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Imagine a post-pandemic world where we can travel. You’re invited to give a talk at a university. You would present your research in front of room of faculty and grad students, have numerous one-on-one meetings, and go to lunch or dinner with some folks. Why should you go?

As the presenter, what are the goals of invited talks? How should I understand my objectives during these visits?

I’ve heard the saying that “Every talk is a job talk.” So I would treat these visits with a degree of seriousness and focus as if these folks were considering hiring me. But aside from that high bar for seriousness, what other reasons/attitudes do people approach invited talks with?

I see some possible reasons: Stay current on what people in my field are working on. Increase the visibility and impact of my research. Cultivate relationships with potential tenure letter writers. Brainstorm around potential research collaborations. What else? Why should one travel around to give talks at universities?

I’m a junior faculty member in the social sciences, and I recognize that some specifics vary by field and career stage, but I’m sure some lessons are broadly applicable.

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    Because humans are social creatures, and in-person social interactions are what we evolved to do. Zoom interactions really don't cut it as we all have experienced over the last few months. If the reasons you listed are not good enough for you, well, don't travel. All I know is that the large multi-site project I work on is suffering greatly from not being able to meet and discuss things in person. – Jon Custer May 4 at 13:50
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    I would guess that you have the ability to make collaborative connections, fine-tune your presentation skills, and disseminate research to people that might miss it in a journal. Those are some examples. I’d wager collaborators are of the most value though. – GrayLiterature May 4 at 13:51
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    You see a new city/country! This is one of the perks of our job, isn't it? – user111388 May 4 at 15:38
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    @leftaroundabout: if they are too busy for holidays, they either want it that way, have a problem with work-life-balance or do some relly important research (on the level of a Forona medicament). – user111388 May 5 at 16:58
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    Do you want your work cited or not? Are you interested in collaborations.. or not? – J... May 5 at 17:33
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As someone who has given a fair number of talks and has now had the "pleasure" of giving an online talk, I can say that the advantages of in-person talks include the following.

  • You can have informal chats with people from the audience. One of the main problems of online chatrooms is that there usually can be only one discussion at the same time. This precludes informal chats like this because no one wants to monopolize the only communication channel. Also there is a whole paraphernalia around talks, you go to lunch with interested people or whatever and can have more talks. If you're really treating them as job talks, then you want to talk about stuff other than research with people. Departments don't want to hire people who cannot integrate well; being someone that is pleasant to be around is a big plus, and you can't prove that if you just come, give your talk, and leave.
  • (In the same vein, giving a talk in person is the opportunity to visit the university/department and see if you'd enjoy working there.)
  • If it's a conference (i.e. >1 people come to talk) then you can meet the other presenters. It may be a nice way to meet people who have the same research interests as you. Also sometimes a good way to arrange meetings with existing collaborators who work far away.
  • You can meet people who don't come to your talk. Sometimes people are busy and aren't free at the precise time of your talk, but you can run across them in some corridor or something and talk with them. And somehow the busiest people are the ones you often want to meet, for obvious reasons. Maybe the department's big shot has ten meetings that day, but you can still catch her for ten minutes and leave a good impression.
  • Usually around the talk I would have long conversations with some people (usually the one who invites me) about our respective current research. Sometimes this can even lead to collaborations. It's hard to do online because this sort of discussion is "open ended" in some sense: you just talk about whatever goes through your head at that moment. I don't think anyone would consciously schedule an online conversation to do this, but it's extremely valuable.
  • People are apparently afraid to ask questions during talks. During a normal talk I usually have lots of questions during and after; at my online talk and the ones I've witnessed, much fewer questions are asked.
  • Giving an online talk is just awkward. Not many people enable their webcam, and nobody other than the presenter has their mic on. It's very difficult to know if your audience is reacting positively or negatively to what you're saying. It's very destabilizing.
  • There are also technical things. Having pre-prepared slides is good, but there is always some moment where you want to write something more on the board that you hadn't thought of, or some picture, or some motion you want to show off using your hands. It's difficult with an online talk.
  • Lastly, and some people may not want to openly admit this because it's a bit selfish, but if you enjoy traveling and visiting new cities, being invited to do it is always nice.

Of course a lot of this is a bit on you. I was once an insecure PhD student, and I tended to just stay hidden in my hotel room the night before, in the guest office if they had one the day of the talk, give my talk, not dare talk to anyone, and leave. Don't do that. Take advantage of the fact that you're there in person.

I would say that the only advantage of online talks is the ease of planning. As someone who also organizes a weekly research seminar, inviting someone is now as simple as shooting them an email. The other person just has to think about whether they want to give a talk that day or not. No travel to think about, no hotel no expense reimbursements, no administrative hurdles, no nothing.

