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.
6 years ago