originally posted 11 Dec 2010
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!