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I lead a research group of ten PhD students in the field of cancer research. We are doing pretty well and we are the top group at our institute in terms of publications, service and general motivation. I have high but certainly not unrealistic expectations to my students, I closely supervise them and I am trying to guide them towards becoming complete and well-equipped scientists.

Although they are generally doing really well, I noticed that frequently my students don't attend the departmental lunchtime seminars, although I made it clear that I expect them to be there. This is true for both, those talks that are not associated with our research topic and those that are. I mentioned this several times in the past where I highlighted that even if the topic isn't insightful they can learn about how it was presented and how good questions were asked, etc. Our Institute had issues with attendance in the past and I also noticed this a few years ago when I was organizing it, I am therefore quite annoyed about this.

Last week, some of the students left at about half time of the talk of a foreign visitor and it was apparently so distracting that even my colleagues pointed this out to me. I am possible fine if one of them would have left (and I made it clear that I want them to let me know if this happens), and I could have simply told the speaker in advance.

I am not really sure how I should handle the situation. I thought of make them attend for every single seminar in the future and of cutting support for conferences and other goodies.

I am attending every time, I ask questions, I praise students that also ask and I talk about these presentations in the group meetings to show them how much they are worth and contribute to our general institute culture. Any suggestions on how I could generate a more stimulating environment?

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  • Useful suggestions in the comments, but most if not all are addressed in answers, so comments have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments. Comments that do not request clarification or suggest improvements usually belong as an answer, on Academia Meta, or in Academia Chat. Comments continuing discussion may be removed.
    – Bryan Krause
    Apr 1 at 16:31

11 Answers 11

47

As noted in the comments, you should try and find out why the students don't want to attend. However, the answer will almost certainly be some flavour of "coming to seminars doesn't feel like a good use of my time", perhaps mixed in with a bit of "oops, I meant to come but I forgot" and a bit of "well nobody else goes so why should I?".

What can/should you do? Some suggestions:

  1. Think about why you expect your students to attend. What do you want them to get out of the experience? Is the current setup actually effective in delivering those goals? How does the seminar time slot fit in with students' other obligations?

  2. Take advantage of gentle social pressure. Can you engineer a situation where attending the seminar becomes the 'natural' thing to do? E.g., you could lead the students on a trip to get take-out coffee just prior to the seminar, so that 'the herd' arrives at the door to the seminar room without ever having had to think about it.

  3. Make sure that the students can't forget that the seminar is happening - send a reminder email an hour or so before it starts.

  4. Help students understand the seminar. Use some time in your group meetings to talk about the upcoming seminar - what's it about? Why is the topic interesting/important? What's the history of work in this area? How does it fit in with things your students are doing? And debrief from the previous seminar - what were the main points? Was anything particularly interesting? What was good/bad about the speaker's delivery?

  5. Encourage your students to interact with speakers. Bring them to lunch/dinner with the speaker; or book a slot where the speaker will spend an hour in the grad student office hearing about what they're all doing.

  6. Ensure that the seminar programme is as relevant and interesting as possible: make sure you always suggest lots of good speakers! And involve your students in this: who do they want to meet? Who gave a good talk at the last conference they went to? Help the students feel invested in the seminar programme.

  7. Free food.

Make sure your expectations are clear, but realistic. It isn't healthy or productive to have students attending against their will: you want them to be at the seminar because they've chosen to be, not because they fear the consequences of non-attendance. Also, recognise that life happens. People will inevitably miss the odd seminar; that's ok, and they shouldn't be expected to justify themselves.

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  • 60
    I'd move "Free food" to #1. Mar 31 at 16:22
  • 1
    If you add in some free booze and food, they will all come I guarantee.
    – Tom
    Apr 1 at 18:42
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    @AzorAhai-him- I would leave Free Foot at #7. I would also add it above #1. And possibly insert it between #3 and #4, and just after #5. Apr 1 at 19:14
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    There is also another commonly picked option - force them to go. Where I did my postdoc attendance of a certain number of department colloquia was a graduation requirement for PhD students. Where I am now our seminar series is part of a graduate "course" and students get credits for attending. Not saying that these are necessarily elegant or subtle ways to make people attend, but they do work.
    – xLeitix
    Apr 2 at 14:30
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You have some good answers and comments already, but I'd like to take a step back and look at the question.

