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My research lab organizes monthly “internal” seminars, where we give the opportunity to talk to PhD students around the middle of their PhD, as well as newly arrived post-docs (who can talk about what they did before and present their project). However, attendance is a big problem, and it's the same people who never show up, unless the speaker is from their group. I suppose good team leaders encourage their whole team to show up, while a few others have told me point blank that they consider it “wasted time”, because it decreases the time students can work at the lab bench. So, while they cannot forbid them to attend, they just discourage them.

So, I am wondering what we can make to help increase student turnout. What do you use to attract people to seminars? We have tried coffee and sweets, which didn't work very well.

Some specifics, if it can help: research lab is about 25 permanent staff, and between 2 to 3 times that number of students and post-docs. Seminars are held every month, rotating between teams.

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So, I am wondering what we can make to help increase student turnout. What do you use to attract people to seminars?

Short answer: Make the seminars useful for the group members.

First, the diagnosis: The group members are probably too narrow-minded and do not understand that getting insights from currently irrelevant topics does in fact become often very useful in the long-run. The group members seem to optimize in a greedy manner for their short-term interests, shooting themselves in foot in the long-run. It seems, they do not understand that seeing connections between dots at some future timepoint is much much easier if you saw the dots and their contexts before. But this does not come by direct explanation, they need to realise it by themselves. It's your task to set the example and at least showing how at least you benefit from the seminars. This is a long-haul task and has to do with your general attitude to world. In the short term, you can perhaps do the following:

  1. push for all group members (including the professor(s)) giving conference rehearsal talks - if you are in an area where going to conferences makes a difference. At the talks encourage giving the speaker not only content-relevant feedback, but more importantly methodological feedback on how to speak.
  2. invite external speakers and actively support networking of the group members with the speaker. Especially in informal interactions (which are often started by interactions during, or right after the talk), people tend to find common interests and receive feedback on their own work. Possibly start even a small collaboration. The idea here is to, over time, show the group members that attending tangentially relevant talks is useful for cross-breeding of ideas.
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Yeah… the point about external speakers is that it clashes with the aim of giving our younger scientists (PhDs and post-docs) an opportunity to talk about their work… Regarding rehearsal talks, it's not something we do on this big scale (usually it's team-scale, meaning 5 persons rather than ~30), but I'll think about it… Thanks! –  F'x Jan 23 '13 at 11:21
    
@F'x: conference audience is relatively large (>5), hence big scale is good –  walkmanyi Jan 23 '13 at 13:29
    
I would disagree with the narrow-minded diagnosis, it can be very real that a student deep in his PhD will rather spend his time doing more experiments or surveys than hearing about a whole new topic that might not help him/her with the dissertation. It will be a waste of time, and he/she would end up doing extra hours, and probably with a bit of resentment. –  Leon palafox Jan 24 '13 at 2:17
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a student deep in his PhD will rather spend his time doing more experiments or surveys — Sure, but following that urge is not necessarily better in the long run. Their research life doesn't end with their dissertation! –  JeffE Jan 24 '13 at 4:50
    
Yeah I know, but still, it's very demanding and frustrating having to present results sometime next week and there is a 2 hr seminar that you have to attend to. You are going to end up reading your own material while the speakers go on. Is just human nature. –  Leon palafox Jan 24 '13 at 11:22
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In my university, we have the students seminar around 12pm with pizza at the end. Using a time slot when most people are free usually helps. And although sweets are good you can't survive on that, free lunch on the other side is always a plus.

Else we also have seminars friday around 4pm with snacks and beers afterward. It is a time when most people are not as productive as the rest of the week, and the ability to socialize afterward with the rest of the department is always a plus.

Of course, the best way would be to engage the leaders. Maybe invite them to give a talk and try to make it worth their while so they can see that the goal of those seminars is not only giving the talk but the discussions that can flow out of it.

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I am all about the lunch time seminars, where you can eat at the seminar. I feel like eating and getting a seminar is a good use of my time. –  StrongBad Jan 23 '13 at 11:26
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I suppose good team leaders encourage their whole team to show up, while a few others have told me point blank that they consider it “wasted time”

First I wouldn't put a quality judgment on the team leaders. Hopefully all the team leaders are "good". Further, hopefully all the team leaders have done a cost-benefit analysis of their staff attending and have simply come to different conclusions.

The problem does not seem to be the junior staff, but rather the example set by the senior staff. I would argue that you do not want to encourage the junior staff to "disobey" their team leaders by offering sweets. The permanent staff needs to come to a consensus as to whether or not these meetings are useful and who should attend. The possible outcomes are as follows:

  1. The meetings are a waster of time and should be canceled
  2. The meetings are critical for all groups and attendance should be mandatory
  3. The meetings are useful for some groups but not others ant those that want to attend should attend
  4. The meetings are critical to some groups and require participation from all groups and attendance should be mandatory.

Once a decision is reached, it is the lab director (the person responsible for the 25 permanent staff) to see that it is carried out.

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Yeah, good/bad was a bit narrow. The judgment of value is mine own: I see that these PhD students get very little scientific interaction with other people. They typically go to few conferences, and skip even local seminars. The lab director has decided that attendance is highly recommended, but doesn't want to clash with its staff. As organizer, I am trying to find a positive way of increasing the participation of these students in seminars… –  F'x Jan 23 '13 at 11:18
    
@F'x you might want to take a lesson from the lab director; if he doesn't want to clash with staff, maybe you shouldn't either. I believe this needs to be addressed from the top down. At a minimum, I would want to know why the director is hesitant before fighting the battle. –  StrongBad Jan 23 '13 at 11:23
    
The idea is not to clash, but to find ways of encouraging students to stand up if they want to, by making the seminar more attractive to them one way or another. Somehow, you're saying “either order them to order the students to go, or leave the matter alone”. I'm trying to find a way in-between, because the first one is not gonna happen, and I'm not very happy with the second one. –  F'x Jan 23 '13 at 11:28
    
Sometimes clashes are necessary. –  JeffE Jan 24 '13 at 4:51
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Identify the needs/wants of the people you want to attend.

You are currently phrasing the benefit of these seminars from the perspective of the speakers (i.e., to provide an opportunity for PhD students and postdocs to present their work). This is a noble goal and I would keep it as a goal but if you are having attendance problems then perhaps the other members of the lab do not see this as a useful activity (you mention that some have clearly expressed this).

So you need to identify what they would want from the seminars. Perhaps more informal chalk-talk discussions, a journal club where each paper is based around the work of a student or postdoc, etc... would generate more interest.

If those that do attend are consistently talking about how useful the experience is, then attendance will go up.

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One thing you can do is also use this time slot to present additional information that people will want to hear. For example, you can add a 5 minute "news cast" about the lab: who's new, who is leaving soon (and what they will be doing), general announcements, lab babies, whatever announcement people will have. We are doing this at my group.

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