Making the Most of Your Invited Seminar


DEAR LABBY: I’m a relatively new assistant professor with my own lab.

I have been invited to give a seminar by a scientist at a major university whose research overlaps mine. I’m thrilled at the chance to present my research to people who would appreciate the questions I am addressing, may give me critical feedback, might become collaborators and are likely to review my grants and manuscripts.

This is my first “non-recruitment” seminar, and I wondered whether you could advise me on how I can optimize my visit.

—Newbie Professor

DEAR Newbie Professor: Congratulations on moving rapidly into this next phase. You can probably build your seminar on your recent recruitment seminar. Labby strongly recommends watching Susan McConnell’s excellent iBiology video ( for ways to optimize your seminar.

But in addition to honing your seminar presentation, if you want to achieve your goals of getting critical feedback, recruiting collaborators, and meeting potential reviewers of your grants and manuscripts, there is another important part of your preparation for this visit: learning about the host community so as to optimize the visit.

To do your homework, you can take advantage of multiple resources.

First, do a Google Scholar search, using the name of the institution and key words associated with your research area. This will provide you with the names of scientists with whom you’d probably like to connect while on campus. Then read the articles (or at least the abstracts) you have discovered. This will help you launch a conversation about their research and will help you avoid potentially insulting the lab, either in one-on-one meetings, or worse, in the seminar itself.

Second, peruse the faculty list of the department or institute that’s hosting you (and that of any departments with overlapping interests). Check their websites and strategically choose people with whom you’d like to meet to share “your story” and who might be potential collaborators.

Third, so that you can ask good questions and come across as highly informed and interested in the faculty members with whom you will meet, when you receive the visit itinerary, do some research on everyone on the list. Look up their pages on the institution’s website and their lab pages if available. Look at the students and postdocs because one or more of them may be in the meeting with the PI. This will help you see their current projects and photos so you can put faces to the names. Use PubMed or Google Scholar to get the PI’s publications. Then go to the NIH Reporter to look up their current and past funded projects, and read the abstracts of their current research proposals.

When you meet with the individuals, if they seem to want to chat and don’t have data ready to present to you, ask them what is the most interesting thing they are working on now. That can jump start a scientific, rather than a purely social, exchange.

It’s likely your hosts will take you to dinner. These are typically social events, but sometimes the topic turns to science, either specific areas or general topics (woes about funding, manuscript reviewers, etc.). Take your cues from the others at the table, rather than setting the tone yourself.

Back to the seminar itself: Invite any of your friends on the campus to come to the seminar—it’s always nice to have a friendly face or two in your audience.

If you’ve timed your talk (the way you should), you’ll have a full 10 minutes for questions. But sometimes (rarely), the audience will interrupt the presentation, sometimes repeatedly. To plan ahead for this possibility, build in a section that you can skip over so as to reach an early ending point. To do this gracefully, exit “presentation mode” before moving to the next section. The audience will appreciate this more than your clicking through a series of slides muttering, “I’ll just skip through these slides.” In this way, you can keep within the scheduled time and yet complete a compelling story.

By the way, if you are comfortable paying your own way and not getting an honorarium, consider asking colleagues to invite you to give a seminar with the goals of presenting your data, recruiting collaborators, and networking with others in your field. You’d be surprised how often this pays off.

Full steam ahead!


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