Your Research Talk
Whether you’re a graduate student, post-doctoral researcher or experienced chemist, you will likely be asked to give a technical presentation or seminar about your recent work as part of the interview process. A typical technical presentation or seminar lasts about 45 minutes, with another 15 minutes for questions from the audience, but make sure to ask your host ahead of time how long you will have. Some bachelor level chemists may be asked to prepare a 30-minute presentation.
The seminar is a key means of judging your technical competence. The employer’s goal for the research seminar is to learn how you solve interesting, challenging problems, and your goal is to demonstrate these skills.
The employer also uses the research seminar to evaluate your oral presentation skills, your organization skills—how well you organized your presentation and how well you organized your research—and if you can think on your feet.
Your audience will be evaluating you on your science, logic, communication skills, personality, and ability to handle pressure. This last item is determined by how you respond to questions from the audience.
This presentation is vitally important to your candidacy. It may be the group’s only opportunity to form a collective opinion of you and, for some, to gain their first impressions. The seminar shows how you communicate, approach problems, and think on your feet. You need to be professional and persuasive — if your presentation is mediocre or if you try to bluff your way through, your credibility will suffer and you will most likely not recover.
The typical format for a research seminar looks like this:
- Concise statement of the problem
- Background material
- Description of your approach
- Experimental design
- Techniques used and reasons for choices
- Major findings
- Future work
- Ask your host in advance about the audience. Will students be present? What is the size of the audience? What is the composition of the audience? What is their level of familiarity with your field?
- Ask yourself what part of your experience and research will be important to most of your audience and to the organization by reviewing your research. Think about the presentation as telling a story. Teach them about your area of research.
- Prepare concise, uncluttered visual aids — don’t overload the audience with tables of data, and use key words or phrases instead of rambling explanations. Find out what audio-visual equipment will be available (overhead projector, computer, LCD projector...). Bring your presentation in the appropriate form, and have a backup.
- Focus your presentation on three to five primary topics, highlighting your accomplishments related to each of these main points. Know the literature in your sub-field and be aware of any recent breakthroughs.
- When possible, tie your achievements to the organization’s needs, strategic mission, products, and other information that turned up in your due diligence.
- Practice, practice, practice your presentation in advance, particularly the opening, closing and transitions from one slide or topic to another. Always be be mindful of the time. Ask friends or colleagues to help you by listening to you practice. Ask them to be critical and try to put you on the spot with tough questions.
- Have handouts available if you think they will reinforce your concepts.
- Talk to your audience, not to your visual aids; face your audience as much as possible. If you have a pointer, use it only to make a quick visual reference on a chart or to trace the relationship of data on a graph.
- Close by summarizing your main points, and giving credit to your coworkers. If you’re a graduate student or postdoctoral fellow, acknowledge your adviser and any funding agencies that supported your work.
- Anticipate the questions you may receive, and practice your answers. To ensure everyone in the audience hears a question, repeat it (this also helps you stay calm and allows a few extra seconds to formulate your answer). Focus about a quarter of your eye contact on the person who asked the question and the rest on others in the audience to keep everyone involved. Answer thoughtfully and honestly.
- Do not try to bluff. If you do not know the answer to a question, admit that. Then tell the person you will find out, and get their contact information so you can follow up with the answer later.
- Thank the audience when your time is over. For the rest of the site visit, reinforce the impression that you would be a valuable colleague by asking perceptive questions, and listening intently to everyone you meet. For an industrial interview, in addition to your technical seminar, be prepared to give a 10–15 minute summary to senior management, which may include scientists from disciplines other than your own. In this short presentation, cover your experience—subject background, project goal, research performed, conclusions, implications, and future plans. This is a good opportunity to show you can clearly communicate to people outside your field and relate your research to different disciplines.