Monday, October 27, 2008

Who Organizes Seminars in Your Department?

In some departments that invite visitors to give seminars on a routine basis, the seminars are organized by students, in some cases by faculty, and in some cases by staff. I have been a member of departments with all of these types of organizational possibilities, and I have been in departments that changed from one to the other (e.g. faculty used to organize the seminars, now students do; and vice versa).

In departments with student organizers, the philosophy behind this organizational scheme is that students will feel more involved in the seminars/visits and therefore will perhaps attend more of the seminars (without being coerced), and that this is a good thing because going to these talks is an important component of graduate education.

In departments with faculty or staff organizers, the philosophy is typically that this is a service activity and students shouldn't spend their time on this type of thing. I suppose there might be departments that don't trust their students with seminar-organizing, but I haven't encountered this myself.

I have heard both versions of "visitors are more like to accept invitations from students" and "visitors are more likely to accept invitations from faculty". I haven't seen that it makes that much of a difference, but it wouldn't surprise me if some people are more inclined to accept an invitation in one situation or the other. When I get an invitation, my main criterion for whether I accept or decline is "Do I have time for this?".

From my experience of having given > 60 invited talks at other universities and colleges in the past ~ 10 years, I can say that I see no difference in the quality of organization of the visit as a function of what type of academic creature does the organizing: students, faculty, or staff. There may be considerable variation depending on the individual's organizational skills, but this does not correlate with age or academic status.

The answer to the question about seminar organization will vary in part depending on the type and size of institution, but I decided to keep the poll simple. In places with regular seminar series:

Who organizes visitor seminars in your department?
Faculty
Graduate students
Undergraduate students
Staff (incl postdocs)
pollcode.com free polls

36 comments:

Dr. Jekyll and Mrs. Hyde said...

I'd find it strange to protect grad students from "servicey" work. What, their time is too precious? Their view of academia might be ruined, ruined!, by committees? It's hard to see the logic at work there.

In our department, grad students organized seminars and hosted seminar speakers. It was a lost day for experiments, but the value gained talking with smart faculty was immeasurable.

polymers said...

Only faculty members organize seminars at my school (top 10 ranked engineering program in that type of engineering). The faculty members might get some input from their grad students, but the faculty member organizes it.

Anonymous said...

In the (American) department where I did my Ph.D., the grad students invited two speakers a year, and the faculty did the rest. The students in my lab would often also tell our advisor who we thought would be interesting/valuable to get to meet. In my current (Irish) department, where I am a post-doc, the faculty do all the inviting, and as near as I can tell, the students don't ever meet with the visiting speakers.

In the end, I don't think it matters too much who does the organizing- what matters is who gets the chance to talk with the speaker.

postdoc said...

why would postdocs be considered as part of staff? They should either be in "faculty" or in "grad students"

Southern Grad Girl said...

The faculty in my department organize seminars, though are certainly willing to take suggestions on who to invite.

Then twice a year there's a "student invited speaker." And we get to pick whomever we want and invite them/organize everything ourselves.

Anonymous said...

At my top R1 graduate school, graduate students organized the colloquium speaker events with input from the faculty and fellow students. One or two graduate students were the hosts for each speaker's visit.

In contrast, at my R2 university where I am a faculty member, one to two faculty members organize the colloquium events. I don't know if they've ever tried to have graduate students organize them, but my assumption is that no one thinks there are enough competent graduate students to be able to organize colloquium on a regular basis. (Why we've allowed incompetent people into our program is another issue entirely...)

Anonymous said...

At the department where I teach (engineering, state school), most of the faculty don't trust the graduate students at all, so there is an abysmally low rate of graduate student involvement in all types of committees. At the department I got my PhD from, graduate student representatives were on almost all the committees relevant to their lives (graduate student recruiting, guest speakers, computers, happy hours, qualifying exams, etc.). I think it worked much better that way.

Anonymous said...

