Biocurious is a weblog about biology, quantified.

Anatomy of a seminar

by PhilipJ on 23 January 2008

They don’t all go like this, but the vast majority of seminars I attend seem to follow this general outline.

1. Introduction of Esteemed Speaker by Local Professor with the largest overlap in research interests. Enumeration of every award Esteemed Speaker has ever garnered is standard issue, and if Local Professor and Esteemed Speaker know each other, humorous story from “well, not THAT long ago” is recounted, though chances are you probably had to be there (unless it involves breaking obscenely expensive equipment, in which case everyone has a good laugh).

2. Esteemed Speaker takes over, and begins with a bunch of overly broad introductory slides. Naive audience members might think cancer was about to be cured, or a theory of everything (or at least, everything the speaker is interested in) is near discovery.

3. (For experimental talks, which are the majority I see.) Very brief overview of experimental technique presented, to the point that you have no idea how anything is being measured. Sample prep usually not even mentioned, despite having been years-long labours of love for at least a few graduate students who may or may not have even lasted long enough to see the experiments carried out.

4. A handful of slides on results, culminating with a question, usually from Local Professor, which elicits the following response from Esteemed Speaker: “Well, it’s not QUITE that straightforward” often followed quickly by “We can talk about it after if you like.”

5. A conclusion with extremely specific results, with no cure for cancer or the unification of gravity and quantum mechanics in sight.

6. An acknowledgement slide of all the graduate students and postdocs who actually did the work presented, where the couple of students or postdocs who have since found gainful employment are highlighted. Students in the audience wonder what the other 90% of the former lab members are doing, and then get depressed thinking about their own futures. (Alternatively, this could have been at the very beginning of the talk.)

If nothing else, number 4 is a shoe in. Related to this, I am finding more and more that the kind of talk given in a group meeting environment is more interesting: there’s no grand-standing, there’s no “massaging” of the data, and there is usually good discussion about the real issues faced on data analysis and collection, or the development of simulations, or what have you. Basically all the stuff that is, in number 4 above, brushed over and relegated to a private discussion between Esteemed Speaker and Local Professor after the talk, despite the fact that this is where a lot of the interesting science is found.

I guess I could rephrase my displeasure this way: results are, to first order, presented as though everything fits into a nice little box. But everyone knows that’s rarely the case in research. Also worth reading, YoungFemaleScientist voiced her displeasure with seminars in a slightly different way here (though I don’t agree that most speakers are out to please the old white guys in their field).

  1. Frederick Ross    3862 days ago    #

    Ah, but there’s are good reasons for this format!

    (1) allows Local Professor to accrue face. The enumeration of all the awards is an attempt to make the fame of the speaker apparent so as to maximize that face.

    (2) occurs because the esteemed speaker has grown so used to this kind of introduction in writing grants that it seems like it is actually an introduction to the science. This view is possible because he hasn’t done any science in twenty years and is a glorified secretary, but less useful (labs can run just fine without their professors but not without their secretaries).

    (3) is brief because the speaker has no idea. As I said, he hasn’t done any science in twenty years.

    (4) is the professor’s minimal understanding of what’s going on, and local professor’s question is a further attempt to build face. Brushing off the question is a defense mechanism by the speaker. Offering to discuss it afterwards is a concession to the little voice in his head which remembers some caveats his grad student stated about this.

    (5) is a desperate attempt to give the audience some idea of what his lab has accomplished, since he botched it in (4).

    (6) is an attempt to keep his students from lynching him, preserving his body in formaldehyde, and propping it up in faculty meetings as necessary in order to keep the lab on the books.

    Disclaimer: I actually have a really good relationship with my advisor, who has essentially ceased to travel and give talks, sends his students and postdocs to conferences instead, and has recently reclaimed a bench in the lab.

  2. Laura    3862 days ago    #

    Amazingly accurate, even though I’ve only attended a few seminars since they tend to be scheduled at times only principal investigators and non-research staff can attend. Generally, it seems those on the “front lines” doing the science pop in, listen for ten minutes and realize it’s not applicable to them at all, and run back to their benchwork; they rarely have enough time to witness all the above.

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