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I am often called upon to give a "lab tour" to visitors, including but not limited to:

  • prospective graduate students
  • candidates for summer research positions (including undergraduate and high school students)
  • researchers or executives from our "industrial partners"
  • professors and graduate students from other universities, who have come to speak in my department seminar series
  • journalists or other media representatives

The goal of these lab tours is to leave the visitor(s) with the impression that we are doing interesting, important, and exciting research.

The research that goes on in my lab mainly looks like... students sitting at laptop computers. We are a telecommunications lab. A lot of the experimental equipment we use is not actually housed in the lab, and the pieces that are there in the lab are not that unique or interesting to most visitors. (Think a few Openflow switches and lots of wireless devices, none of which is particularly visually exciting.)

Given this, I am wondering how to use these "lab tours" to my best advantage. What can I do in a lab tour that I couldn't do with, say, a visitor sitting down in my office and talking to me over my desk?

Right now we mainly walk around the room and talk about the posters hanging on the wall, giving any students who are around a chance to give their elevator pitch. This doesn't seem very effective, and visitors often seem kind of bored.

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    So, just that I get this right: What you call lab is essentially your workgroup’s student office? – Wrzlprmft Jul 30 '15 at 19:59
  • @Wrzlprmft In practice, something like that, yeah. Combination big shared office and storage room. – ff524 Jul 30 '15 at 20:01
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    Maybe it's a problem of failed expectations: the visitors expect a lab, but find an office ;-) – Massimo Ortolano Jul 30 '15 at 21:19
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Depending on your data and work, it maybe beneficial to make some sort of visual representation and/or simulations of your work. People are draw to visual representations that move and do something. Stationary images, while informative, are not always interesting to the layperson (or well even those interested in the field). You could create a presentation that shows the hardware that collects your data, the raw data and then create a road map back to your students at your lab. Show screen grabs of any software that your students might utilize from day to day. You don't need to get too elaborate and there are many resources (power point, desktop applications, web applications, etc) that you could utilize to create your presentation with whatever level of effort you wish to put into it.

I would also suggest looking for someone to consult with, not affiliated with your lab, to view your presentation.This way you can get a fresh outlook on how your presentation flows. If your school has a scientific and technical (STC) writing program, I would also suggest you talk with someone in the program about your presentation. They might be willing to help out with making things more interesting and clearer for prospective visitors. You could possibly even see if a student in the program would be willing to create a presentation for you as a senior project.

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Our group is similar to yours as all we have that is not an office is a self-made computer cluster. What we usually do is that all or some people present their work to the visitor (on their own), but I concede that this is something that works for our research topics and group structure and may not work for others. Also, I have no experience with visits from journalists or industrial collaborators. So, I am trying to address your question on a more general level:

First of all, it helps to realise that the main benefit visitors can get from visiting your offices and only there is personal interaction with members of your workgroup¹. So, your tours should be organised around this: Have a rough plan to whom your visitor should talk, about what they should talk, how long they should talk and in what order. Consider to let them have a few extended discussions with selected people than hearing a dozen elevator pitches (if their time does not suffice for more). Let your students know (preferrably beforehand) the background of your visitor, so they can adapt their explanations and what content they present, so that they neither bore nor overwhelm them.

In our group, we usually use our latest presentations from conferences or our seminar for this, as they provide a collection of polished and relevant plots, graphics and videos. Depending on the visitor, we may give a short, personalised talk.

Finally, a few considerations for specific visitor groups:

  • Let prospective new group members (candidates for summer research positions; people who want to do a bachelor/master/PhD thesis) talk to your group members alone and as long as they need or want. This way, they can get a good impression of what working in your group is like and do not get the feeling that they are talking to somebody who cannot be honest as their supervisor (or similar) is present. Also, you do not spend your time listening to something you already know. Present potential topics where possible, and if necessary, focus on them. Encourage them to ask questions as they are usually overwhelmed otherwise.

    Remember that these people are not only interested in performing “interesting, important, and exciting research”, but also as to whether they would feel at home in your group and what you are doing matches their interests and abilities.

  • Show other researchers something they might be interested in or something on which you would like them to comment. Depending on the visitor, they might already have formed an opinion as to whether your research is “interesting, important, and exciting”, so they may not be interested in too much advertisement.


¹ Secondary attractions of a tour of your “lab” may be unpublished research results and explanations of your work for laymen. But very similar thoughts apply to these.

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