In our school too, the faculty organize the seminars. I am not sure that "talking with smart faculty" is such a invaluable experience for the graduate student, especially when the "talking" involves subjects regarding scheduling of meetings with other "smart faculty" from the host institution. And afterall, the graduate student may have a higher IQ than the "smart faculty" :)) Are the seminar speakers going to talk to graduate students all day? In our school, they meet with graduate students for lunch, but talk to other faculty (smart or less smart) for the rest of the day. And of course, the graduate students attend the seminars (it is coerced in our school--mandatory attendance for graduate students).

bsci said...

You missed the "both" option. I was at a place where was a student organized seminar series that brought in 4 or 5 speakers a year and other faculty organized seminar series.

I think you also missed one of the other big plusses of student organization. The organizing students get more networking time with people at other schools than if the faculty magically transported their colleagues onto campus.

squawky said...

My current department doesn't have a weekly seminar - we're trying to coerce the students into organizing some seminars as a club activity, though. (Small undergrad only science department w/a high teaching load).

All three previous universities I attended/worked at had faculty-organized seminars: one faculty member to organize, the rest expected to invite speakers if at all possible. The faculty member who invited the speaker typically organized the visit schedule for the speaker and whatever festivities happened afterwards.

One of these departments had a dedicated TA slot for seminar (worth half a full time TA) - this person was responsible for organizing and operating the AV equipment for the talk... these days, I imagine such a position (if it still exists) would be the person responsible for email reminders and other such trivia.

Anonymous said...

As a postdoc, I have to take a moment to rant:
We are not staff!! Do not lump us with the staff!! We are scientists, with PhDs. The staff make more money than us and get real benefits packages. We postdocs are moving right along into our mid-thirties scraping by on pathetic stipends and working incredibly hard just so we can maybe have a real job someday. Please don't call us staff. We aren't.

aceon said...

In my department the faculty usually organize the seminar series. However, there is a special pot of money to bring in a speaker in honor of a faculty member who recently passed away. There has been a kerfuffle over who will make the decision of who to invite and how. The graduate students chose someone as a prospective invitee for the first seminar. The faculty disapproved of the choice. A surprising number of emails went out to the department as a whole on the matter. Feathers were ruffled, invitations not issued. The moral of the story might be that if you delegate responsibility, be prepared for people to make decisions different from those you might have made - or it might be about the capacity of service activities to get you into trouble and suck up all your time.

Anonymous said...

In my department, the invitation is organized by faculty but the actual schedule is organized by office staff. I'm actually quite disappointed with how little involvement the students have with the seminar speaker. They don't even get to go to lunch with them. Which I find to be bizarre. I would like to see that changed. I loved going to lunch with the seminar speaker when I was a grad student.

Anonymous said...

I would have had to say "other" in your poll. We have two yearly student organized and hosted seminars and the rest are hosted by faculty, mostly because it would be too much work for students to do them all. I think that's a nice balance. Our NIH-funded training programs also have both student hosted seminars and student-hosted Symposia.

I certainly am more inclined to accept a student invite! In my field i think that's generally the case.

Mark P

Principle Investigator said...

At my graduate institution, it was a mix: faculty invited most speakers, but grad students served on a committee to select/invite two speakers per year. I thought that this was a great opportunity to make grad students feel like their opinions were valued.

Unfortunately, the year that I served on this committee, the faculty chair of the seminar committee disagreed with our selection process and tried to intimidate us into choosing different speakers. The details are not important - suffice it to say that some of her research students and others doing work in System X organized and requested two speakers also working in System X. We students on the committee were doing our best to provide a more even distribution of seminar topics and invited and hosted two excellent speakers working in systems Y and Z despite the opposition from the faculty member (who eventually but not immediately forgave us).

I should note that, in either case, seminar speakers were always scheduled for lunch with grad students (generally but not exclusively affiliated with the host). I agree that it is very valuable for grad students to talk to smart faculty (and likewise for faculty to talk to smart grad students ;)).

Massimo aka Okham said...

In physics departments it's usually a faculty (or, small committee thereof). The way it works is, the organizing faculty accepts suggestions from colleagues (or students), extends the actual invitation, but it is sort of understood that the persons who made the suggestion will take care of the actual hosting (putting a schedule together, taking the person to lunch/dinner), etc.

