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The ``rules'' below are for mathematicians seeking a tenure track
position at a research institution, such as the University of
Rules for a perfect math job talk
The goal of a perfect job talk is to convince the audience that
what you have done is an important piece of work, and that you will
continue to produce important math in the future.
Spend the first 20 minutes or so explaining what your field is about
-- what are the main questions? what motivates these questions?
In general, classification questions (eg. finite simple
groups) or long standing conjectures (eg. Fermat's last theorem) are
considered to be the best kind of questions. A conjecture by someone
like me will not cut it. A conjecture by your advisor is OK if he/she
is famous enough, but it is not great.
You want to relate your work to as broad an area of mathematics as you
Explain what you personally have done.
In this sense joint work may fare a bit worse than solo work. On one
hand, if a recognized leader in the field has joint work with you, it
is interpreted to mean that you are worth that person's time. On the
other hand, the department is not hiring your collaborators. So a
mixture of joint and solo work is good.
Blow everyone away in the last 5 minutes (but not more) of the talk.
- This rule is not universally believed in, and, when believed, is
less than readily admitted.
However, I do believe that you don't want the audience to understand
everything you've talked about. You want to prevent someone from deciding:
"I understand this well. It must be pretty trivial."
- You want to convey the impression that you have your own
- One more bit of information that may be relevant. In the present
crowded job market, the departments are risk averse. They want to
hire someone who they are pretty sure is going to get tenure.
- Mention contributions made by people in your audience.
- This may be a little sycophantic but they're going to be
wondering if what you do is of any interest to any of the present
- You may try and keep your talk fairly light and amusing.
- A joke here or there can help (though if overdone could
backfire). A lot of people in the audience will be wondering whether
you'd be a pleasant colleague. Here's your chance.
- Do not neglect the basics of a good talk:
- clear, large blackboard writing, clear speech (not too fast or
slow, directed to your audience, good eye-contact, a degree of
humility (pomposity always gets marked down, it seems) but not so
humble that you don't sell yourself), not erasing material as soon as
it's written, ...
- Also, the way your handle questions could be very
- Dress neatly, act confident, don't rely too heavily on your
- Be honest.
- Here is a story from Nigel Boston: ``I was recently at a talk
where the speaker tried to make out like he'd got a better result than
he really had. An expert in the audience stopped him in mid-talk to
point out that his result meant little without some proof of
non-degeneracy. The speaker wriggled a little but he was caught out
and his talk left a very poor impression of his work AND him. People
will now be wary of his claims, unless they make the effort to check
Acknowledgments I thank Nigel Boston
for the help in putting together this page. In particular,
``Additional advice'' is due to him.
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last modified November 28, 1997
1997 Eugene Lerman. All Rights Reserved.