What makes for a great departmental seminar series? And how do you fix one that’s not great?

Note from Jeremy: this is a guest post by Peter Adler.


Is it important to have a well-attended, stimulating department seminar series? And if an existing seminar isn’t working well, can it be saved?

Here’s a totally, completely, absolutely hypothetical scenario: A large state university has a cross-campus ecology program with a great seminar series run by graduate students. That seminar series brings in a nationally-recognized speaker each month to give a pair of talks, accompanied by a reception, meetings with students, and organized discussions or workshops. The same university also has a College of Natural Resources (NR) that runs its own seminar series during the other three weeks of each month. The NR series isn’t so great: it does not have a big budget to bring in speakers from across the continent, the quality of the talks is inconsistent, and attendance by both faculty and graduate students is poor.

Should a hypothetical NR professor try to do anything to improve this seminar series?

Keep in mind that making a case for collective action is a great way to annoy colleagues. If there is a golden rule of faculty conduct it is “don’t ask anyone to do anything you wouldn’t want to be asked to do.” On the other hand, why bother running a mediocre seminar series at all? If we care enough to do it, shouldn’t we do it right?

If I were going to make a case for greater investment in this totally hypothetical seminar series, I would start by highlighting its most important potential benefits. Here is what I have come up with:

  1. A seminar is one of the very few times each week that everyone in the program gets together. This builds social and intellectual relationships, and often sparks the serendipitous conversations that generate new ideas.
  2. We want our graduate students to have breadth of knowledge to complement the depth they gain from their own research. Attending good seminars is one way to get that breadth.
  3. We want our graduate students to learn how to give good presentations (and to recognize and avoid giving bad ones!).
  4. If I invite a colleague to speak, I want to be sure that a decent audience will turn out.
  5. Heaven forbid, even the faculty members might learn something new.

I’m sure I am missing important benefits, so please comment and give me some talking points.

If this hypothetical NR program decides it cares enough about its seminar to improve it, how should it go about it? I’ve been trying to come up with a recipe for success. Here are the ingredients I have so far (again, please comment to suggest additional ingredients):

  • Schedule the same convenient location, same convenient time, every week. For people to fall into a habit, the routine needs to be solid. I worry that reducing the frequency of seminars—a reasonable reaction to poor attendance–would send exactly the wrong message.
  • Serve decent refreshments 15 minutes before the seminar start to entice people to show up early enough to mingle.
  • Faculty must attend regularly. If they don’t, the students won’t either. Find an enforcer who is not afraid to call out the intransigent.
  • Schedule good speakers who will appeal to a broad audience. This can be hard without a big budget. Do any of you have experience beaming luminaries in via videoconference? Worth a try perhaps?
  • Provide perks to the organizer. Teaching or service credit?

Have you tried to turn around a lackluster seminar series? Did it work? Should I just drop this and go back to my office and pretend to get some work done?

33 thoughts on “What makes for a great departmental seminar series? And how do you fix one that’s not great?

  1. Nice post. There is also a cultural component to maintaining a successful seminar series. Here in Brazil it is extremely hard to foment the “seminar culture”, as most faculty and students think seminars are a waste of time. Attendance is ridiculously low almost in every grad school in ecology. I have been trying for decades to create or help organize seminar series in several universities, and failure is a constant. Most of my colleagues complain about the same problem. I really miss the strong seminar culture that I experienced for years in Germany.

    • This is a really nice and necessary post! I fully agree with Marco Mello when he says most of our scholars and students think about the seminar as a waste of time. I also had a very nice experience in the UK, especially in Cambridge, where the Conservation Group seminars are stunning. Despite of that, I have been struggling into thinking whether trying to import the model that works in other places will work here. Maybe we – that had felt the joys of that culture – shall work on building our own model of seminars. My idea is that, one day they will be functionally similar to those we have experienced abroad. Most of the suggestions given here do apply (videoconference, some enforcement…), but maybe it’s also worth of, for example, avoid Mondays and Fridays, as they hardly work to everyone here. I genuinely don’t know exactly, but would love to discuss.

      But the problem lies in Marco’s statement: “failure is a constant”.

      • Ops, posted before finishing.

        But the problem lies in Marco’s statement: “failure is a constant”. Doesn’t matter how hard you try, attendance is ridiculous. Trying to push this initiative forward is really frustrating.

