Monday, October 8, 2012

Seminar Attendance: A Pep-Talk for Grad. Students

Grad. students are busy, busy, people. That's true, no matter what discipline or what institution we're talking about. They're busy with their course-work, comprehensive exams, research, drinking beer, working as teaching assistants and research assistants, maintaining relationships with partners and children..............Grad. students even get to sleep every now and then!

So, something has to give. One way to grab an extra two or three hours each week is to avoid attending, and participating in, the research seminars put on by your department. Is that a smart choice, though?

I was giving this more thought than usual, recently, when I met with our incoming class of grad. students to see how they were "settling in". I'm looking after grad. advising this semester, and I gave the group a little "pep talk" about the benefits of attending seminars. We run a traditional  weekly "visiting speakers" seminar series, as well as a less formal weekly "brown bag" series. The latter generally draws on our own faculty and grad. students for speakers, and the material that's presented tends to be "work in progress".

The combined time commitment for participants at the two seminars is two and a half hours (plus drinking time any time spent hosting, and talking individually with, visiting speakers).

So, if you're a grad. student, there's an opportunity cost to being actively involved in your department's seminar program(s). The same is true for faculty members too, of course. So, what are the benefits that keep us all trotting along to the seminar room week after week, year after year? Presumably (we at least think that) these benefits outweigh the costs.

I don't have a complete answer - after all, we all have our own reasons - but I'll bet that some of the following reasons apply to a lot of us. And they're just as applicable to grad. students as they are to old geezers like me!
  • You get to meet, listen to, and interact with, some pretty interesting people. (And I don't mean the faculty members you see every day!) Some of them may actually be famous already. Others will go on to become "household names" in your discipline, and you'll be able to tell your grandchildren that you actually met them when they were just untenured Assistant Professors.
  • You get to hear someone talk about a topic that doesn't interest you in the slightest. Isn't that cool?
  • Surprisingly often, you get to see that, by comparison, your own research is going pretty darn well!
  • You might be lucky enough to hear a lucid explanation of a new "hot" area of research, from someone who's actively involved in that topic. That's much more efficient than taking on a bunch of reading without having a clue about what's important and what's peripheral to the topic.
  • You can pick up some good ideas about how to present material effectively - as well as seeing first-hand how not to present a seminar.
  • You get to see how different researchers pose interesting problems, and how they then tackle them.
  • You might learn about useful technical "tools" that the speaker is applying to her research problem. Even though you don't really understand that particular problem, and the speaker's field bores you to death, you suddenly realize that her "toolkit" could be invaluable to you in your own (unrelated) research.  
  • You broaden your horizons (without the expense of a Mediterranean cruise). Yep, we all get deeply involved in our own narrow sub-sub-sub-fields. It doesn't hurt to emerge occasionally.
  • You get to see apparently intelligent people make fools of themselves. When your own studies or research are at at a low ebb, that's better than a cold beer chicken soup!
I've been attending Economics seminars for 42 years. To be perfectly frank, a very large proportion of them have left me wondering why I keep on doing this to myself! But there have also been some fantastic presentations by current and future Nobel Laureates; many highly provocative and entertaining talks by speakers I'd never heard of; and some really solid and polished performances from current or recent graduate students.

Find a way of including seminars in your weekly schedule. It's like going to the gym - it may seem to be hard work at the time, but the long-term benefits will make it all worthwhile.

© 2012, David E. Giles

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