I personally think that, while of course students should be encouraged to make suggestions for speakers and/or topics (after all, seminars should mostly benefit them), it is not a good idea to have students entirely in charge of either organizing or hosting. It is very time consuming, and students are pressed for time. And honestly I find that there is something odd with the notion of faculty not having the time or the interest for hosting a colleague from another institution.

Female Science Professor said...

Because in the universities I have visited where a postdoc does the seminar organizing, part of the postdoc's salary is specifically tied to this activity. In that case, it is not a service activity that the postdoc does in addition to research, but a specific (paid) component of the postdoctoral position. There may well be departments in which postdocs arrange seminars as a service activity, but I have never encountered this.

estraven said...

@fsp 12:50:
here (Europe, maths) faculty and postdocs organize seminars, and both do it as volunteer work. We try hard to make sure that students get to talk to the speaker, but it's not always easy (the students tend to run away when the seminar ends).

CookingWithSolvents said...

I didn't vote because here the answer is "all of the above". There are a lot of seminar series.

Student Colloquium Committee Member said...

In my department, students organize the speaker visits based on nominations submitted by faculty and students. I am a Ph.D. candidate and am on the committee that organizes the weekly seminars. The speaker visits are usually co-hosted by a graduate student and a faculty member. I find that my research time is limited on the days that I co-host the speaker (including picking them up at the airport, escorting them to meetings and helping them prepare for their talk), but I've found that being involved has boosted my interaction with faculty in our department and the speaker who I otherwise do not often get a chance to interact with. Last week, the speaker emailed me to thank me for the department's hospitality and added that she had found our university an "intellectually vibrant place" after her meetings with graduate students and faculty from a range of disciplines. Overall, I think having students run the colloquium has been a positive experience.

Pagan Topologist said...

Yes, exactly. All of the above at my University also.

Female Science Professor said...

I think you can vote more than once..

Anonymous said...

There are several series in my department. Senior grad students organize the general departmental colloquia for many of the reasons FSP mentions. Faculty run the smaller group research seminars. In the former, the department pays whereas in the second we pool money to bring in people of mutual interest or have our own visitors speak. Typically, we have some grad students 'entertain' speakers in the latter by telling them about research, etc.

So, in all cases there is grad student/speaker engagement of one form or other. It is important for students to participate but not get bogged down for this. And, since in the first case many speakers are not here to see one person, the scheduling is much easier for them to handle.

Anonymous said...

I also have a problem with lumping postdocs in with staff--I'm pretty sure it's treated as a service activity here. I'd lump things here as "senior faculty" (tenured), "junior faculty" (assistant profs and postdocs), and then grad students and staff. But then, I know my department is pretty weird in that respect. We have a whole slew of seminars here; most are run by junior faculty (fairly evenly split between assistant profs and postdocs) and a couple by senior faculty. We do have an Association for Women in Math student chapter made up of grad students, who organize their own colloquium speakers.

I didn't feel like there was an option on the poll that reflected all of this. I guess I could have voted for each once, but that seems a bit silly.

physicienne said...

i am a grad student and would agree that going to talks is important ... but the unfortunately reality at my university is that the location and cost of getting here translate to very few seminars, if any. i hope this picks up or changes soon. i don't think that the way the faculty member responsible for organizing these treats the speakers helps either, though. (it's been this way, one professor responsible for seeking speakers, at both institutions i've been at.)

Anonymous said...

Our students invite speakers for certain special (e.g. named for faculty founders) seminars during the year, the rest of the organization is done by faculty. The student invitees tend to be more high profile.

Anonymous said...

It's me, the angry postdoc again. I know several postdocs at different universities who organize seminars as a service activity. It's not unusual at all. It's one of many things that we're expected to do that isn't in our job description and that isn't supposed to take time away from our research. Kind of like filling in for our PIs in lecture when they're out of town (even though this is illegal at some schools) and writing proposals that other people put their names on.