You say your students and your group are doing well in all sorts of ways. Good.

House of God is a wonderful book about medical school and residency. In it, the residents learn the "four laws of medicine":

  1. If what you are doing is working, keep doing it.
  2. If what you are doing isn't working, stop doing it.
  3. If you don't know what to do, do nothing. and
  4. Never call a surgeon.

In your case, I'd look closely at #1. What you are doing is working. Why mess with it?

I'd also take a look at just how realistic your expectations are. Clearly, the students do not think it is realistic to ask them to attend a lot of seminars in addition to all the other work they have to do (and grad students generally are quite busy).

A break in the day is not really a luxury. Breaks are necessary for recharging, both physically (food) and emotionally (just sitting or talking to friends, spouses, kids etc. ) or doing mundane tasks. Idle time is good.

Now, if you look at the situation and conclude that attending the seminars really is important, then eliminate something else from their schedules. If you can't do this then you are saying that the seminars are the least important academic thing in their days, and they are simply agreeing with you.

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    Thank you! It's probably better to adjust my expectations than to create a bad atmosphere.
    – Hydrazin
    Mar 31 at 21:19
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    Also, the timing issues extend beyond having a break: for certain kinds of experimental work that need blocks of uninterrupted time, mid-day events are particularly tricky. A lunch seminar probably blocks off 1145-1330h or so (a hour + questions + travel time). If an experiment takes four hours, the morning is shot and the afternoon is very tight if you want to leave at 5.
    – Matt
    Apr 1 at 18:36
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    @Matt Thank you for mentioning "uninterrupted time". This applies not only to experimental work but also to everything else that requires the brain. Our pseudo-multitasking world seems to have entirely forgotton about the costs of context switches. Apr 2 at 12:01
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    @HenrikSchumacher: knowing both wet lab (chemistry) and brain work I'm very aware of the cost of switching focus. But at least for me it costs in the order of magnitude of maybe 5 - 15 min compared to experiments that may enforce/require a particular schedule over 5+ hours. As bad as it is to say, programming productivity, there still isn't an equivalent to Ctrl-Z in many cases in the wet lab... Apr 4 at 18:59
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Leaving a talk en masse is definitely not good behavior, it is distracting and impolite, and you should address it in a group meeting as a matter of professional etiquette.

Making your students attend talks in which your students are not interested is a different topic that others have already addressed. Rereading your question it seems that students in general are not attending the seminar and you are an exception among the faculty in pressuring your students to attend, which of course makes your stance more difficult. It also seems to me that you are already doing what you can do.

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There are two separate issues here:

  1. Students leaving a seminar early. If I had this problem, I would meet with all my students as a group and explain to them how impolite and disruptive such behavior is and let them know not to do so in the future if they want to continue working with me. (Ok, with some caveats about feeling sick during the seminar, needing a bathroom break, and other exceptional situations.) The thing is, in my experience, most students are simply clueless regarding what is appropriate and what is inappropriate in academic setting.

  2. Students skipping your seminar. Let me assume that you already determined that the students should be attending most of the time. If I were you, I would decide on the cut-off, which percentage of seminars students should be attending and pass the attendance list around during each seminar. During the meeting with all my students I would let them know about the percentage, explain why it is beneficial for them to attend and other reasons for the attendance requirement. As in (1), I would let them know that if they want to work with me, they have to follow my attendance policy.

Also, now it is too late, but in the future, I suggest doing two things before the semester/quarter starts:

(a) Announcing your attendance policy.

(b) Discussing days/times of the seminars making sure that the students (as well as postdocs, you, other faculty...) can attend on regular basis.

On a personal note: I run my reading seminars with students so that they get a course credit for taking such a seminar. The grade they get at the end of the semester/quarter is based on attendance and giving seminar talks. And, in the past, I gave failing grade to some of the students who did not attend enough of the meetings.

