I am starting my lab as an Assistant Professor at a Big Research University (summer 2010). I have a super partner and an adorable kiddo, Mini-G. I tend to rush into things and then figure them out as I muddle along. I'm sure that will be true here, too. I hope to use this space to maintain my sanity and share my perspectives on science and academia. These perspectives may sometimes qualify as rants. There will undoubtedly be some crazy times on the tenure track. Gmail me [at] primaryinvestigator
My posts are presented as opinion and commentary and do not represent the views of LabSpaces Productions, LLC, my employer, or my educational institution.
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I'd like to emphasize the importance of the chalk talk. If you don't nail it, you're screwed. It's really, really important to show you've thought about what you're going to do and how you're going to try to fund things.
This was followed by requests for me to write a post about what goes into a chalk talk. I love it when I get input on topics, so of course I'm going to oblige!! But first you have to go read PhysioProf's excellent post on this exact topic. While you are at it, you should read his other posts on the job search. And also go visit drdrA at Blue Lab Coats. There are a whole host of fantastic posts on the job search, interviews, negotiating, etc. Read them all!
Go ahead, I'll wait.
Alright then. So, after your reading you will understand that the chalk talk is much different than the job talk. And in many cases, even more important. Job talks can be practiced and perfected. But you can't fake a chalk talk. It is one of the best ways to separate the top applicant from all the others. The chalk talk is your chance to convince the faculty that not only have you done well (in the past) but you have a real plan to be succesful in the future. And that you have really, really thought about how you want to run your own lab.
Going into the chalk-talk, you should be prepared to go through your first R01 application (but you knew that from your previous reading, right?). Based on my experiences, you should actually have reasonable plans (with timelines) for 2 R01 applications. You need to be able to demonstrate that you have thought about how graduate students and postdocs will have projects that will get your shit done. And that you know how to split these projects up into Aims for grants that will be fundable. Make it clear that you have thought about the timeline to get preliminary data, publish papers, etc. in order to be able to submit competetive grant applications.
Be prepared to answer these kinds of questions (in addition to attacks of your science, as in CPP):
-What will your first graduate student work on?
-What are the first papers that will come out of your lab? (hint: they better be preliminary data)
-When do you plan to write your first grant?
-Who would want to fund your research? (NIH? which institute?)
-How is your field? What makes your research unique in your field, and how can you compete against established labs (including your postdoc mentor)?
OK, assuming that you have thought about all of these things, what do you actually do when you are standing in front of the room? Everyone will have their own style, of course. I have seen 10-15 chalk talks (not including the ones I have given), because at my postdoc institute anyone that was interested could go to the chalk talk. The most common way to fail is to get defensive with the questions, or otherwise be an ass. So don't do that. Always be polite and answer every question with data and logic, no matter how "mean" it is.
This was my strategy: Before the chalk talk, I wrote the "title" of three projects across the top of the board. Each of these was an R01 (some more developed than others). Below each title I wrote 3-5 Aims. At the beginning of the talk I spent 5 min recapping the highlights of my postdoc research that were most important for what I wanted to talk about. My first "grant" was based largely on my K99 (clearly fundable!). I added a couple of Aims that I could see being the basis of the follow up R01. I also highlighted aspects that I could submit for the fancy foundation fellowships. My second application had a reasonable amount of preliminary data to support it. The third was less developed, but I had a few unpublished observations that were the key data. When it was time to start, I launched into the first project: experimental approaches, pitfalls, alternatives, what I expected to find, etc. This went pretty quick, because it was already funded. Then I started in on the second grant. This almost always took the rest of the hour, so I almost never even got to #3, which was OK because I think the main point is that I had thought about it. (I was actually freaked out about this, but several people told me that I did a super job, so it was apparently OK).
There were always a lot of questions. One of my current colleagues told me that they "threw hardballs right at my head". So be prepared. I actually really like these kinds of audiences, and my postdoc had given me plenty of practice. So I had a lot of fun. But it was intense.
Anywho, I hope that clears up the chalk talk. If I missed something, you know where to find me!
