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It was only recently that I heard about the academic "chalk talk" at job interviews (from biologist friends). As I understand, this is a closed-doors talk the applicant must give to the existing faculty. I was shocked that even through I am preparing to apply for faculty positions, I never heard of this practice before.

So my questions are:

  • What is this "chalk talk", and how common is it at job interviews?
  • Is it specific to biology, or at to least experimental fields? Almost all the information I can find about it online is focused on biomedical sciences (and the few articles that don't, still assume an experimental field). Perhaps the concept exists in other fields too but people use a different term than "chalk talk" to describe it?
  • My work is in one of the hard sciences and is purely theoretical. What are the main differences between experimental and theoretical (mathematically oriented) fields in how this chalk talk is given? Since most of the online advice I found concerned biology, I need to decide how much of it is relevant to me.

Update:

Many of the comments (and one answer) show that several people have completely misunderstood my question. I would like to emphasize once again that the question is about the specific part of faculty position job interviews referred to as "chalk talks". In the meantime, I found a hint that this concept might be specific to life sciences. My question is not about lecturing techniques with white- or blackboards, nor about why this part of the interview is called a "chalk talk" (i.e. etymology).

It's about what this part of the interview is about, which fields have this as part of the job interview protocol, and what differences are there between biology and theoretical (math/physics) fields (i.e. what part of advice given by/for biologists should I take or ignore).

Here is an example of a blog post discussing interview chalk talks.

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    Could you add a country tag? The hiring procedure varies significantly between countries. In Germany in math we always have a scientific presentation (like a seminar talk) as part of the job interview but this is not closed door and not necessarily on the blackboard. – Dirk Sep 28 '18 at 10:19
  • @Dirk I'm interested in answers for any European country, the USA, or any other culturally similar countries you might expect people to also apply to. – Laure Sep 28 '18 at 10:21
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    @user2768 I don't see why you talk about history. I had job interviews in front of a chalk board a few months ago. – user9646 Sep 28 '18 at 11:45
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    It's unclear from your update, do you want to know what a "chalk talk" is or not? – user2768 Sep 28 '18 at 12:24
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    "My question is not (...) why this part of the interview is called a "chalk talk" (i.e. etymology). It's about what this part of the interview is about" - note that the answers to these two questions might be essentially the same. – O. R. Mapper Sep 28 '18 at 14:30
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I can't comment on how common this is outside of biomedical sciences (my field), but it's becoming quite common in this field.

In terms of what it is, the "Chalk Talk" is a chance for you to talk about your research (past, current, and future directions) without hiding behind Powerpoint slides.

You'll typically be given up to an hour to do this, in front of the hiring committee and/or faculty. You'll have a whiteboard/blackboard/flip-chart so you can draw down a key figure or two, or write an outline of what you're speaking about. It's less formal than a normal talk at a job interview - if you are asked to do one, expect to be interrupted and questioned throughout.

There are many reasons these are becoming popular. It's easy for candidates to talk through a deck of slides they've had weeks to prepare, and the hiring committee doesn't necessarily learn that much about them as people or scientists. This is more dynamic - it lets you see how people think on their feet - and gives a real opportunity for people to display their passion. It's daunting to speak for an hour with no props or prompts, but a good academic who knows their field, has a clear research plan, and cares about their work should be able to do this.

Source - personal experience (I have been on training courses specifically about giving chalk talks in faculty interviews, albeit in a different field).

