43

I'm a graduate student in the Earth Sciences. The breadth of my departments runs the gamut from geobiology to geophysics and everything in between. As a result, a large number of the department seminars that get hosted are on topics that I have little or no background in and do not relate to my research field in any way.

The expectation seems to be that everyone should go to these type of events to stay abreast of major events and gain some breadth of knowledge, but whenever I go to one that is far outside my sphere of knowledge I end up resenting the wasted time. To me, it seems like a huge waste to sit through a 60 minute talk on something I don't have the background knowledge necessary to understand in even a rudimentary way. Sometimes this is the fault of the presenter for not preparing a talk for a broad enough audience, but with biology talks I know that the fault is my own. Don't ask me the difference between a protein and an amino acid; I have no idea!

So lately I've felt a strong temptation to blow off some of these events reasoning that it would be vastly better to get in another experiment that day than go sit through a lecture I'm not equipped to understand. But I'm worried that other people will think I'm being a slacker as a result.

Do you look down on colleagues who sometimes skip out on talks far outside their expertise?

And, Is skipping an event like this better or worse than showing up but discreetly reclaiming time during bad talks by studying on a smartphone? Obviously, whipping out a laptop during a lecture would be very rude, but flipping through flashcards on my ipod while sitting in the back of the hall would be a low-key way to reclaim some of that time during talks when I have no idea what they are talking about.

  • 1
    There are usually one or two such events per week. – jurassic Feb 15 '12 at 15:51
52

I would say that you should always go to seminar, unless you have some very compelling reason not to go (you are away, you are working on an experiment, you are trying to finish writing your thesis, etc.).

There are four reasons:

  1. Scientific courtesy. To travel somewhere and give a talk to the 10 people who show up (5 of whom you already knew) is really irritating.
  2. Good or bad -- you learn something about presentation. Even if you say "wow, I should never do that in a talk" your hour has been well spent.
  3. You get perspective. You never know when something that someone says will make you see your own work in a different context.
  4. The speaker may someday be interviewing you for a job. It's better to be able to say "I heard your seminar" than "Oh, sorry, I missed your seminar when you visited."
  • 3
    Four is a great reason that I never considered before. – jurassic Feb 15 '12 at 3:29
31

Try to always go.

If you're a first/second year grad student, go because you have to.

If you're a third/fourth year grad student, go to learn about disciplines and topics other than yours.

If you're a fifth+ year grad student, go to network.

13

Let's ask another question: is there at least one good reason not to go at the seminars?

  • Time consumption: except if you have a 1 hour seminar each day, you can probably afford the time loss due to the seminar. BTW, it it a time loss only if you go and don't speak to anybody, don't ask questions and don't try to understand a little piece of what is presented.
  • It is not profitable: really? A lot of research results start with ideas from elsewhere. Of course, it can be different for earth sciences. Even if you don't see something directly useful, you will probably be confronted to different ways of thinking.
  • "I am going to the seminars with my laptop/smartphone, people will think I am rude": and they will be right if you use your laptop for other things that taking notes about the talk. To be fair, this can be considered OK to go with your laptop for working during the talk if your the dean, or the head of the department...

Well, in fact I cannot see good reasons not to go, except if it takes you 5+ hours a week...

10

Well, there is no universal advice. In general, you should adopt the local policy. If it is really the expectation, then you should go. Try to ask your younger colleagues.

Of course there is an other aspect: usually you never know in advance whether the talk will be good and inspiring or not. Usually it is not, but sometimes there is a surprise. Most of us go to these seminars hoping for a miracle. Unfortunately, in most cases the talks are simply bad.

Finally, there is also the argument that later you will be also giving talks on similar seminars. It is somehow sad if nobody except your fellow buddy listens to your talk.

  • 1
    Ask older (more senior) colleagues? – jvriesem Aug 25 '15 at 15:20
9

Part of being a grad student is politics. Skipping out on seminars signals to the presenter that you are not interested (which is probably true). Depending on the personality of the person, it may make them an enemy. In academic politics, revenge is a dish served cold.

Is skipping an event like this better or worse than showing up but discreetly reclaiming time during bad talks by studying on a smartphone?

If the presenter is an older person, screwing around with your cell phone will be perceived as terribly disrespectful, and much worse than not showing up at all.

But I'm worried that other people will think I'm being a slacker as a result.

The perception will come across more as "he is not one of us". That sort of attitude is the kiss of death when it comes to recommendations.

My advice is to suck it up and go to them. It is part of the cost of being a grad student.

5

Opinions on others may depend on many factors. Some people may not care at all (or even does not notice), but generally not attending seminars may be viewed as

  • lack of commitment,
  • lack of genuine interest in research by other people and in other fields,
  • general laziness,
  • lack of respect for work by other people,
  • you not feeling being a part of the department.

And while you may care less about the opinion of your colleagues, the opinion of your advisor may matter a lot.

If everyone knows that a certain seminar is of very poor quality, perhaps the reaction may be not so severe. However, I guess here it is not the case:

Don't ask me the difference between a protein and an amino acid; I have no idea!

It is a sign that even more that you should the seminar. Not knowing sth simple - check wikipedia or ask your friends. Not knowing something more advanced - ask the lecturer (as (s)he is there exactly to explain you, among the others, a certain topic).

Comment:

for some reason other answers do not cover the question, which was spelled out three times:

Will people judge me negatively for skipping department seminars?

Do you look down on colleagues who sometimes skip out on talks far outside their expertise?

Is skipping an event like this better or worse than showing up but discreetly reclaiming time during bad talks by studying on a smartphone?

  • Concerning your last comment, I thought that my answer was clear that I think that yes, they will judge such behaviour badly. For what it's worth, I made presence to seminars mandatory for my PhD students, and highly recommended for the postdocs. – Sylvain Peyronnet Feb 15 '12 at 17:28

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