areas and have no real clue about what is being said after the first few minutes.

The best job talks are in the style of departmental colloquia presentations rather than conference talks. Spending about 75% of time on the general area and then highlighting the details of ones own work demonstrates that you can communicate to a 'diverse' audience and are a serious enough scholar to place work within context. The highlights then open up discussions with those in the department who are closer to the speakers research area.

This is especially important in departments where there is a pure/applied or theoretical/experimental split.

PonderingFool said...

It is so true and not just for job talks. You have to think about your audience. We have an interdisciplinary (all though within the biomedical sciences) series in which grad students and post-docs present their research. In fact we had two talks this week. One person dove right in. Most of us had no clue what the person was talking about or why we should listen even though the post-doc had lots of data. The second person gave a great intro so you could understand what in the world they were talking about using well designed figures, teaching us the material we needed to know. It made you care about the research the grad student talked about. The student got good, useful questions out of it.

Kayhan Gultekin said...

This is so true in any field of science. I remember from grad school the best season of colloquia we ever had. That semester, the professor in charge made sure to remind every single speaker a couple of weeks in advance that the y were to give a colloquium to a diverse group of scientists and not a research talk to a group of specialists. This meant that they had to motivate not only their research but even their entire subfield. Not everybody paid attention to the advice, but it still improved the overall quality of the majority of the talks.

Anonymous said...

I am just starting to give big colloquia and job talks now. If I have a 'friendly face' (i.e. a scientist I know well) in the audience I do ask for feedback after the talk so that I can figure out which bits were understood and which bits were not so clear, to improve things for the next time. But people are frustratingly reluctant to give feedback! I guess they are worried about offending, but at this postdoc stage I would love to get the kind of advice you are talking about!