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  • Good answer (+1) but OP has already informed the candidates of attendance expectation; this seems to me like it meets the requirements of "announcement".
    – Ben
    Mar 31 at 21:58
  • @Ben: an expectation is not the same as a requirement, especially if a specific cut-off is given. Mar 31 at 21:59
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    @MoisheKohen: If I tell my PhD students that I expect them to do their data analysis with care and competence, I do not then require a formal policy (or to have expicitly said that this is a "requirement") to give them adverse feedback and ratings in their candidature if they fail to do so. You seem to be labouring under idea that every performance expectation must be in a formal written policy or mandatory requirement.
    – Ben
    Mar 31 at 22:02
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    @Ben I think the main thing is to make it clear to people that it's an expectation you care about. I'm sure we're all familiar with policies that are different de facto versus de jure (you probably know of several in dealing with Administration). Just saying it's an expectation doesn't matter much if you don't demonstrate (in some fashion) that it's important. e.g. If you say you want care and competence, but then make no comment when shown sloppy data analysis (while simultaneously criticizing speed of results), they'll pick up what you really care about.
    – R.M.
    Apr 1 at 17:19
  • Agreed, but it appears to me that OP has done that here.
    – Ben
    Apr 1 at 21:04
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One department where I was a postdoc had a very straightforward method: heavily-subsidised beer at the end of the weekly departmental seminar.

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    As a lifelong non-drinker it always irritates me when it is assumed everyone finds alcohol a reward. Mar 31 at 22:36
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    Indeed. There are other creature comforts besides booze. Apr 1 at 3:49
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    @StephenG-HelpUkraine I'm vegetarian, so I kind of feel your pain. I presume the soft drinks were equally heavily subsidised, but somehow I doubt that had the same motivating effect. Apr 1 at 10:03
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    @StephenG-HelpUkraine agreed, but I find in general it's not so much about the beer itself as it is the explicit invitation to hang around when the talk is over. In the morning you might achieve the same with coffee and some pastries. Apr 1 at 10:49
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Don't. Don't try to force your students to attend. Your students are adults and they can make their own decisions. They are voting with their feet, signalling that they don't see attending the seminar as the best possible use of their time. Maybe they are right, maybe they are wrong, but that is their decision to make. I think you should support them and applaud them for taking care of themselves and prioritizing where to spend their energy. They might be making a mistake, but we all need to make our own mistakes and learn from them.

It's worth remembering your relationship to them: you are their advisor. It is their PhD. They will get out of their PhD program what they put into it. They are in charge of their progress, and are responsible for the results. As an advisor, you can give them advice. But it's not your place to force them to attend seminars. It's ultimately their decision about whether to follow your advice, or not to.

I suggest you think about how best to serve them. What will best help them in their career? How can you best serve their needs? That might be creating opportunities, offering teaching and feedback, giving helpful advice, helping them make connections, etc. If you start from the premise that your goal is to get them to attend the seminars, that risks leading you down an unhealthy path; whereas if you start from the goal of serving them, I think it sets you up for a better perspective.

You believe that they will be better off if they attend the seminar. I suggest that you spend a little time reflecting on how and why it will benefit them. Also, make sure to take into account the opportunity cost: there are other things they could be doing with that time, and why is this more valuable than the other valuable things they could be doing? For instance, if they want to go into academia, maybe hearing a few job talks from faculty candidates in other areas is helpful, because it will help them prepare to give their own job talk, and help them empathize with an audience who is not an expert in the subject of the talk? Maybe there is a particular speaker who is doing work that is essential for everyone in your area to be familiar with? If you think you can make a solid case that it's better for them to attend the seminar, then talk to them, share with them your advice and your reasons (once), and let them make their choice accordingly, and respect their choice. Don't try to penalize them if they have a different perspective.

I also suggest that you think more about attraction and less about coercion. In other words, if you think it'd be good to have more students attending a seminar, think about how you can make it more valuable and attractive to attend. Can you make it more inspiring or more useful in some way? Perhaps you might consider having the students organize and lead the seminar, so they can choose topics and format that will make sense to them? Maybe it'd be more valuable if your students were the speakers, speaking about their own work or some paper they enjoyed reading, rather than inviting in outsiders? Maybe not all speakers who are attending are exciting to everyone to everyone in the group -- if so, that would be normal. In many universities, there are lots of opportunities to attend talks; maybe your students feel they have enough of that and don't need more. Is there something that they would value and they do need? Or perhaps a difference pace (e.g., every other week rather than every week) would fit people better? Finally, there is a chance it might help if you participate, you provide high-quality food, and you "set a tone" in positive atmosphere and supportive culture -- you may already be doing all of that.

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  • +1 for spelling out that PhD students are adults and fully qualified in their profession and thus should be assumed to take care of their career themselves. Apr 4 at 19:03
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As hinted-at in other comments and answers, although you could attempt to coerce/command them to attend, that will lead to trouble.

