Running an unfunded seminar series, and traveling to speak for one

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Do you have a funded seminar series? How often can you bring in outside speakers? Do you wish you had the opportunity to bring in people more often?

I think a seminar series can be important for a vibrant intellectual community, though in small ponds, there are some challenges in pulling it off. It might be harder depending on where we’re located, how much funding we have, and the personnel available to run the series on a regular basis. Also, building a culture supporting a seminar series doesn’t come overnight (as folks mentioned in the comments about this post.) While there’s a lot to be said for drawing from the local talent pool, it is nice to bring in an occasional speaker from elsewhere. And that’s true even in here LA, where we have so many wonderful people to draw from.

There are a lot of different reasons why folks want to host outside speakers, and when speakers show up, they have their own priorities, which can vary a lot. We’ve been fortunate to have funding for our series on my campus, and we typically work to bring in junior scientists with identities and experiences closer to that of our students, and also to have a mix of subfields in biology, and also of course to have cool science. And to connect our students with people who can help provide them opportunities.

I’ve been giving more thought to how funding disparities affect the capacity of a department to host people. I realize that whenever I’ve traveled more than a couple hours to give a talk, it’s been to a university that is very well funded. And when it’s at these big institutions, it’s in a seminar series that brings in speakers from a national pool nearly every week. When huge and well-funded campuses bring in more outside speakers, and those who are more prestigious, this compounds existing inequities. These seminar series help build networks among those who are well connected, often making tighter networks that are less inclusive. It makes me uncomfortable that, by just going with the flow, I’ve contributed to this disparity. Living with this discomfort for a while has been making me want to do something about it.

There’s a guy I know who is funded by a private foundation and he’s encouraged to use some of his funds to give a seminar wherever he goes. So he offers up himself to other institutions that don’t have an actively funded seminar series, and folks take him up on his offer. So he’s talking at a variety of SLACs, regional state universities, and some more remote campuses of various sorts. He gives a good talk, and is an engaging person who can provide useful interactions with students, and so this is a win-win.

While I don’t have that private foundation funding, I do have more frequent flyer miles than I am able to allocate to personal travel. I literally can fly to visit other campus to give seminars, even if they don’t have the budget for it. If I simply accept the funded invitations without making sure to visit institutions that haven’t budgeted for a seminar series, I feel like I’m amplifying the disparities experienced by students at these institutions. It’s not as if a 1.5 day campus visit by your truly is transformational for all parties involved, but what if we all made a point of distributing our seminar visits to all institution types? What if you budgeted in the broader impacts of your proposal the funding to visit talks to campuses that would like you to visit?

Next semester, I have one out-of-town seminar on my calendar. I could probably find time to do another one at some point in 2020, and I can fund this trip out of frequent flyer miles, hotel vouchers, and a smidgen of grant funding. I wonder how I might do this in a way that is most useful and helpful for all parties involved. I mean, if a seminar series isn’t well established at an institution, then hosting a guest is plenty of work for the host. I suppose I could contact colleagues at institutions that might want/appreciate a visit, and see if we can make it work? It feels weird to invite oneself, and most people just don’t have the personal bandwidth to host guests who invite themselves. We don’t have an existing apparatus for asking people to come to speak for free. I’ll have to mull this over. How might one go about this? I should ask that guy how he does this.

(Speaking of which, did you know that you aren’t allowed to pay for the travel of NSF program officers? And that they also often like to visit campuses and the feds can cover travel expenses? That’s one way to fund scientists to visit your campus!)

Any thoughts?

5 thoughts on “Running an unfunded seminar series, and traveling to speak for one

  1. I think you’ll have to reach out if you want to pay for yourself. As someone running an underfunded seminar series, I would never reach out to someone outside of our travel range – it seems extra-rude to email an invite and then say ‘by the way, you’d have to pay airfare.’

    Our SLAC does receive unsolicited emails from the bio department at one of the less-well-known R1s within driving distance, which spends money to send faculty to small colleges in the area with the hope of recruiting graduate students and encouraging collaborations. For a school without the name recognition of the two giant universities in the immediate area, it’s probably a relatively low-cost way to compete for students. We’ve had several good speakers that way.

    • Another thought is that a conference (or similar) might be a great place to start this conversation – “Hey, I’d love to give a talk about this at X sometime and I am willing to pay for my own travel. Let me know if or when that would be interesting and feasible for your seminar schedule.” Then leave it up to the other party to reach back out.

  2. I’ve chaired a seminar committee at a mid-size university that has historically operated on a tight budget. We grad students formed a student club to be able to apply for general event funding, and have done a lot of fundraising in the community to get enough money. In short years, we particularly focus on inviting local environmental professionals (e.g. Forest Service, state fish & wildlife), which has the added benefit of showcasing different career paths beyond academia and increasing overall dialogue with local agencies. We do get occasional “cold calls” from scientists who will be visiting for research or personal reasons, and almost always find some time for them. Most of these are cases where the person’s lodging and travel is covered by some other circumstance.

  3. I started my current post-doc position at this smallish university in “regional” Australia about a year ago. I quickly got put in co-charge of running the mostly-every-two-weeks seminar series for the cluster of departments in this “theme”. I have seen the email template that would have been sent out in years past, promising to cover the costs of travel and a couple of nights in a hotel for an invited speaker. However, my attempts to follow up on this and unlock some funding to bring in a speaker were frustrated by the relevant employee at the Research Services office who informed me this university no longer has funds that can be applied to a person who comes here ONLY to give a seminar talk. The usual meetings with students / profs / etc. and a nice dinner were considered part of that “only a seminar talk” reason for the invite.
    My co-convener was able to bring in somebody for a talk and a workshop that taught some people here about some new geospatial software for geology the speaker had developed. The funding for that (a few hundred dollars) came from somewhere else, possibly the geology department.
    If it’s awkward to ask someone to come and pay their own way, it’s doubly awkward (to me) to ask someone to come for a longer visit and do a pile of work while they’re here (in addition to the preparation for something like a half-day workshop).

  4. My R1 used to have grad recruiting funding and they would send junior faculty to smaller universities…. this was supposed to help with recruiting (no evidence for that when we looked at it) and help junior faculty get seminars on their resume…. if they wanted. Trips to CA were very popular…. many seminars on one trip. I know some of the smaller schools (chemistry) were open about that this is how they fill seminar slots… kind of win-win….

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