Last week, I got a request for some advice, and thought I’d share a version of my answer with y’all here.
I recently went over why seminar speakers might give a talk. Now, the flipside:
What is to be gained by inviting and hosting a seminar speaker?
There are institutional advantages to running a seminar series: to promote an intellectual atmosphere in a department, build a diversity of viewpoints, train students and keep everybody current. However, when an individual person or laboratory decides to host a particular guest speaker, there are other primary motives at work.
Here is a non-exclusive list of goals of hosts, that could explain why certain speakers are picked for a seminar series.
Schmoozing for a postdoc. I think this is the main reason that speakers are invited. Grad students want to be able to land a postdoc, and PIs want their students to land postdocs. Bringing in potential postdoc mentors to build relationships with graduate students is an old tradition.
Hang out with your intellectual hero. There’s something special about academically famous people in your field. The chance to visit just have a coffee with, say, Bert Hölldobler or Dan Janzen would be mighty darn cool. When I was in grad school, one person I invited was Ivette Perfecto. My main motivation was because because her science is just so darn awesome, and the chance to hang out with her was tremendous.
Quality time with a friend. Wouldn’t it good to see an old pal you haven’t seen for a while, and catch up on what work they’ve been doing?
Being an alpha. Hosts could invite junior speakers in their same field which are sure to be flattering of their more esteemed hosts whom they are visiting.
Be a beta. Hosts could invite senior researchers in their field, upon whose feet they may grovel. How is this different from hanging out with your hero? Betas are looking for status and opportunity, while it’s also possible to invite someone for less careerist motives.
Develop the career of another scientist. It could be that you just want to give an a good experience to a junior scientist who does good work, who could stand to benefit from giving an invited seminar.
Work with a collaborator. Some work is a lot easier, or more effective, when you’re in the same room, rather than using various methods of remote communication. Why not bring your collaborator out on the department’s dime?
Build a culture of inclusiveness. It’s no accident that most visiting speakers that I invite to my university’s lecture series are early career women, often with an international background or from underrepresented groups. This helps promote the careers of these scientists who are at a structural disadvantage because of biases in the system. An even stronger motivation, from my standpoint, is that these speakers are inspirational role models for our students, most of whom are minority women. I can talk about a commitment to diversity until my white face turns blue, but the fact of who I am speaks more than my words. Regular exposure to the experiences of senior doctoral students, postdocs, and junior faculty who have backgrounds not so different from my own students are critical. This isn’t the only factor involved in extending an invitation, but it’s a big one for myself and others at my institution.
Trade favors. Bringing a speaker out might be to make someone owe you a favor or a way to repay a favor. This could be to help out someone’s postdoc, or help out someone with a shaky tenure case who could use a bit of external validation. This might sound like a silly motive, but not without precedent. Once, when I was organizing a symposium, someone asked me for a speaking slot, and if I did this favor, this person said that I would be invited for the seminar series.
Show grad students a variety of career options. The flawed default mode in many universities is that moving onto an R1 faculty position is the natural and expected progression after grad school. However, the majority of Ph.D. recipients don’t go this route. Inviting people who work in industry, NGOs, and governmental agencies can help broaden perspectives. Also, of course, you could invite a researchers based out of a teaching institution. This will definitely widen the job horizons of grad students.
Entertainment value. Some people are invited because they’re known for giving a really great talk, will fill the house, and will bring not only reflected praise on the hosts but also a good time.
Learning science. Some people actually invite seminar speakers because they want to learn about the science that’s being done by the guest.
And that’s it for the list. Feel free to add the ones that I’m forgetting in the comments. Or to tell a funny story, for that matter. We could use more funny stories in the comments, right?
Over the next couple weeks, my show is going on the road!
- 18 Oct 2013 – Boulder
- 28 Oct 2013 – Miami
No tickets required. I am likely to entertain, and there’s a good chance of some enlightenment. There’ll be fun natural history, big questions, medium-sized answers, and a refutation of dogma.
It’s not frequent that a person from a teaching-focused university, like myself, ends up getting invited to give a talk at an R1 institution. It’s not a freak of nature or anything like that either. But if you look at the roster of speakers in most seminar series, it’s usually a roll call of other research universities. So, when you see the roster of the departments hosting me, it tends to look something like this:
If you think that’s self-deprecating humor or some kind of dig at myself, please look in the mirror. Because Moab rocks. I love being from (the metaphorical) Moab. Clearly, Moab is the outlier, just like California State University Dominguez Hills is an outlier among Stanford, UMass, and the University of Vermont. That’s not a bad thing; I think it’s wonderful.
I just read something written by a professor who just left her job at an R1 university for a job at a Liberal Arts College, in order to solve a 2-body problem, and she is still settling into the new job:
This shows that there is still plenty of work to be done, when a researcher shows up on campus and doesn’t even realize that her own colleagues are also researchers, and perceive of themselves that way!
One of these days, perhaps, it won’t be so surprising that tenure-track faculty at colleges and universities see themselves as researchers, and that the broader community will recognize the same. The more they invite me, and other research-oriented faculty from teaching institutions, to seminars at R1 universities, this fact should become self-evident to grad students before they leave grad school.
If universities aren’t inviting research-active faculty from teaching institutions as a part of their seminar series, then they are only perpetuating the misrepresentation of the status quo in higher education.
But for the moment, these invites are uncommon, and it provides an extraordinary opportunity to show folks what kind of research happens at my university. I’m excited for the trip because it’s going to blow some folks away how badass my stuff is, and how many of them won’t even see it coming.
I’ve got my work cut out for me, because whether I like it or not, I’m representing a whole class of researchers who do great work in teaching institutions. Even after I give a kickass talk, it’s inevitable that at least a few people will think that I’m punching above my weight. But if I go in with that kind of attitude, then that would only reinforce the false notion that I might have a chip on my shoulder about not coming from a research institution. Am I conscious of the issues face by researchers in teaching institutions and how we are perceived? Of course I am – I started a whole blog about it!
So, I’m just visiting to have fun, hang out with fellow biologists, share what I can, and learn what I can. And if you’re on the front range or on the toenail of the Florida panhandle, then maybe we can chat about your stuff, frontiers in the community ecology of rainforests, and, of course, ants.
More on seminar series tomorrow.
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.