Although it is not standard for all interviews in all fields, for me at least the job talk is a major part of the interview process. The reason for this is pretty clear: it gives a potential employer a chance to assess their candidate in a reasonably stressful situation, test to see if they really do have the excellent oral communication skills they claim and to allow more of the department to see the candidate and give their feedback on them. More people can see the type of work the candidate has done in the past, how they present it and how it could fit with what the current needs for the company are.
Furthermore, it is a chance to discuss some science with the candidate, giving a basis for discussions through the day. I think it can be quite clear that someone who cannot discuss their own work will have trouble landing that coveted position.
So in preparing a job presentation, you need to keep these diverse set of parameters in mind. You need to highlight your own accomplishments in a polished and professional manner, handle the follow-up questions and make the audience excited about having you as part of their team. It would definitely be a big plus if people come out of your talk animatedly discussing your chemistry and projecting you into the role that you are trying to claim.
In these days of PowerPoint, making a good looking presentation is easier than ever, though you still have to put the time and effort into it – with the ease of using the software, a lack of effort here will be a disaster. When preparing it, you should aim for a cohesive narrative over the talk. If you cover several areas, you want to transition between subjects fluidly – abrupt changes of focus can lose your audience. You also have to gauge the audience, as you want to highlight the parts of your work that are of interest to them and are highly relevant to the job you are interviewing for.
Of course, crafting such an epic tale of derring do and chemical innovation would be notably easier if it were not for Confidentiality and Secrecy and other reasons that you can’t talk about the best bits of your work. No doubt this is a tough part of putting together a cohesive job talk and you have to decide if you will present work in generalities in order to highlight your experience in preclinical development or concentrate on published work of projects that were abandoned. Of course, if you have published work that is highly relevant then you do not have such an issue – though that has not been typical of my experience to date. The danger with talking in generalities is that you can sound more like a textbook discussion of the subject rather than one with practical knowledge of the area. Specific examples really bring the subject to life.
Some advice in the actual presentation: first, make sure you practice, practice, practice. Try it out on the dog if necessary, but you need to stand up and do it out loud several times. This is important to make sure you are familiar with the subject and can anticipate and answer questions, but also it builds confidence and that in itself can be key. If you do well in the presentation, you feel invigorated and buoyant and that will carry through into the one-on-one meetings. If you are a bundle of nerves by the end of it, well, the rest of the day is not likely to be any easier.
Another mistake is to try and fit a lot of work into the 45 minutes allotted. By all means, show off your most impressive work, but do not try and race through that work at 100 miles per hour. You will not do it or your audience any favors and over-running is something to avoid. It is odd that people were willing to listen to you for an hour but 65 minutes is too long, nevertheless, that is sometimes how it feels. Usually, the presentation is early in the day, with several smaller discussions to come and what you want coming out is a building of momentum behind you. You do not want people grousing that your talk over-ran.
I mentioned anticipating questions. Sometimes a facet of the talk is truncated and invites questions that are readily answered (particularly slick presenters sometimes have a slide already prepared). The details of an interesting reaction or a biological assay are examples here. Sometimes someone will ask a question you have not thought of prior to the day. If you don’t have the answer, it is OK to say so, but you might also add your thoughts, so they can see how you might find an answer or of approaching the problem. Another thing that can happen during question time is the aggressive question. Something in your presentation is a pet peeve of the audience member and they ask abrupt, even rude questions, asking your justification for doing that or putting down your work. If this happens, the key is to stay cool. Do your best to answer calmly and seriously, consider their viewpoint. This is not the place to get into philosophical fisticuffs. This could be a blessing in disguise, showing the hiring manager how you handle a difficult situation. It may even have been deliberately contrived.
One additional point I wanted to add. Although some interviews do not feature a scheduled presentation, it can be a valuable addition to your interview strategy. You can use a PowerPoint presentation on your laptop to highlight graphically your achievements and your approach to the new role and it also helps to focus your answer to questions of this nature, keeping your answers on point and concise. I know of a couple of people who made great use of such a tool in recent interviews
I admit that I get quite nervous before a job presentation. That is normal, I think, and preparation is key is overcoming nerves and turning that energy into a positive force for your candidacy. I probably over-emphasize it in my own preparation, because the confidence boost it gives when done well is worth the return on investment. But ultimately, the chance to talk about our work is something we all should cherish. It really can be the fun part of the interview.