The Unwritten Rules of Chemistry SeminarsFebruary 11th, 2011
In the discussion that followed the arsenic-for-lunch post, commenter CR and I got into a spirited debate about the rules of etiquette for scientific presentations. It was my contention that it is considered socially unacceptable to ask long strings of questions during seminars, while CR insisted that there’s nothing wrong with it. I think there are many unwritten rules that pertain to seminars, and I promised to get back to the subject in due course. Earlier this week, a post by The Unlikely Grad Student (TUGS) titled “Notes to Seminar Speakers” reminded me to finish what I started.
I’m going to focus on social norms and questions of etiquette rather than how to prepare and deliver a scientific talk. This guide on how to give a research presentation is a good start, and I particularly like UIUC chemist Ken Suslick’s seminar on seminars. Moving on…
There are at least four types of stakeholders in attendance at your typical chemistry seminar: the speaker, the host, the professors in the audience, and the rest of the audience. Each set of stakeholders has its own responsibilities and expectations.
Give the host a title for your presentation so that people can judge whether they want to attend. This courtesy is especially important if your research program is littered across many disciplines. While “TBA” is acceptable if the talk is several months away, you should update the host when you’ve decided what it is you want to talk about.
Actually talk about the subject billed on your seminar flyer. Don’t change your mind and surprise everyone.
Dress well. Don’t wear jeans and a t-shirt. It’s a matter of respect, and people do judge books by their covers.
If you notice a build up of people standing after your seminar starts, consider halting your talk to invite the latecomers to fill vacant seats.
TUGS brings up an excellent point that you should learn the name of your host—particularly if it is a difficult one to pronounce—so you don’t look like an idiot when you thank the person who has kindly spent her day shepherding you around the department.
Find out how long seminars are supposed to last and plan accordingly. If everyone likes to get out within an hour, that does not mean your talk should last an hour. You should stop 10 minutes early so that there will be time for questions. Remember, people have seldom complained that a seminar was too short.
If you say you’ve got one more slide, make sure you have only one more slide. Don’t go on for five more slides. Putting up a slide that is titled “Future Directions” or “Conclusions” is the equivalent of saying that the talk is almost over.
Don’t get carried away with your introduction. People are there to hear the seminar, not you. Your intro should not take more than 3 minutes. If you’re reading lines off of the speaker’s CV, you’re doing it wrong. If you have a funny story to tell, make sure it is actually funny.
Ideally, the host will moderate the question session. After the audience applauds, you should get up, stand to the side, and formally open the floor to questions. You should select questioners and identify them by name.
It is the moderator’s job to make sure that question time does not carry on. Be merciful. Don’t let question time drag on forever. Know when to apply the coup de grâce. The classic line to use is “we can finish this discussion later on, let’s all thank Professor X once again…”
In uncomfortable situations, such as language barriers between the speaker and questioners, it is your job to attempt to rephrase or translate the question.
If a questioner becomes too aggressive, it is your job to try to diffuse the situation and move past it. The speaker is a guest of the department and should not be badgered.
…the Audience (in General)
If you enter the lecture hall more than five minutes or so past the start of the talk, find an empty seat towards the back or stand. Don’t disrupt the talk by climbing through the audience to reach an empty seat, unless the speaker invites you to do so.
If people look at you when you’re talking to the person next to you, you’re speaking too loudly. Shut up and pass notes instead.
If your boss invited the speaker, you should probably show up to the seminar…even if you’re going to be miserable.
It is perfectly acceptable to read a paper or check your e-mail if the talk stinks, but not in the very front of the lecture hall. If you plan on multitasking, sit in the wings or at the back of the room.
Don’t ask questions that you know the answers to. If you believe the speaker is unaware of a particular fact, state the fact outright and immediately follow it with your point. Seminars are not quiz shows, and you are not Alex Trebek. (This rule does not apply to professors when grad students are giving talks in their own department)
Don’t ask more than two questions in a row. Give other people a chance. Remember, you can always approach the speaker after the meeting has adjourned.
If you are not a professor yet you ask a question at every single seminar, people will think you are a tool. Yes, this is irrational, but that’s just the way it is.
…the Professors in the Audience
In the event that there is a lull during question time, the responsibility of asking questions falls to the professors present. That’s just the way it is. If you are a professor, you need to have a couple of rounds in the chamber by the end of the talk. A pause of anything more than five seconds is uncomfortable and rude.
Pitiful attendance at a seminar is embarrassing to the speaker and to the department. If attendence is typically a problem at your seminars, the faculty needs to explore ways to put butts in the seats.
If the lecture hall is routinely less than one-third full for weekly seminars, the seminars should be held in a smaller room.
Try to encourage students to ask questions by not necessarily jumping at the speaker from the very start of question time. A more timid member of the audience (i.e., everyone) won’t want to be third man in.
While you won’t get punished for breaking any of these rules, you won’t be doing yourself any favors, either.