On a different note, if part of your salary goes toward service work, does that make you "staff" during that part of your day? Or are you "faculty" all the time, and part of your job involves service? I think my primary objection is that I want to be treated respectfully. If you call us staff, you put us in the same category as the college dropout working behind the department's front desk (this is what happened where I went to grad school -- this person actually did a very good job), which isn't fair.

Anonymous said...

Our seminars tend to be more informal than most of the ones described here. There are usually more or less official seminar series with official organizers, sometimes professors but more commonly grad students or young researchers, but usually anyone that wants to can invite a speaker within the seminar series. This is generally something that is encouraged. Then it's of course up to the one making the invitation to make sure that all the practical arrangements are taken care of, and to communicate with everyone involved to make the scheduled date fit into everyones schedules. I've never noticed anything that would indicate that any specific cathegory of people would be better at organizing seminars. It has more to do with how much the specific organizer cares about the seminars and how much time they can in reality afford to spend doing this.

Fia said...

Wow, I seem to be an exception. The grad students of our institute get an annual budget to invite 10-12 speakers (depending on availability and expenses) annually. We have a committee, with one student of each group which then collects suggestions from all grad students of his or her group. These suggestions are pooled and the committee then decides whom to invite and organizes the seminar (including hosting the guest, arranging the schedule, buying the plane ticket ect.). The seminars are actually supposed to be for grad students, so every grad student from our institute is expected to come, and can also request a time slot with the guest. This worked fine for as long as I am here (4.5 years) and it is a great opportunity for us grad students to get to know the big wicks. Well, then again, none of the committee members would do such things as you described in your first post on this topic, as they are representatives of everyone else, and we do have a (self-made) to-do list, when followed, not much can go wrong.

Anonymous said...

At our place it's run by faculty but that's not what I'm addressing in my comment.

At our place we have a very small budget for speakers. We can fund maybe one speaker per year in our department. Our state is toward the bottom of the US in terms of higher ed investment which is disappointing.

Where I work not only does a speaker from out-of-town not get their mileage paid -- on top of all that our university charges them for parking.

Ms.PhD said...

POSTDOCS AREN'T STAFF. I would have thought you, of all people, would know this.

We are NOT employees, we do not get the same benefits or ANY kind of retirement.

FSP, I'm disappointed in you for lumping us in with, what, secretaries? The secretaries in my department make DOUBLE THE SALARY of a postdoc.

Put that in your pipe and smoke on it for a while. And then imagine being a postdoc for >5 years while wondering if getting a PhD was the dumbest thing you ever did in your life.

Female Science Professor said...

No kidding, but as I've explained, when postdocs are specifically paid to organize seminars (the only situation in which I have encountered postdocs organizing seminars), they are not doing so as part of their research. They are classified as 'research staff' in this case, at least for one part of their job. None of the seminar-organizing postdocs I have met felt too upset about being paid to organize seminars rather than doing it as a service obligation, but my experience is of course limited. It would be unreasonable and inaccurate to infer from my poll that I don't respect postdocs as scientists, but then, I didn't spend > 5 years as a postdoc.

Ms.PhD said...

PAID to organize seminars???

You've got to be joking.

We're supposed to volunteer to do it so we can Network our way to future employment!

That way, when we don't get jobs, it's our fault, not the fault of the faculty for not giving us ample opportunity to market ourselves and rub elbows with the right people.

How is that we've been living on different planets all this time, and I never knew.

How many postdocs do you even know? How long are postdocs typically in your field nowadays? Do you have postdocs in your lab? You never write about postdoc topics at all.

Female Science Professor said...

Postdocs in my field are respected. With a few exceptions, postdocs in my research group have become my colleagues and friends. Your world is unfortunately not such a good place for postdocs; it's sad.

JAC said...

Well, I am post-doc and I organize seminars. I most certainly do not get paid. I am not sure exactly where I fit on the spectrum of fields but I agree that it is quite common for the secretaries to be better off financially than the post-docs.

Female Science Professor said...

A case can be made for grad students to do some department service if it is part of their support arrangement with a department that pays some tuition-benefits etc., but I don't think postdocs who are paid entirely from grants should have department/university service responsibilities.