And, we do have to admit, lots of "general departmental seminars" (I'm in math...), even "colloquia" (supposedly of broad interest) are crap. So it's not irrational to just skip them! To attempt to compel people to do something that they (possibly reasonably) perceive as a waste of time mostly discredits the person attempting to compel.

Oh-so-true, "kids" (oh, and many older people, too) do not understand what might be in their best interests. This is not a passing problem/fact, but, rather, apparently a "feature" of human nature. So, then, how to persuade people to "do what's good for them"? ... when they do, in fact, have limited time and energy and attention... ?

(Yes, I've observed the "sign-up sheet at seminars" feature in some other departments here in my university, and this was not correlated with attention of students to the speakers. Nor were the speakers particularly interesting. "If you're gonna basically read your slides, just send them to me, and I can read through them in a few minutes... Don't have to be a particular place, at a particular time, etc.)

(Yes, I do also know that far too many students have been negatively conditioned by prior educational situations, so that everything is viewed as adversarial... )

Operational conclusion: if the seminars are actually not good, don't require your students' attendance. Or, perhaps, invite critiques from your students, both of presentation-technique and content (and irrelevance to their own work?). Give them a chance to express their disaffection?!? :)

(Note: the Powerpoint (and Beamer) stunt of delaying visibility of lower bullet points on the page is really just irritating... :) Yes, I know it's standard. :)

4

I'm missing one point in the answers so far, which is cultural* - I'm answering from and mostly for .

The connotation of lunch-seminar is very strongly that it is a voluntary opportunity, so the setup of those seminars communicates rather the opposite of its compulsory nature.


TLDR

I expect lunch seminar to mean

  • everyone bringing their lunch
  • or maybe some little food provided - but I would certainly not expect a proper meal being provided.
    Unless students know that if they are hungry and don't have food to bring, they need to take their lunch break first, you may have a very compelling reason for a) students leaving or b) not attending since they go to the canteen instead
  • and everyone munching during the talk.
    This is something that for a normal (non-lunch) seminar I'd consider about as impolite as getting up and leaving right in the middle of a talk from the middle of the audience. Maybe some students think if one is customary, neither can the other be wrong.

A break is by definition time where the student/employee can decide themselves what to do, and while the employer/supervisor may offer opportunities (canteen, gym, place to sit outdoors, ... or also a seminar) they cannot prescribe anything. Not even healthy food - even though they may restrict the food offered by the canteen to healthy choices. Much less seminar attendance.

So if there's a compulsory lunchtime seminar, make sure it is clearly communicated that they are expected to take their break before or after, and the seminar is work-time.

As a side note: if you seriously want people to engage with the talk and think and discuss, I guess scheduling a seminar so that people arrive hungry (or heavily digesting) is not the most sensible option.
As opposed to having a seminar about some relevant but "light" topic scheduled with the coffee after lunch (say, a librarian giving up to date hints on faster getting the paper you need).


*the Hydrazin spelling of OP's name suggests maybe Central or Northern European context.

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  • This, 100%. I'd also implore people to consider that for diabetic students/colleagues, messing around with meal schedules can be very unpleasant. Apr 5 at 10:25
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    @coffee_into_plots: it also messes around with people's privacy who have to take medication - which is often tied to meals, (before, with, after) and diabetics may need to take measurements as well, etc. All these are things that IMHO any one who wishes so may do in public. But the default must be that people can do this privately and without more hassle than strictly necessary. Apr 5 at 20:37
-1

There are sticks and carrots. A carrot-flavored stick is to put a seminar course on the syllabus, worth some number of credit hours that reflects the stick-carrot balance. They obtain the credit hours by attending a certain number of the seminars (their choice), signing an attendance sheet and staying until the end. They can get extra credit for asking good questions.

They also get credit by reviewing a certain number of the seminars that they attend (say three) Their review may focus on the technical content of the presentation, its general scientific interest or its relation to their coursework or their research project, or on the techniques of vocal delivery, slide design, pace and timing, or anything at all sensible.

You might be giving lunch to your speaker, and you might make one or two places available to students who volunteer. Weak students will not come just for the food because they will be nervous about embarrassing themselves. Strong students will relish the experience.

