Focus on the big picture: Essential advice on the chalk talk from the 5th Annual Postdoc Retreat

The 5 th Annual Postdoc Retreat was held at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) on August 14. Saikat Nandi, one of the event organizers, shares some crucial advice from one of the sessions – The Mock Chalk Talk.
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There is little doubt that highly skilled young scientists drive scientific research worldwide. Yet an increasing number are unable to progress in their fields, as the number of tenured faculty positions has plateaued or even begun to decline.

As well as giving a flavor of the skill set needed for a career beyond the bench, the 5 th Annual Postdoc Retreat also gave some insights into how to proceed in a research career.

During the hour-long discussion on the “Faculty Search Committee Perspective”, one panelist, Dr David Spector, Director of Research at CSHL and a job search committee veteran, mentioned that a candidate’s breakthrough research or knowledge of a leading-edge technology plays a more important role in the selection process than the impact factor of the journal in which their science was published. The candidate’s performance during the job “chalk talk” was also said to play a key role in recruitment decisions.

The chalk talk, a somewhat enigmatic form of oral presentation, is a closed-door interview that follows soon after the candidate has delivered a seminar to the department or institute. As the name suggests, the candidate, using a chalk and blackboard, explains their future research, including the big picture questions that the work will address, why they’ve chosen a particular approach, preliminary data, back-up strategies and so on. This is similar to explaining a research grant proposal.

The chalk talk is given to the faculty search committee, directors and/or heads of the department/institute. They evaluate the candidate on a wide range of criteria, including the candidate’s knowledge on the proposed research aims, their ability to acquire funding, and whether their goals match the overall mission of the institute.

The chalk talk usually lasts for one hour. It is a very interactive session, as the attendees are free to stop and question the candidate as they wish, often diverting the discussion.

For some, this might be the trickiest stage of an interview process; more so because the real chalk talks are closed-door, meaning postdocs gain little experience of these sessions during their training. The CSHL Postdoc Liaison Committee (PDLC), along with the Career Development Program, therefore organizes mock chalk talks on a regular basis to give a flavor of the sessions.

Now, there is no magic recipe for a perfect chalk talk. However, during the mock chalk talk at the postdoc retreat, the panelists highlighted the following tips:

1) The candidate should be confident and show enthusiasm while presenting

2) An effective way to start the talk is to explain the big picture and specific goals for the next 5 years

3) The candidate should be able to control the audience, efficiently manage the time, and try to direct questions relevant to that particular project

4) Legible handwriting helps to keep the crowd engaged

The CSHL President Bruce Stillman recently said that the chalk talk is the single most important factor contributing to the faculty recruitment decision. It is therefore safe to assume that anyone aspiring to an academic career should seriously prepare for this crucial discussion.

Indeed, Christos Noutsos, a postdoc at CSHL, says: "The mock chalk talk made me realize how to approach my research from the faculty perspective, think about all aspects of it thoroughly (from the equipment needed to how to access the necessary funding), sustain it and manage it over the course of my infant academic appointment.”