  2. This is a great question – I worked for years in science communication and learned quickly that a project’s success hangs on the creativity and energy of one or two key people. Successful events depend only in part on material resources and good organization. Ultimately you can’t make anyone attend – they attend because the organizers have found the “thing” which attracts others.

    It’s like organizing a party: some people can throw an unforgettable fête with nothing but a bottle of wine and some olives, others just don’t know how to bring people together even when they have a great caterer.

    The first rule of communication is “know your audience”. So if you want to restart or renew a seminar series, first set up an organization that works for you, then test your ideas with others. Find a convenient time and place (and once a week is probably too often, pick the third thursday or something like that, easy to remember). I’d suggest only infrequent “freebies” and tied to some special event. You want people to come because they find some professional interest, not for free coffee. Consider promoting novelty, people always like to see something or experience something new. Don’t worry about poor attendance, worry about getting high quality provocative talks. You could offer people a “safe” opportunity to try out other types of presentation styles instead of the typical powerpoint-style, for example. Instead of bringing in outside speakers, showcase and cultivate homegrown, up-and-coming talent. Please, forget about forcing attendance – there’s no better way to make a seminar unattractive. Think about the poor speaker!

    If the seminar culture has dried up in the department or institute, I would suggest creating seminar series within smaller lab groups or teams instead. Consider opening up lab team seminars on a regular basis to anyone who might be interested. If you know in advance there won’t be many attendees, hold the seminar in a small room around a table with lots of white boards and markers, instead of in the amphitheatre or auditorium. Be persistent – there are so many rewards to working in a place with an active seminar environment.

  3. Encourage turnout:
    • Compulsory to a point. During my undergrad, we had to write a summary of a least four research seminars each year. Meaning each undergrad student had to go to a minimum of four talks, although often more in order to get one to write a good summary of. The problem with this was that all the students would be frantically writing notes during the presentations, and not really thinking and engaging with the ideas presented. As such there was less discussion and questioning from what was normally a fairly large turnout (around 50).
    • Following a “big” lecture in the same venue. If you can follow a lecture in the same room that has a good turnout, the chance is that you’ll be able to acquire some of that audience.
    • Link it to modules being taught. If the seminars add something those going (undergraduates or postgraduates) in terms of adding another idea to something mentioned during lectures, you could get more people going.
    • Good advertising. And this doesn’t just mean posters and emails. Being reminded throughout the day (by lecturers at the beginning and end of lectures) of a seminar and where it is will probably hit a larger audience.

    Other ideas:
    • Votes on the topics that they want to come up.
    • Go with who you know gives good talks and presentations. Bad presentations will turn people of going to future seminars.
    • Faculty research – allows for ideas regarding final year and masters projects and supervisors
    *I’ve never organised a seminar myself, but these ideas would at least encourage me to go to ones being organised.

  4. If it were me, I would first try to generate faculty buy-in via one-on-one chats. If a critical mass agrees it’s important, agrees to attend regularly (even when the topic of the day falls far from their own research), and to communicate to their students that attendance is expected, I invest in doing the other things that make it good, which aren’t collectively too hard to pull off, in my opinion. If not, I go back to my office and do whatever else I was doing. If I could time travel, there are a few past seminar invitations I would turn down – if people can’t be bothered to walk down the hallway for a 1-hour seminar/discussion, why would a speaker feel compelled to spend a day in airplanes and airports to get there?

    I don’t think weekly seminars are necessary. I’m part of a smallish group of ecologists with a limited seminar budget, so the per-person investment in doing it weekly (hosting, scheduling) would be quite high. But despite the sporadic timing, it serves all the goals you describe, given that everyone has “bought in”.

  5. An interesting post Peter.

    But I am a little stuck on a tangent. In your entirely hypothetical ecology department how does the “pair of talks” work? Is it just two full lectures of the guest’s choice? Or is there some more structured differentiation between the talks?

    On the main topic, as other commenters note, I think speaker quality overrides most other considerations. If speakers are mediocre, people will avoid going for entirely rational reasons. If speakers are great, people will be talking about the seminar later in the week and those who missed it will wish they had gone. Much easier to get people excited about a great speaker once a month, than about a more mixed bag every week.

