Why give a seminar?


What is the purpose of an invited seminar?

Everybody wants to give a great seminar. But when the speaker gives the talk, what is the purpose or goal of the talk? What is the speaker trying to accomplish?

The purposes of dissertation defenses and job talks are obvious. However, whenever an invited speaker comes to give a seminar as a part of seminar series, the speaker could show up with many different kinds of priorities and purposes. We all have a variety of motivations that are context-dependent. Visiting speakers have overt and tacit messages that they have designed to be delivered in their slightly-less-than-an-hour timeslots.

Here is a classification of the non-exclusive goals that speakers might seek to accomplish in a seminar.

Build a reputation as an important scholar.  Seminars can be used to help the speakers grow the perception that they, and their work, are important. To some extent the invitation to give the seminar itself is a validation, but the delivery of the talk is required to cement that validation and help people spread work.

Being an alpha.  Some speakers know that they don’t need to build their reputation, but they can use the time allotted to them in a seminar to assert their dominant status. These talks might be used to stake out territory of interest to people working in the institution sponsoring the visit.

Be a beta. If the visiting speakers were invited by more prestigious research groups, then the speakers might choose to demonstrate behavioral submissiveness to the dominant hosts.

Bask in one’s legacy.  Some speakers don’t want to say anything particularly new, but want to use the time to provide an overview of the major accomplishments that have been made over a successful career.

Promote students and postdocs.  Seminar speakers are often invited to be the schmoozed, but they also can use seminars to promote the work of the members of their own labs. These kinds of talks heavily feature the roles of lab members in work presented in the talk.

Be entertaining and have fun.  Some talks are designed to entertain the audience rather than inform. Moreover, the speaker could be giving the talk just for the fun of it.

Show off smarts.  On some occasions, the speakers just want to show off how smart they are. This is likely to involve a number of obscure details that the audience wouldn’t want to bother understanding.

Not embarrass oneself.  The imposter syndrome is well described in academia and speakers might not recognize that they are up to the task or are worthy of an invited talk. Other speakers might feel great about their science but are not sure that they can give a great talk. So, just getting through the talk without screwing up might be a goal of its own.

Build collaborations.  When scholars visit one another’s institutions, the social context and resource access can facilitate collaborations more readily than what might occur at a professional conference. The seminar might be constructed to demonstrate opportunities where collaborations could be most fruitful.

Recruit students or postdocs.  Faculty should always be on the lookout for motivated and talented future lab members. If there are potential recruits in the audience, the talk could serve not only as inspiration but also communicate clear possibilities for exciting student projects.

Give a lesson or advocate for an approach to how science is done.  Oftentimes, seminars are most interesting not because of what was learned, but because the person presenting the work explained their rationale for choosing their experiments and provided arguments for the effectiveness of their approach to doing science. Speakers might choose to use their talk to give a lesson about more abstract ideas about the best ways to do science.

Argue for or against a pet theory, or shape the future of the field. Speakers might not be so heavily focused on their own findings, but instead use the seminar to advocate for or against a broader theory or direction for the field.

Pick an unnecessary argument.  Some people are inherently antagonistic. They might think so strongly that the advance of knowledge emerges from arguments among academics, that they pick arguments and intentionally say controversial things to get the ball rolling on arguments.

Be cool.  Some people need to show that what they are doing is cool. Obviously this purpose could overlap with other purposes, such as building a reputation or having fun. But sometimes, being cool is most important.

Inspire a new generation of scientists. Some speakers design their seminars specifically to be inspiration for the grad students in the audience. They might not be working hard to market their own ideas, or promote themselves, but to provide guidance for the junior scientists.

Actually give a science lesson.  This might sound crazy, but some people design their talks so that they are giving a lesson about their own scientific research so that people can understand more about the world.

And that’s it for the list.

So, what are my priorities in giving a talk? I’m all for everybody having fun. If someone in the audience sees potential for collaboration, then that would be really cool. I make sure that my students get appropriate credit when due, and I highlight the fact that my lab is an undergrad-run operation. I also want the grad students there to see what I’m doing and realize that a job at a teaching institution is compatible with mighty awesome research. Of course, I really do want people to learn a bunch about the topic of the seminar, and more generally I like to make the case that we need to change how we do science. (For example, in my next batch of upcoming seminars, I argue that orthodox ideas often are nonsensical and not well supported, and my whole talk is built around one of those ideas.)

And, I’d be dishonest if I ignored the fact that giving a kickass talk makes one look good in the professional arena, which has practical long-term career advantages. It’s all a part of the dumb sociological game in science. While we can pretend to transcend the game, we are on the game board whether we like it or not.

Later this week, I’ll be considering the various priorities that people have in mind when hosting a visiting speaker.

5 thoughts on “Why give a seminar?

  1. Well. I certainly had fun reading this. I never considered that there may be any other reason for giving a talk other than sharing your work and receiving feedback, since all work tends to be work in progress. Learn something new every day.🙂

  2. How about ‘Get feedback on a grant concept?’ I have given talks where I synthesized previous studies and presented them as a framework for future research in what seemed to me to be potentially worthy of funding. But, it was early days in that part of my research agenda and I wanted open discussion and feedback from a broad audience. I didn’t mention the funding goals of the work, I just put the ideas out as an argument for the novel piece of my research agenda.

  3. That’s a really good point. Another one might be, propose a really crazy idea and see if it sticks.

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