The regular seminar series is a cornerstone of departmental life for many institutions. Every week (or occasionally more/less frequently), a member of the department, or more often a visiting researcher, is invited to give an hour-long seminar about their research. But depending on the culture of the department, this can either be an incredibly enriching experience, especially for grad students, or one of the most pointless exercises in graduate education. There’s no magic bullet that can turn an ailing seminar series around and make it standing-room only, but there are some things that we can all do to put it on that path, from grad students up to department chairs and faculty deans.
Seminars should not be mandatory
The first indication that you have a problem with your seminar series is that it’s mandatory for grad students. This sends the signal that going to seminar is something they have to do, not something they want to do. It says that “we can’t get grad students to come voluntarily because our seminar series sucks, so let’s force them to attend!” This is treating a symptom, not an ultimate cause of the problem.
Hold seminars in an appropriate room
If your seminars are perpetually half-full, move to a smaller room. Nothing says apathy more than an experience I had giving an invited seminar at a Canadian university that shall remain nameless. The room was the department’s main lecture hall – a cavernous room of about 20 rows of seats that sat probably 200. The seminar was attended by maybe 60-70 people, 90% of which sat in rows 18-20. If the talk had been in a smaller classroom of ~75-100 seats, it would have given me a more positive view of my experience (rather than talking to a mostly empty room with a terrible echo). Seminars are a lot like theatre (in fact, I would argue that the job of producing a theatrical production has a lot in common with producing a seminar series). I wouldn’t hold a small one-act play with local actors at the St. James Theatre (a lovely place on West 44th in Manhattan that seats about 1700 people). Make the room fit the production.
Schedule seminars at an appropriate time
My personal favourite is Friday afternoons – a great time to unwind, and put my own work aside for an hour. Regardless of when they’re held, try to minimize the overlap with other classes, labs, or standing meetings (or at least rotate through somehow so the same people don’t miss seminar each term). I prefer end-of-the-day seminars, but then again, I don’t have kids to wrangle, or a long commute. Take the temperature of your department, and try to accommodate as many people as you can. If there’s a large group that perpetually can’t make it, try alternating times each semester (e.g., Fridays at 4 during the fall, Tuesdays at 10 during the winter).
Get student groups to organize speakers
When the department’s graduate student association takes responsibility for organizing speakers, booking the room and AV equipment, etc., it gives the students a sense of ownership over the series – it’s their seminar series. It’s also a fantastic way for students to contribute to the life of the department. Students will know the research interests of their peers, and they can draw on a large pool of interested parties to suggest speakers.
Maximize interaction between the speaker and the department
If the graduate students organize the series, have one of them act as a host for the day. We did this when I was at the University of New Brunswick, and I hosted two world-class researchers. I picked them up at the B&B near campus, they could stage their gear in my lab/office, and I shepherded them around for the day. After the seminar, we went to the grad bar for a drink (mine and the speakers’ were covered by the grad student association), and then off to dinner with 4-6 faculty and grad students for more informal chatting (again, mine and the speakers’ covered by a generous donation from the restaurant).
During the day, have the host coordinate meeting times with faculty and grad students even if the speaker is from the same department or university or town. Talk about research, talk about academia, talk about science, but the key is to get grad students interacting with the invited speaker. For early career-researchers that have been invited to give a seminar (or even grad students if that’s part of their program), the interaction with diverse faculty and students is important. Just because there’s a molecular ecologist speaking doesn’t mean s/he shouldn’t meet with the ethologist, and vice versa.
Balance speakers’ research interests, but not necessarily in proportion to those in the department
Having a balanced seminar schedule each term shows that there are no favourites. No one enjoys going to seminars week after week if the topic is radically removed from their own research interests. But even if your department has a large contingent of botanists, there are only so many weeks in the seminar series (usually about 8-10/term); filling half of those with botany talks isn’t going to make it a truly departmental seminar. Have a good mix of speakers so that there’s something for everyone.
Have/sell coffee/tea/beer; rotate “snack duty”
One of the great things about the seminar series at Memorial University of Newfoundland, where I did my PhD, was that the grad student society purchased beer from the student union, and sold it at seminar for $3/can. What better way to wrap up a Friday than seminar and a beer? And rather than purchasing snacks from a campus chain, delegate snack duty each week to a different research group (ideally matched with the speaker). If this is established at the start of term, it not only gets more students involved in the seminar series, but again encourages the collegial atmosphere of the department (make sure to thank the snack providers at the end, too!)
Have at least one non-science seminar each year/term
Bring in someone from the sociology, history, English, or other non-science department to give one seminar a term/year. My most memorable was when we had a faculty member from the philosophy department give a seminar on testimony, and how important it was to science. The room was packed, and the discussion at the end was engaging. So whether it’s someone to talk about science in literature, science and gender, the philosophy of science, or the history of science, mix it up mid-term.
Remember the audience
As a speaker, remember that your audience is a general biology audience. I don’t know what the FRK1 pathway controls (and what it’s downstream upregulation of cofactors does). Likewise, I don’t expect my audience to know about biological mercury pathways, or the nuances of Dirichlet distributions generated from Bayesian isotope mixing models. A seminar is an exercise in science communication, an important aspect of which is knowing your audience.
Establish and cultivate a culture of collegiality within the department
I’ve alluded to this above, but one of the best things you can do to make the department a welcoming haven of researchers from MSc to emeritus professors is to encourage collegiality. Grad students can and do make important contributions to the life in the department, and should be treated as colleagues. I often bantered, jabbed verbally, and chided jokingly with profs in my department, and they did the same to me. For many of us, the seminar series was a chance to unwind with colleagues in a casual atmosphere, and was the only regular place to interact with many in the department outside classes, committee meetings, and impatiently waiting for the printer/photocopier to be available. Embrace this time, and foster these casual connections. You never know when you might need to rely on those relationships.
At the end of the day, the seminar series is a pretty good bellwether or canary in the coal mine for assessing life in the department (and yes, it’s used by those there on job talks, too!). I don’t think I’m suggesting anything radical, and most of it comes from my own experiences. Take a look at your own seminar series – critically. What works? What doesn’t? Don’t be afraid to shake things up.