Attending research seminars

Hyndsight

Most research students don’t seem to attend seminars. When asked, they usually say the seminars are not on their topic, or they don’t understand them, or they find them boring, or some other similar reason. I think this is because students don’t understand the purpose of research seminars, and have not learned how to listen to them.

Admittedly, many research seminars are badly presented, and seminar speakers also frequently misunderstand the purpose of the seminar, which makes the problem worse. In a possibly vain attempt to improve the situation, here are some thoughts on attending research seminars.

First, some advice to speakers: understand that seminars are intended to provide brief and informal tasters of a wide range of research. People will get the detailed and formal version of research in the published papers. But often an informal explanation without the details is more accessible. Also, a speaker can provide the background overview that is often missing in the published papers. Speakers need to realise that there is no need to present detailed proofs, tables, and technicalities – a seminar is a very poor medium for providing details about statistical and econometric research. You have given a successful seminar if everyone in the audience has some idea about what you’ve done, most people in the audience have been able to follow all of it, and you have inspired at least some people to read the paper.

Assuming speakers are doing that, here are some tips for students attending research seminars. Note that much of this advice is adapted from Ravi Vakil, a Stanford mathematician.

  • Go to research seminars from the time you begin your research degree. Don’t just go to seminars that you think are directly related to what you do (or more precisely, what you currently think you currently do). Learning to get information out of research seminars is an acquired skill.

  • Don’t worry if you lose the thread of a talk. Just try to get back on track again. Let the ideas flow past and try to learn something from what is being said, even if it is just the words and terms that are being used.

  • Ask questions. Try to make a personal rule to ask at least one question at each seminar you attend. Simply trying to formulate a meaningful question will help you focus on what is being said and aid your understanding. Furthermore, you might learn something from the answer. Often the best parts of a seminar are in the discussion. But if there aren’t many questions, the opportunity is lost.

  • At the end of the talk, you should try to answer these questions: What research problem was the speaker addressing?  Why should we care about them? Is this problem related to any other problems I know about? It can help to write down these questions at the start of the talk, and jot down answers to them during the talk.

  • List any terminology the speaker uses that you don’t know the meaning of. Then either ask the speaker to explain, or ask your supervisor afterwards.

  • See if you can get one lesson from the talk, no matter how simple. It might be about data analysis, or a mathematical technique used, or how to think about a certain type of problem, or whatever. If you learn one lesson from each talk, your knowledge of statistics and econometrics will steadily grow. If you are unable to learn even one thing from a talk, think about what the speaker could have done differently so that you could have learned something. Then you will learn about giving good talks by thinking about what makes bad talks bad.

  • Ideas for your thesis or next paper may well come out of an idea you have while sitting in a seminar. All of my papers on functional data analysis came about after I heard Jim Ramsay give a talk at a conference. I didn’t even know functional data analysis was relevant to my work on mortality forecasting until I heard his talk.

  • Go to seminar dinners when at all possible, even though it might be scary, and no one else is going. Ask the seminar organizer to add you to the list of people he/she circulates about the dinner arrangements.

  • Go to workshops and conferences, so you have a reasonable idea of what is happening in other parts of statistics and econometrics. It is amazing what can become relevant to your research. You won’t believe it until it happens to you. And it won’t happen to you unless you go.

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