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    This is a really excellent answer, but another reason is to build up your CV. If people are willing to spend money to pay for you to fly to visit their university and give a talk, that is a sign that your research is meaningful and important to people. It's like an expensive citation. – taciteloquence May 6 at 5:48
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I would assume that if someone has invited you to talk, they have found your research interesting. The talk is, perhaps, intended to be just the first contact in what might develop over time into a rich collaborative relationship.

I think that would be especially valuable to a junior faculty member. If you were a well established, senior, member of the academy they are more likely to be saying that they want to be associated with you and your reputation. For a junior member it is the other way about. We think you can add something here.

A circle of collaborators is one of the most valuable assets of a faculty member, especially one on the way up in the academy.

There is another possibility, however. Some places will have a young faculty member who doesn't yet have such a circle, and the existing members of the department aren't in fields closely enough related to provide support. They might invite people in just to support that person and give them both ideas and potential colleagues. I've seen this happen in practice, actually.

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    I guess there is also the reverse. Collaboration is always more fun in person. If there is a seminar schedule to fill and associated travel money to spend, why not invite one your regular collaborators for a talk and use the time together to advance some project? – mlk May 5 at 8:42
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Others have made excellent points already, but I might want to add an additional insight from the student perspective.

Q: Why should one travel around to give talks at universities?

To add back a little bit of diversity and to highlight other approaches.

Some universities / departments have a very strong bias towards one end of the spectrum (in terms of who they hire, what they are teaching). Invited talks are a great opportunity for students to learn something about what the rest of the world thinks / researches. Economics is a good example for this, as there are at least two bigger approaches to the whole subject. I know of a department where students are allowed to take a course that solely consists of invited talks (those talks are basically picked by students of the later semesters) to introduce other approaches and topics. This course is in high demand, and is very well received by the students.

With this answer, I want to highlight the giving aspect of the topic.

I think the gaining part is nicely highlighted already.

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Many good answers so far. A few more points that motivate me, personally, to give invited talks:

  • It's fun.

  • It gives me a venue to practice new material. I'm pretty open with many of my ideas-in-progress, especially in the relatively non-public environment of a department seminar, and so I can either try new ways of presenting my ideas and work, or present new in-progress ideas that need revision. Both the direct process of preparing to present the material, and the feedback and questions I get in the ensuing discussion, help me refine the pitch for the next talk, paper, or grant proposal.

  • It's a way of spreading ideas to people who might not otherwise see them. A well-attended department seminar includes quite a few people who are unlikely to go to the same conferences I do, and may not ever look up one of my papers if it weren't to see what this week's speaker is up to. This is especially important since my professional and scholarly goals include promoting attention to ethics and social responsibility in my profession broadly, not just my particular specialty.

  • It lets me meet interesting new people, including junior students who haven't yet started giving conference talks.

  • It demonstrates broader interest in my work, particularly if the host institutions are more prestigious than mine (pre-tenure review have commented favorably on my invited talks).

  • It gives me more extended opportunity to talk with colleagues than is often possible in the conference setting, and I like visiting their labs and meeting their students. It also provides more opportunity for providing feedback on student work-in-progress; while I can talk to a student at their poster, or chat in the coffee break, when I visit their group they can present at more length the project(s) they're working on and get more detailed feedback.

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The question that you have to ask yourself is: why did someone - and for the bigger and more reputable events, it's usually a panel of fairly distinguished individuals doing the selection - invite you to give a talk in the first place? And did they suggest a topic to you or leave it up to you to decide what you wish to say?

The point is you have been invited because the person or panel organising the talk believe that you have something important to contribute to the event. That at least a good portion of the intended audience will be interested in hearing what you have to say. If the topic has not been made clear, then you can focus on your main current or recent area(s) of research, provided they are concordant with the theme of the talk.

Let me try and address your main question - what's "in it" for you? I don't think you should view it primarily as an opportunity to impress potential future employers, although that may certainly come to pass - the primary goal is to give the best presentation that you can. As an academic, your overarching goal should always be to advance the frontier of scientific knowledge. Your presentation is therefore to publicise and explain your research so a wide body of people in your field (or something closely related to it) are aware of what you've done and are continuing to do on a certain research question.

If you've done this well, it will certainly improve your image and recognition among both your peers as well as potential "hirers" (even though the latter shouldn't be your primary motivation, as I said).

And, as others have mentioned, it can well spawn fruitful collaborations (beginning with the informal chats after your talk) from those in the field and even some people in other fields who just happened to sit in on your lecture. That sort of thing can lead to some truly unexpected and high impact multi-disciplinary collaboration if everything is aligned just right.

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    This is a great answer. Many other answers are talking about how it could be good for your career, and this is certainly an important aspect for junior faculty. But many invited talks are from senior faculty who have no interest in moving to the city where the talk is, and who don't need another line on their CV. So why do it? Well, this is a "falling in your lap" way to meet a bunch of people interested in your work. If you're junior, the interest itself is great. If you're senior and well known, you get to meet people who are interested in and experts in your work. Always enjoyable. – Matt May 6 at 8:08

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