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    These are PhD students and OP is their advisor, so there probably is no "syllabus" and no "points."
    – cag51
    Mar 31 at 20:46
  • @cag51: True, but there is performance feedback from the supervisor at relevant review points in the candidature.
    – Ben
    Mar 31 at 21:56
  • And then there's the stick -- while the group as a whole is doing well, there is always some sort of unpopular chore distributed by a fair rotation. Factor in seminar participation into the algorithm...
    – arp
    Mar 31 at 22:11
-1

What does your students schedule look like?

It could be as simple as them valuing having a meal over a seminar they might not have any interest in.

I distinctly remember in my second last year of undergrad, we had seminars during lunch ever week on Thursday. The attendance was consistently 5-9 people out of 30 because prior to the seminar was 4 hours of lectures followed by 4 hours of practical's after lunch. So naturally nobody wanted to spend the entire day hungry, especially with graded practical's after lunch.

-7

It is time for negative performance feedback and a warning that this may affect milestone assessments in the candidature

This is not an especially difficult problem to solve, and your problem appears to come from your false premise that you need to convince your students to do the required work for their program. You do not. As with any other professional position (e.g., a professional job in the workforce), you inform the person of the relevant work requirements for the position, explain the goal and purpose of those requirements, provide them with assistance and guidance to meet those requirements, and then observe their compliance with these requirements and give them adverse performance feedback/rating if they fail to perform their duties properly (absent some good reason for that failure). In the latter case this often leads to some kind of performance-improvement-plan to give the person a chance to uplift their work performance.

In the present case you have already informed your students that attendance at seminars is an expected part of their candidature. You have also explained the goal of this activity and the value it adds to their own learning and the culture of the department. You have also given them reminders, etc., in relation to this requirement of their candidature. At this point, it would be reasonable for you to sit down with the main offenders and inform them that they are not meeting the requirements of their candidature and so you will be giving them negative performance feedback on that aspect of their candidature at their next review. You should also make them aware that this could lead to a lower overall assessment of their performance at the review and explain what (if any) impact this might have on the decisions of the assessment panel in relation to their candidature (though you want to avoid speculating to much here). If the student is performing poorly overall (taking account of the totality of their activities), this might include a warning that you plan to recommend discontinuation of the candidature at the next milestone review.

Hopefully it goes without saying that all of this should be augmented with ongoing attention to whether it remains reasonable to expect attendance at seminars, whether this activity adds value to the students and the department, whether there is good cause for non-attendance, the impact of competing priorities, etc. If there is some good reason for non-attendance for one of your students then you may wish to remove the attendance requirement, or vary it somehow, or provide some other support. Nevertheless, as a superisor you have both the right and duty to ensure that your students meet the performance expectations of their candidature, and to give them adverse feedback, etc., if they are not meeting requirements.

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    Thanks for your opinion, Ben! I totally agree that it's better to set clear boundaries instead of me holding a grudge towards someone. I will talk to everyone but for now I won't escalate the situation. Anyway, it's good to hear that I am not overreacting in case I need to handle this more seriously in the future.
    – Hydrazin
    Apr 1 at 5:09
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    "Anyway, it's good to hear that I am not overreacting" > The posted answer is a wild overreaction, and depending on the school/department, might actually violate departmental guidelines and policies. Most departments have some sort of written rules and/or guidelines about what is required of their Ph.D. students for PRECISELY this kind of situation. A lot of faculty and admins are going to be unhappy with you when your students come to them asking why they are being threatened with loss of candidature over not attending a seminar series that no one else seems to be required to attend. Apr 1 at 22:56
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    If it is really that important, you can petition the program/department to include with the required Ph.D. courses a 1 credit seminar every year - this is what our program did with our departmental seminars. Apr 1 at 22:57
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    We had one course where we were required to attend seminars, because we were required to critique them as homework assignments. The course was, in effect, "How to be a graduate student" and it was clear that there was full departmental support behind that requirement. It was also only one semester. (It was actually pretty useful, but having to attend a bunch of seminars all X semesters would not have been X times as useful.)
    – Anonymous
    Apr 2 at 0:48
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    @Ben This supervisor's students are required to give up a lunch break every week (potentially for multiple years) to attend a seminar series that is so unimportant to the rest of the department that no other students are required to show up, let alone show up on their own. That seems like a pretty unreasonable element of their candidature to me. Apr 2 at 15:20

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