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As a postdoc applying for a second postdoc position, I frequently email potential mentors. I have a question regarding two situations where the faculty member showed interest in my work but had no openings. Instead, they invited me to give a talk to their research group via Zoom. While I appreciate the opportunity to give a presentation and have done so before for departments and multi-PI journal clubs, I don't find giving a talk to a single group beneficial. The reason is that the audience members were either required to be there and not interested or trying to impress their advisors by asking questions, and some were very forward. In addition, both occasions involved faculties who were center directors. Therefore, if my work interests them and they are not simply looking for entertainment, I expect them to expand the talk to their center to at least allow me to benefit from networking opportunities. Another view is that these groups are important enough that I should be more than happy to present in their group meeting (one at MIT).

As a faculty or postdoc, what is your position on asking a postdoc to present their work to your group, and if I should ask them to upgrade it to at least a multi-PI level meeting if they want me to give a talk?

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    Perhaps, also consider that this is a chance for you to interview their group. In your case it may be good to see how the group interacts. Are they providing useful feedback to each other or trying to impress their advisor as you say? This may be valuable information if/when you decide on which group to join.
    – akozi
    May 11, 2023 at 13:34
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    As well, its possible to meet with more PI's without insisting. Maybe a response like: "Hi, (PI A) I would love to give a talk. Afterwards, maybe we could grab a drink with (PI B) as well..." In most cases you may just see other PI's afterwards and in some cases I imagine those that agree to meet after may want to attend your presentation without you insisting the presentation become larger. I think this is my last thought, otherwise I will group them into an answer.
    – akozi
    May 11, 2023 at 14:11

4 Answers 4

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I've done this myself a couple of times. Strictly speaking, the answer to your question is "yes", but you seem to be asking whether the benefits are justified. It can depend on personal factors, but some benefits:

Should I ask them to upgrade it to at least a multi-PI level meeting if they want me to give a talk?

If you genuinely think there's interest, I can't imagine anybody would be offended. Better yet, though, why not also express interest in visiting in person if they have the funds?

Therefore, if my work interests them and they are not simply looking for entertainment, I expect them to expand the talk to their center to at least allow me to benefit from networking opportunities.

I have difficulty imagining you mean this in the entitled way it comes across. Do you mean that you'd hope your host will advertise your talk to their Department or Center? I'm sure most people are willing to do that, though it might not increase attendance substantially. Otherwise, this sounds a little bit like you're saying you expect any invitation whatsoever to speak to people to be in an ongoing seminar or colloquium series. Reading slights into routine invitations even if you turn them down seems counterproductive to me, though.

As to benefits:

  1. If the group's in your research area you have a pretty high chance of your talk converting to future citations of your paper(s).
  2. If it sounds like they consistently run talks or meetings, you're helping them out a bit filling a time slot. No guarantees, but that's a favor to bank for the future when you're in a similar situation.
  3. Feedback in the form of questions is usually worthwhile.
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  • +1 to all of the benefits. You can certainly mention that you'd welcome interested folks from outside the group (some people may not; e.g., to keep unpublished data relatively close to their chest), but the "looking for entertainment" framing would come off as hilariously and toxicly entitled.
    – Matt
    May 11, 2023 at 17:07
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You should probably regard this kind of thing as a pre-interview for a position that doesn't exist yet.

Let's say you email me to enquire about positions. I don't have any money now, but my postdoc Alice has been interviewing for TT positions and I expect that I'll need to fill that post again soon. And I'm hoping to hear back from the funding agency any day now. Perhaps I'll even get around to writing that other grant application over the summer...

So, while I can't offer you anything right now, I am keen to know a bit more about you in case something comes up in future. And depending on how interesting you turn out to be, I might be more (or less!) inclined to make an effort to find money for you.

So, these talks are an investment in your future. They probably don't pay off now, but they may well impact what opportunities present themselves in a year or two's time. Whether that is a worthwhile investment depends a lot on your current and future plans.

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Giving a short talk at a single group's meeting has the following benefits:

  • Practicing your talk skills. Academia is full of terrible talk-givers. Doing good talks (preparing slides, speaking, answering questions) makes you a better academic and teacher. And the most efficient way to improve is to, well, give lots of talks to lots of different audiences.
  • Refining your "elevator pitch" -- that is, in a nutshell, what do you do and why should I (another researcher) care? To win grants, make collaborations, and reach wider audiences (such as for commercialization or media outreach), you need to master your marketing pitch.
    • "I make simulations very fast so people can efficiently model batteries, supercapacitors, and other electrical devices critical for our green future" is better than "I study matrix pre-conditioning and efficient GPU computations for dynamically charge equilibrated molecular dynamics simulations to accurately model conductive boundary conditions that can't be captured by planar dielectric approximations". It's taken me dozens of talks to get there, and I'm still improving.
  • Tailoring the generalist introduction to your topic. Giving lots of different talks to lots of different groups helps you gauge the "common knowledge" that you can assume, letting you skip to what makes you the best at what you do without leaving your audience in the dark.
  • Broadening your horizons with in-depth discussions. Giving a multi-PI talk means your subsequent discussion will remain at surface level; giving a talk to a single group will generate deep and meaningful discussion that can result in collaborations. (And if you haven't prepared for generating discussions based on the group's own expertise, you haven't prepared for the talk.)
  • Thickening your skin and deepening your gratitude. On one hand, an academic will always lose half their audience, simply because other academics are always distressed and harried. You might as well get used to it. On the other hand, you get the chance to share your work! You are doing something few others in the world do, and you have a chance to share your expertise with a community of like-minded people. Healthy scientific subdomains have vibrant communities where people love to share ideas and make friends -- don't ever take it for granted.
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Ultimately, this is a personal decision that depends on how you value your time, but in general I would say that as an academic there is hardly a thing as giving too many talks purely from a honing your skills perspective as detailed in another answer.

On top of that, being invited to give a talk by people who are not in your network (yet), should be seen as an honour as they are interested in your work and/or you as a scientist. So each invited talk is another line on your CV, so to speak.

Third, perhaps you should lower your expectations a bit. Even as a PI I still frequently give talks to 'just' a research group. I've also given full center talks where in the end only five people from a single group showed up. As well as talks for up to 300 people in the room. Either one of these can give rise to a good discussion and new network connections and future collaborations. Strength is in interest here, not in the size of the audience.

As an aside, with the advent of zoom it is probably easier to invite people for a talk than it was before, so you may need to be selective - but keep the above in mind.

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    Why being selective? People inviting you are in general interested, they don't have time to listen to research that is of no interest for them.
    – usr1234567
    May 10, 2023 at 9:02
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    I just meant to say that there is a limit - if this person gets 10 requests a month that's too much, but a few each year? That's what many postdocs would want!
    – BioBrains
    May 10, 2023 at 19:29

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