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My first chalk talk

After three years of hard work in three different labs, I still consider myself as a junior postdoc who is not yet ready for the job market. As an early career researcher, I would like to have a major accomplishment first. It could be a published first-author research article or a grant of my own. Qualities that could be of importance for employers. Another good way to prepare for the job market is by doing so called chalk talks. Although, I have joined several chalk talks given by faculty candidates both in and outside my department, I still do not understand how to give a good talk or how to do a good one for a job interview.

A chalk talk is a talk given by a candidate (usually a senior post-doc) for a faculty job. The talk should summarize the research results in the past and future plans once you get the job. The talk should include the importance and necessity of your research to persuade the audience to give you the job.

When I received an email from the Kavli Institute for Neuroscience with the information that they would provide an opportunity for postdocs, associate research scientists or any early career trainees to learn how to give a chalk talk, I signed up immediately. Luckily, I was selected to give a practice chalk talk. I was so excited and looked forward to giving the talk in front of the prestigious scientists from Kavli.

I asked my mentor for advice to prepare my talk. I made 10 slides for my 15-minute talk. However, no matter how many times I rehearsed, I could never make it to finish within 15 minutes and I had to keep looking back at my slides. Instead, I had to learn on the day of my performance, which turned out to be a big mistake and led to an embarrassing moment.

On the day of my presentation, one professor taught us basic rules of giving a chalk talk. Briefly, it boiled down to:

  1. Write a draft on a piece of paper while you are rehearsing at home and copy the draft to the board before you start the talk.
  2. The draft should contain three aims, three main approaches, results, conclusions, and future directions as if you are writing a grant.

An associate research scientist did a demo talk for us afterwards. She used exactly the method as mentioned earlier. To me, this method was totally different from what I had seen before. Previously, the speaker was drawing and talking at the same time, like a teacher delivering a lecture. I was confused a bit by the new method. 

The chalk talk speakers were divided into 4 rooms and 3 rounds. My talk was scheduled in the second round, so I had a chance to listen to some other talks before giving my own. The speakers drew their draft on the board in advance and this worked really well.

When it was my turn, I did not draw a draft on the tiny board in advance and I gave the talk as I drew. I was very nervous, which created some awkwardness at the beginning. But as I got started I also gained confidence and finished quite well.

My judges were from four different fields: neural circuits, psychiatry, working memory and bioinformatics. They asked me unexpected questions, but quite easy to answer since I prepared well for my project background. Since I’m still working on my project my talk did not cover future directions. So, my talk was different from most speakers who are already seniors and ready for job market in a year or two.

The judges were more interested in my project than giving me suggestions to improve my speaking skills in order to get a faculty job. One judge suggested me to get a white board at home and draw my main points of my project and practice talking every day. This I felt was a very good piece of advice, albeit it will demand a lot of patience and perseverance.

Preparation for a chalk talk is also a way to improve yourself as a scientist since it makes you organized and let you see the big picture, the strengths and the weaknesses and not just the minor everyday events. I have seen a few principal investigators’ offices have a big white board. There they write down their thoughts whenever they come up with one. The board demonstrate their own ideas and also as a way of sharing their thoughts to the trainees in the lab. Looking at the board every day could possibly trigger some sparkles in science. Practicing chalk talk as if you are to give one is very helpful for projects.

The disappointing part of my experience was that I did not rehearse as much as I needed, making me a bit lost in the beginning of the speech. It is important to have a very clear outline of the talk and a very deep understanding of the project in order to do a good job. 

But the experience taught me an important lesson and that is to use any free time to practice giving a regular talk based on slides or giving a chalk talk. Practice helps to find any potential issues that need to be solved and also to gain confidence in speaking. The audience can tell if the speaker is well-prepared or not and tell if they are good speakers and scientists who can both work at solving scientific problems and spreading scientific knowledge to the public. 

About the Author
  • Lei Shen

    Lei is a postdoc associate studying ATP synthase permeability channels in regular content and also in neuronal diseases and psychiatric disorders. She likes learning languages, oral interpretation between Chinese and English. She also enjoys traveling and exploring Japan.

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