Orin’s post has some great job talk advice. Here’s my two cents. The key to a good job talk is to advance one idea in a clear and interesting way and then lead an intellectually engaging conversation about it. Some tips:
- Choose a topic that your audience can talk about.If you pick an esoteric topic that nobody is interested in or nobody can debate, then people leave the job talk unexcited. I’ve seen some job talks where a candidate talks about a technical subject that few in the audience can really discuss. The result is that the discussion is flat, even though the job talk may have been very accurate and thoughtful. The key is that there must be something that provokes a discussion. You don’t want everyone readily agreeing with you or lacking the ability to challenge your claims. Think of your job talk in terms of leading an interesting discussion.
- Don’t try to deal with every issue in the talk.If there are some objections or responses to your thesis that you anticipate, let them come out in the discussion. As Orin correctly says, it’s the discussion that counts. In many cases, it is better to let the faculty raise the objection and you respond to it than to try to weakly preemptively address it in the talk. Remember, you don’t need to do everything in the initial 20 minutes. The talk should just set up the discussion.
- Have an idea.Many job talks don’t really have much of an idea. Or they have an idea, but it is so muddled or unclear that people have a hard time figuring out what it is. At the end of your 20 minutes of setting forth your idea, everybody in the room should be able to know what your thesis is.
- Don’t pretend that you have all the answers when you don’t.Nobody expects you to be able to have a quick retort for every objection or an answer to every question. What people expect is that you can intelligently grapple with objections and questions. The goal is not winning every point – you’re not doing an oral argument. So don’t get overly defensive or combative. Instead, the goal is to demonstrate that you’re capable of engaging in a smart intellectual conversation. If there’s a tricky issue that you’re not quite sure how to handle, say this, and then explain both sides of it to demonstrate that you have indeed thought about it carefully, and that while you might not be 100% certain of your approach to it, you clearly understand where all the potential problems with your position are. There are many job talks where I agreed with the thesis but found the candidate not to be thoughtful or interesting enough. So you can win the argument, but lose the job. And your primary goal is not to win the argument; it’s to convince the faculty that you’re smart and thoughtful.
- Choose a topic where you know the law and issues inside and out.You want the job talk to be on your turf. You’re leading the discussion. Although the topic should be accessible to all, you must know what you’re talking about. Many a candidate has faltered by not knowing a key case or a key article in a field.
At the end of the job talk, the faculty should walk out of the room thinking: (1) I had a great hour; this was fascinating stuff to think about; (2) the candidate had an interesting idea; (3) the candidate could speak in a clear and articulate manner that was engaging; (4) the candidate was respectful of the questioners; (5) the candidate was able to respond intelligently and thoughtfully to the comments and questions; (6) this candidate is the kind of person that I’d like to talk with more and that I’d like to have commenting on my scholarship.
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This post was authored by Professor Daniel J. Solove, who through TeachPrivacy develops computer-based privacy training, data security training, HIPAA training, and many other forms of awareness training on privacy and security topics. Professor Solove also posts at his blog at LinkedIn. His blog has more than 1 million followers.