The Unwritten Rules of Chemistry Seminars

February 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.

Rules for…

…the Speaker 

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. 

….the Host

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.

14 Responses to “The Unwritten Rules of Chemistry Seminars”

  1. Paul Says:

    And via Stu’s Twitter feed, a story of how buzzword bingo at a department’s biochemistry seminars actually improved attendance and audience participation.

  2. Stu Says:

    The ‘friend’ mentioned in that blogpost is actually me – and the seminars were in the chemistry department (at UCLA) not the biochem dept – it’s just that the author of the blogpost didn’t like the seminars that were more biochem in flavour… but anyway, it really did work in increasing attendance and attention! We sold bingo cards for $1 and the winner took it all ($24 I think…)…!

  3. Curious Wavefunction Says:

    Great points. I would also recommend that the host learn to pronounce the speaker’s name correctly; I have encountered this problem much more often.

    About the title of your presentation, make sure it’s not too general and uninformative (such as the classic Woodwardian “Recent Advances in the Chemistry of Natural Products”) or too sensational (such as “the Last Great Unsolved Problem in Organic Chemistry”- a guy I knew actually did this and his talk sucked). A catchy title might draw the audience in, but the gap between promise and reality is just going to be highlighted even more if your presentation then disappoints.

  4. Jordan Says:

    My seminar pet peeves are introductory slides that are narrated with comments like:

    “I’m sure that the organometallic chemistry of alpha-beta-gamma methyl-ethyl-propyl-zenolates is an area that is already very familiar to this audience, so let’s just get into the details of this new system…”

    Comments like these let the speaker alienate most of his audience at a stroke (except Prof. X and the three people in his group who work in that area) and make the rest of the seminar blissfully context-free for everyone else.

  5. Jordan Says:

    Here’s another one: room sizes. If a seminar series is usually held in a room that is too small or too big for the typical audience size, get a new room. Nothing is worse than standing through an hour-long seminar (except perhaps having a sea of empty seats in a big lecture hall).

  6. sam Says:

    I don’t understand how anybody could think it’s a good idea to ask several questions in a row while others are waiting to ask questions. Just like I don’t understand my some folks insist on peeing on the bathroom floor. Asking several questions is inconsiderate of others in the room. Seems obvious, but there’s always someone who thinks they’re more important that everyone else there.

  7. sam Says:

    I think it’s the host’s responsibility to have one question in his or her back pocket, just waiting in case there no one asks a question. One of the most embarrassing things a host can do is let the audience leave without anyone asking a single question. It’s rare, but when it happens, it’s really terrible. Also, sometimes the question session needs a nucleation point, and if you as the host ask a question, several will follow.

    That said, I think it’s rude when the host jumps right in with the first question, without giving the audience a real chance (5 real seconds) to ask anything.

  8. Paul Says:

    All good points.

    And lest anyone thinks I am not totally badass, I meant “clip” instead of “chamber”. You’ve got problems if you have a couple of rounds in a chamber.

  9. Chemjobber Says:

    Also, the host should know who has bad questions and make an effort to not call on them.

    I agree with Sam’s 2nd post a lot. The stunning silence is always a tough one, but it happens. Also, don’t make it worse by trying to flog the audience for questions.

  10. excimer Says:


  11. Chemjobber Says:

    So, food before or after?

  12. Paul Says:

    One thing that Columbia does better than any other school I’ve seen is seminars. They have a tea & cookies gathering before the talk, and the cookies are excellent. Their lecture hall is great, and the meeting place for the wine and cheese afterparty is also good.

  13. wolfie Says:

    “Give the host a title for your presentation so that people can judge whether they want to attend.”

    Yes, please.

    Exaggerate, whenever possible, so they will actually attend.

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