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Once again, you prove yourself to be a total goddess! Thanks so much for putting this together. I don't have to give a chalk talk at either of my upcoming interviews, but I'm going to prepare as if I do--it certainly can only help to have concrete plans about what I'm going to do when I get a lab.
This is the first description of the chalk talk that does actually make it seem kind of fun. Thanks!
This is very interesting, as I am not in the biosciences so my experiences are a bit different. When I interviewed there was just the one interview talk. I concluded it with slides pertient to what I planned on doing if hired. They did grill me about it later in a closed meeting with the hiring and promotions committee.
A few years back my dept started doing the equivalent of a chalk talk but it's always a PPT (a second talk focused on research plans and open only to faculty; the first interview talk is open to everyone).
Ahhhh...thank you thank you thank you. From what I have been hearing, the chalk talk is fairly common in my field. Although I have to tell you, it sounds a tad bit intimidating. I guess at that point, though, you have written your research proposals and all of that so you have a lot more mapped out. This was the kick in the butt I needed to get started on nailing down where/what I want for my lab.
BTW- random question. How do you manage to get preliminary data on some of these projects? my boss is letting me take my current project (since he is closing up shop and obviously has no need) but for the other, newer projects- are you expected to start working on these things when you are a post-doc?
Dr. Becca: thanks! It is a great idea to have that kind of info. Even if there is not a chalk-talk, I bet these things will come up and you will look EVEN MORE AWESOME beause you will have a plan! w00t!
NatC: I actually DO think that chalk talks are fun. But I always had fun in a room with a bunch of smart people talking about science. Even if they were being harsh. I may be a little strange that way.
GMP: I think it is smart, even if you are doing a chalk-talk, to have a couple of slides at the end of the job talk about what you are going to do on your own. In most places, the chalk-talk is faculty only, so I was really lucky to get to see some as a postdoc. IME, folks that come to a chalk-talk with PPT slides never do as well as the ones that can talk with just chalk (or whiteboard markers). So I strongly recommend that, if given an option, that you do not bring slides for your chalk-talk.
Dr. Zeek: first, you can't get intimidated. The first sign of intimidation/fear and you are fucked. If you aren't convinced that you are an expert in your field, the people thinking about hiring you won't be, either. As for your question: the short answer is yes. One thing you have to think about when starting up your lab is how you can build on your current data to spawn new research areas. If everything you did fits into only 1 neat little package, well... either you didn't develop a great project or you aren't being very imaginative. When I was thinking about my lab, I could imagine 3-4 directions that my project could lead. Turns out I had a fair amount of "orphan data" that addressed these "directions". So, each direction is another grant you can write. Some have more data than others, but that is OK. I'm sure there are other strategies out there, but that is how I went about this.
Chalk talks in job searches must be a biomed thing; the constant references to R01s seem to support this. I've not heard of them used in faculty searches for people doing research in other fields (i.e., the stuff that NIH doesn't fund).
Good point, Dr. Zen. If it wasn't clear to others: everything I have to say about a chalk-talk pertains only to research-intensive academic jobs in biological/biomedical institutes that I am most familiar with.
Thanks again Gerty-Z. Show. No. Fear. My new mantra for the next year and years to come.
As for the preliminary results, I see how the systems/techniques/methodologies etc. that I am doing now can be used to investigate other systems, I just am thinking that I won't have the prelim data on those specific systems I want to work on. I think, though, I get the gist of what you are saying, though.
really, though, between you, odyssey, Drugmonkey and CPP I feel a lot more prepared than I would have before (or at least I know what to expect now). So, from a humble post-doc sitting in the frozen tundra I would just like to thank you all again.
And wow, I need to work on how many "though"s I put in a sentence.....
Thanks for this post, and the links, Gerty! I was planning to get my chalk talk together after I knew I had interviews, but I'm thinking I might start a bit earlier now. The faculty in my dept had even volunteered to run through a mock talk with me. I had always heard that the chalk talk was done at a second interview, but it sounds like that can vary from your post and the comments. I certainly don't want to be caught off-guard!!
We used to have the chalk talk at a second interview, but found it to be such a crucial indicator of candidate quality that we now include it in the first interview.
Everywhere I went had the chalk-talk on the first interview (if they had one). I'm glad that folks found it useful!