    • Andrew, for the pair of talks, we instruct speakers to gear one talk for a broader, more public audience, and the second for an academic audience. But not many lay people attend, and they usually give two pretty standard ecology talks.

      The emerging consensus in the these comments is that speaker quality really matters! Not too surprising, but it does help me focus on the question of how to increase it, at least from the perspective of our audience. A number of you commenters are also suggesting that reducing the frequency of seminars may be a good idea. I worried that reducing frequency might make it harder to make seminars a “habit,” but I’m definitely open to the idea.

  6. I have been a graduate student at two different universities, and enthusiasm about departmental seminars are almost completely opposite.

    At one university, seminars are organized by post-docs and senior graduate students (of various research interests), attendance are mandatory for new graduate students (i.e., instructor for the graduate course will sort of check who’s here or not), and the topics are generally of interest to most researchers (i.e., mainly ecologists); therefore, the turnout is always excellent (30-40 people).

    At another university, seminars are organized by professors who are very specialized in their own field but do not take an active role in seeking out presenters of different research areas – leading to very specialized seminars that do not generate enthusiasm from faculty members and graduate students. In addition, attendance by graduate students is not necessary; therefore, the turnout is very poor (10-20 people). The sad point is that this university is actually a much larger and more well-known university than the first one.

    It would be nice to change the whole system, but what can a lowly graduate student like me do?

    • Perhaps the professors who run the seminar at the second university you describe would be open (and even relieved) to hand over some responsibility to grad students? It does seem to me that seminars run by graduate students are often more successful than seminars run by faculty. I suspect it is because the graduate students work harder to think of and vet good speakers, get a higher acceptance rate on their invitations (I definitely find it harder to say no to a graduate student invitation), and through governing by committee do better at finding speakers that appeal to a broad audience.

  7. I think Peter was right to say in his post “Faculty must attend regularly. If they don’t, the students won’t either.” It is in fact possible for a determined Head of Dept to create a culture about this, if they choose to. They need to look all their faculty members in the eye and make clear that this is really important, that people who don’t come to seminars can’t expect to be supported for conference travel or promotions or whatever.

    But a Head of Dept can only afford to take such a hardline attitude about 1-2 out of the dozens of communal activities that go on in academia. The question is whether seminars are in their top 1-2.

    And of course it’s also a personality question: some HoDs are more determined sort of people than others.

    • Mark, what was the seminar culture at Utah State when you were a grad student? (Sorry, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to advertise that Mark Westoby got his PhD at USU!)

  8. Echoing Peter and others, I think the challenge is that cultures of low and high seminar attendance are alternative, locally-stable equilibria. If everyone’s in the habit of attending, then that’s what they do. It doesn’t feel like it’s taking time away from anything else. If no one’s in the habit of attending, then attending feels like it’s taking time away from something else. And anyone new who joins the department is likely to adopt the prevailing culture.

    That suggests that you need a fairly major perturbation to shift the system from the bad equilibrium to the good one. One possibility would be a department meeting where everyone talks about the issue and agrees that the culture needs to change. And ideally, also agrees some substantive changes to help make the culture change stick.

    Organizing the seminar series should certainly count as service. It does at Calgary, where it’s usually faculty organized (though we had a postdoc doing it for a couple of years).

    I wonder if one partial solution to Peter’s hypothetical problem would be to amalgamate the two seminar series. Here at Calgary, we have one EEB seminar series. It’s weekly. It has a modest budget (about $3500, plus another $1000 or so for the annual student-elected speaker). We tend to spend most of that budget to fly in a few good people. Not super-famous senior people, usually, just good people doing good fundamental work and who give good talks. And then we fill in the rest with a combination of:

    -cheap speakers (e.g., it’s cheap to bring people down for the day from U of Alberta; external examiners are brought in on a separate budget; someone who’s passing through on their way to a workshop in Banff; people from nearby Parks Canada offices, etc.)

    -internal speakers (a good way for everyone to stay in touch with what others are doing lately),

    -speakers paid for off someone’s startup or research grant (e.g., my lab picks someone to bring in every year, and I call them a “collaborator” and pay for it from my grant).

