Job Market Advice – The Big Picture

Rajmakal Iyer from MIT came to present to our department today, and the Ph.D. students met with him as we usually do.  We asked him about his advice for students, and especially for students going on the job market.  He said the mistake most people make is to assume that their interviewers have read their paper and want to talk more about the specifics.  Raj’s tips are summarized as follows:

  • Nobody has read your paper, beyond the title and maybe the abstract.
  • Tell them in 1-2 sentences what your big idea is – where does your paper fit into the real, interesting, big picture.
  • Don’t forget your big picture when people are asking questions about specifics during your presentation.
    • If necessary, point the questioner back to the big question you’re trying to answer and tell them it doesn’t hurt you even if they are right.
    • If necessary, tell the questioner he or she has it wrong–nobody knows your paper better than you.  Stand your ground and tell them why their understanding is not correct.
    • When the questioner is right and it may hurt your results, admit it, thank them, and move on.  You might mention how you tried to address the issue, or how you could try to address the issue.  You may also say that there is no good way to address the issue and admit that your paper hinges on assumptions you make.  Defend your assumptions.
  • Job interviewers do not expect you to have everything right.  If they did, they’d offer you tenure on the spot.  They want to see how you think and what you find interesting.
    • Don’t just focus on one paper in your presentation.
    • Make clear how you intend to extend your work in pursuit of your big questions.

Raj had Brian Baugh, who is going onto the market this year, practice his elevator pitch for a few minutes.  Knowing nothing about Brian’s paper beforehand, Raj was able to present it in so much more clearly and concisely than Brian, once he understood the basics.  I think Brian found this very helpful.