During my bachelors and masters degree I have attended some brief talks called colloquiums in which a researcher was invited by a professor at the university and s/he gave a one-hour talk about a scientific topic most of which about his/her own research interests.

These talks are a little different from normal conference presentations and seminars because the speaker is invited to give a talk and he is not presenting a specific paper; but in a conference, except from keynote speakers; people normally submit their papers to be peer-reviewed.

I don't know what's the role of colloquiums in academia and what the speaker is seeking by giving such talks? Also, who can give such talks (a researcher, somebody from industry, an outstanding professor, etc.)?

  • I would not consider a 1 hour seminar to be "such a small talks" – ddiez Sep 10 '14 at 14:19
  • @ddiez I was under the impression that the OP meant "small" in terms of audience (which may or may not be true for colloquiums) – xLeitix Sep 10 '14 at 14:41
  • @xLeitix It was in my mind that in a colloquium, the speaker does not necessarily go into the depth of the topic he is talking about, and at least his talk is more brief [or smaller] than a conference/workshop presenter. – Enthusiastic Engineer Sep 10 '14 at 14:45
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    @EnthusiasticStudent ok, understood. However, at least in my field, most colloquiums are much longer talks that conference presentations (1-2 hours vs. 20-30 minutes) – xLeitix Sep 10 '14 at 14:49
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    Agree, colloquiums tend to be longer and more similar to keynotes than to conference presentations. At least that is my biased feeling. – ddiez Sep 10 '14 at 14:50

what the speaker is seeking by giving such small talks?

One word: exposition.

As a rule, the more senior a researcher gets, the less of her/his attention is devoted to writing single research papers. It becomes more central to be known for a specific niche, a specific topic where (s)he is the world's foremost expert. One does not become such a figurehead for a specific niche by writing good papers in the area alone (although, clearly, this is still required). One also needs to be an ambassador for the niche. This includes giving keynotes at conferences, as well as giving seminars and colloquia.

Also, who can give such talks

Everybody who gets invited by somebody. However, typically, one does not give keynote-level talks before senior postdoc or assistant professor level, simply because most PhD students do not have all too much of a vision going beyond their thesis yet. And, frankly, the keynotes of most postdocs also suck. Like most skills in academia, giving good exposition talks is also a skill that comes with training.

(there are exceptions, of course - I can think of at least one outstanding PhD student in software engineering who was regularly invited to give keynote talks at conferences midway through her dissertation)

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    A keynote talk at a conference is pretty different from a colloquium, though. – Nate Eldredge Sep 10 '14 at 14:33
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    @NateEldredge Hmm. Not in my field, usually. – xLeitix Sep 10 '14 at 14:40

In addition to other answers, a colloquium series is often used as a way to indirectly fund research collaboration.

In many cases, the colloquium speaker is a collaborator of one of the institution's own faculty (call her X), or at least X is specifically interested in the speaker's work. X may suggest that the speaker be invited. The speaker will usually be on campus for a day or two (or more), during which he and X can have longer technical discussions. The colloquium talk is for the benefit of the rest of the department: they can learn about the speaker's work at a higher, less technical level. (Colloquiua are usually meant to be pitched to an audience of faculty and grad students with a general background in the field, not necessarily the speaker's specific subfield; of course, that isn't always the way the talk turns out!) The department pays for the speaker's travel expenses, and everybody is happy. Next week, someone else's collaborator is invited.

  • Why do you call it a colloquium series. In most of the colloquiums I have attended, separate sessions had separate topics and the talks were not necessarily connected to each other. – Enthusiastic Engineer Sep 10 '14 at 14:40
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    @EnthusiasticStudent: It's a "series" in the sense that there is a talk each week at a regularly scheduled time. But there is no relationship between the talks or speakers. – Nate Eldredge Sep 10 '14 at 15:10
  • If a department has not regular talks and it has one talk per month; is it still called a colloquium series or just colloquium? Or these talks are not colloquiums? – Enthusiastic Engineer Sep 13 '14 at 7:36

In addition to @xLeitix answer, another reason comes from the inviting part point of view. For example, in my institute from now and then researchers (at the levels mentioned by @xLeitix) are invited to give talks. The goal is that researchers in the institute get to know about other researchers vision, topics and approaches. The aim is mainly to broaden our knowledge in order to stimulate new ideas and collaborations between researches from different topics or even fields. This is why typically these presentations are not just about a specific paper (likely niche topic), and look more like keynote presentations in conferences.

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