Attending research seminars


14 October 2009


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.