Sep 02, 2020
By Sagar Lonial, MD, FACP
Congratulations! After years of studying, training, exams, and student loans, you are now ready to apply for a job. The next year will be filled with lots of opportunities, meeting new people, and virtual or face-to-face visits in new places, all with the goal of finding the next place where you will use all those years of training to deliver high-quality hematology and oncology care in what you hope will be a long-term career.
There are a number of hurdles that you will have to jump over in the coming year (credentialing, moving, learning a new hospital, learning a new electronic medical record system, among just a few), but one that is critically important as you seek to find that new home is the job talk. No single part of a visit (or virtual interview) has more potential to showcase your strengths—or to result in hiring indifference. Yet this is an area where few are mentored and advised to put in the time to have the greatest impact they can on the people they hope will be future colleagues.
What are the tricks to delivering the kind of job talk that will put you in the driver’s seat for success? The following 6 steps will help focus you and your talk to have the best chance of success.
1. Know your audience.
Few things annoy a room full of mid-career to senior future colleagues more than going too basic when doing an introduction to your topic. Ask your host in advance: Who will be attending the lecture? Will it be only attendings or will trainees be present? How about other health care professionals? Know who will be in your audience, and directly address them during your talk.
You can use very basic information if you say something like, “For the trainees in the room, I want to cover a few basic features of….” This tells the audience that you are thinking about the bigger picture, and that you like to teach. This will help you establish rapport with the room, and show you are being thoughtful rather than just delivering another canned talk.
Additionally, are there experts in the room who will challenge you? Are there people in the room who are known not to agree with the point of view you are taking? This one requires help and support from your mentor to identify potential people who may not accept your basic premises. Know this in advance, and be prepared to respectfully respond while at the same time acknowledging their views and place in the field. Knowing the audience is a huge part of crafting the best talk to fit that specific center.
2. Know your topic.
Take this opportunity to showcase what you know, and how well you know the field. Demonstrating your understanding of areas of differing opinions and where you fall in the debate is important. Don’t be afraid to stand your ground—just know clearly what your ground is and why you are standing it. If you are talking to a clinical group, use the basic science material to support your hypothesis, but don’t spend too much time detailing experiments. You want them to know you know and understand the basic data, but they want to hear about the clinical goals and focus of your work. It takes extra effort to know about more than your specific project, but writing a review on the topic will help you to be prepared and know the literature. It is one thing to say “I believe...,” but more impactful to say, “In this paper from Smith et al. I think the data supports this idea….” The latter shows you have spent time learning your area, and that your work on the project or topic is more than superficial.
3. Highlight your work.
As you present the overall context of your project or topic, show your contribution to the work. Most people anticipate that there was a mentor who helped you and maybe even thought of the idea, but make it yours. Spend time showing that what you did helped complete the work, or even better, helped overcome an obstacle that arose after you got started. Even if it is only a small part of the talk, spend time showing the audience that you had an impact and made the work yours. When you do this, it will likely open you up to questions (see the next point on how to address this), but don’t be afraid of audience participation—questions mean they are paying attention and that you are doing a good job of holding their interest.
4. Prepare for questions.
If you do Tip 3 correctly, you will probably be asked questions about your work, and maybe even specific questions about methods. There are two main types of questions you should be prepared to answer in a job talk. The first is asking about something of controversy in the field, and you may have taken the other side. If you know your topic, as discussed in Tip 2, you’ll be well prepared to answer this kind of question.
The second type (and this one is more likely) is a probing question for which the asker does not expect you to have an answer. This kind of question is a test! The key is to show that you can think on your feet. Even if you don’t know the answer (and you likely won’t), think about how one could address finding a solution, or if there is a data set out there that could be useful to answer the question. No one knows all the answers, and many times the hard questions don’t have an answer. Don’t let that rattle you; instead, use your answer to show that you acknowledge the issue, and then explain how you might go about answering with more time or work. A great way to respond is to say, “Great question, and we have been considering that as an option, but haven’t yet completed the work,” and then explain how you would go about doing so.
5. Articulate your vision for the future.
As you wrap up, prove to the room that you know and want to be part of the future of the field. Be willing to press old dogmas and show your vision for the long term. Your vision may be wrong (you’re not a psychic, and neither are your interviewers), but think it through and be ready to show why you think it is realistic. This shows you are thinking about the future and are prepared to do work that will get you and your institution there if they hire you. Also discuss constraints or alternative approaches to solving or addressing the problem at hand. This will show you are thoughtful about the process and a collaborator. This one may also require help and support from your mentor, but if you put in the time, it will really serve you well.
6. Express gratitude.
No one expects that you did all the work yourself. Be sure to thank all those that helped you on your journey: mentors, friends, colleagues, nurses, etc. The more you know about who is in the room and can acknowledge how people like them helped you to do your work, the more you show the room that you are a team player. This is key for short- and long-term success and demonstrates real maturity. Last and certainly not least, be sure to acknowledge the patients who volunteered blood, tissue, or themselves to help answer the questions you are asking. Progress in cancer could not occur without their selfless contributions.
If you take the points above into account when you craft your talk, and during your visit, you will have given yourself the best chance for success in the job market. Best of luck!
Dr. Lonial is chair of the Department of Hematology and Medical Oncology, the Anne and Bernard Gray Family Chair in Cancer, and the chief medical officer at the Winship Cancer Institute and Emory University School of Medicine. Follow him on Twitter @SagarLonialMD.