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    It's daunting to speak for an hour with no props or prompts - At least in pure math, it's very common to give hour-long talks without slides, but I guess you're saying there's a lot less writing on the board than is typical in math, yes? To clarify a bit, are the biology chalk talks things you prepare roughly an hour of material for in advance? And does one typically look at notes to keep on track? – Kimball Sep 28 '18 at 14:15
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    @Kimball my stress and structures professor gave 2 hour lectures , one a week, involving differentiation, stresses, matrices and never brought any notes with him. Always proved everything and answered all the questions: this was the final year for the students and he was really good in his field... The students however, took LOTS of notes from the board... – Solar Mike Sep 28 '18 at 14:40
  • Does this mean it systematically weeds out people who can think well over longer periods of time, but not right there on their feet? – Mehrdad Sep 30 '18 at 0:05
  • @Mehrdad it seems likely, yes. But like all such processes it tests for what is testable, hoping to approximate what it wants. It has success stories and it has flaws. – Richard Rast Sep 30 '18 at 1:11
  • I am not in Academia, but I find it very difficult to answer anything (other than very high level) if all you have is PPT, when I am asked to explain anything I always prefer to go to white board right away. – Akavall Sep 30 '18 at 19:45
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Chalk talks are pervasive in the biomedical sciences in the US since the tenure requirements, at an R1, is to obtain an NIH R01 grant. Since the target funding source is known (unlike a lot of fields) and the applications are fairly formulaic, the chalk talk is really helpful. They allow the candidates to present a high level overview of a problem in the field, tell the committee about the 2 or 3 aims of their future grant proposal and discuss how the aims address the problem. The candidate can then use the board to draw up the results of the pilot studies that they will be conducting over the next 3 years in preparation of the grant application.

Since the pilot data don't exist yet and the committee is going to ask a lot of worse case scenario questions premade slides don't work well. A typical chalk talk might involve a candidate drawing a set of axis and a hypothetical line representing the pilot data that goes up. The first question from the committee might then be what happens if the data go down. Then a discussion about how the literature says it won't go down, but it might be a U shape and the line gets redrawn.

I don't think chalk talks work as well when there are a variety of funding sources. Industry money requires a different approach than an NSF application. It would be hard for the committee to judge whether the applicant is on the right track for funding.

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The hiring process in different countries vary quite a lot. However, once you get an invitation to a job-interview, you can expect that institution will tell you what you should prepare. In case you are unsure, just ask your contact person the institution. And there are many things that are not standardized and it should be clear that an applicant can have quite a lot of questions (Who is going to attend the scientific talk? Will there be a demonstration of your teaching skills? Will there be students? Will there be a meeting with the dean/students/…? Do you have to prepare any additional documents in advance?)

  • What I am confused about is that it was suggested to me that this "chalk talk" is a standard thing that I should expect to do at most institutions, and it should roughly happen in the same way. Your answer suggests that it might not be so. – Laure Sep 28 '18 at 10:28
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Another aspect of "chalk talk", in mathematics, in the U.S., is in contrast to pre-prepared talks with overheads/slides/powerpoint/whatever. That is, a "chalk talk" is much more "live", than a pre-recorded powerpoint talk, and, therefore, can show much more of the speaker's grip on the material. This sort of talk can also be expected to accommodate audience questions, which is another sort of "test".

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A formal talk is where you show your work. A chalk talk is much more about how you plan to lay out the first few years of your career, which can be quite different.

You should go into a chalk talk with a clear vision of how you plan to establish funding -- who will you apply for grants with, what will the specific aims of your first application be, who do you need to collaborate with, etc. It will go over better if you can actually present your specific aims as the testing of very clear hypotheses. You may also need to know your teaching aims, depending on the position.

You should show a plan of how you plan to bring your research up to speed during your start up phase, during which you might be low resourced (even if you come in with a generous start up package, purchases and renovations can take more time than you expect). I often hear the question "If you need to do a project with just you and a single tech, what will you do?"

The discussion of the committees/faculty following a chalk talk (i.e., without the candidate) often center around if the candidate is ready for a faculty position, how well the faculty candidate "fits in" with the rest of the community in terms of the body of work.

If there's a feeling that the candidate has a flaw or two, the conversation may well turn to "is the candidate mentorable?" Thus, if at a chalk talk you're feeling a bit pressed on by faculty at large, it's probably a good idea to listen to what they have to say, instead of feeling cornered and reacting defensively.

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