    So we’re a bit like the situation Peter describes, in that we have a mix of higher-profile people we’re flying in and lower-profile local people. But attendance is solid every week (it varies, but it’s never terrible). Because it’s all just the EEB seminar series. It’s not officially divided into the monthly Special Event Speakers and the thrice-monthly Regular Ol’ Speakers.

    I agree with previous commenters that a reasonably high average quality of seminars is key. Which requires sufficient advance planning. We assign an organizer every year, who starts working on the schedule in the summer. It also means assigning an organizer who has good taste in seminar speakers. This probably means someone with broad interests encompassing fundamental research. Talks based on important fundamental questions are accessible to and of interest to everyone. A seminar series is a key part of the shared intellectual life of a department, so you need speakers talking about stuff that everyone is interested in. Which doesn’t mean you can’t have any applied talks. But frankly, if it’s just one week after another of very system-specific, non-conceptual talks on management of species X or restoration of site Y or taxonomic revisions to group Z, I think attendance is going to suffer.

    I also agree that dropping to a biweekly frequency might help, if it was used as a device to raise the average quality of the talks. You should still be able to get people in the habit of attending a biweekly series.

    • Well said Jeremy. But IMO speaker quality is important, but not every speaker needs to be Carl Sagan. I liked having grad students do some bcz its a great opp for them to practice speaking among friendlies, bcz often you hang with people in a totally diff specialty and know bits of what they do but don’t get to see the breadth of their work; bcz undergrads look up to them and will probably come see them.

      • ” liked having grad students do some bcz its a great opp for them to practice speaking among friendlies”

        At Calgary there’s a separate EEB grad student seminar series for students in their first two years. It’s a pass/fail course that grad students take for the first two years. We also have exit seminars from finishing grad students, but those mostly have to be scheduled at idiosyncratic times. It’s not usually possible to schedule them into the EEB seminar series. But some years, when we have a big cohort of grad students, the EEB seminar series includes some “overflow” talks from grad students who can’t be squeezed into the grad student seminar series.

        I think it’s fine to have the occasional grad student talk in a department’s regular seminar series, but if it’s more than occasional, then the seminar series effectively starts serving a different purpose.

        “bcz undergrads look up to them and will probably come see them.”

        Every year we have a small number of experienced ecology undergrads who regularly attend the departmental EEB seminar series (and sometimes the grad student seminar series). They’re always pleasantly surprised that they can follow the talks perfectly well. Whenever I’m teaching an upper-level ecology course, I plug the departmental EEB seminars to the students, and occasionally give them the opportunity to complete “participation” assignments by attending seminars and answering some questions about them.

      • I guess of you have the resources to bring in speakers every week by all means that’s . eat. But IMO two seminars (“grad” and “pro”) a week is too many for most people.

        Everywhere I’ve been I’ve been fortunate enough to have a well attended seminar series no matter the speaker.

        Cheers j

      • “But IMO two seminars (“grad” and “pro”) a week is too many for most people.”

        Hmm, I’m not sure that view is widely shared. *Lots* of places besides Calgary have both a departmental EEB seminar series, and a grad student EEB seminar series, with good attendance at both. I’ve only ever heard of a few places where attendance at any given seminar suffers because people are just overwhelmed by all the seminars they could reasonably be expected to attend. Those are rare places like UC Davis, which has several departments and inter-departmental programs all dense with ecologists, where an ecologist could literally attend 4-5 ecology seminars/week (or so I’m told).

        Of course, what seems like “too much” is likely to depend on what you’re currently used to as the norm. If the norm at your university is one ecology seminar every couple of weeks or something, even going to just one/week might well feel like “too much”.

      • Well, tragically I’m a sneaky underhanded geologist interloping on your ecology blog. :). Never been to an EEB seminar.

        But I have been in several geo depts. The rule is one seminar per week unless a Science Legend arrives, in which case s/he gets h/her own time. In geology seminars are generally well attended.

        Personally I wouldn’t do two a week on stuff outside my general area of interest.

  9. One more important point for a quality of a seminar is the “discussion culture”. If everybody feels comfortable to ask (also critical) questions, you get more lively and interesting discussions, which also makes it more likely that people attend regularly, I think. Without a interesting discussion, a seminar is not really much more than a short lecture on specific topic. I attend once a seminar with interesting speakers, but at the discussion some “big-shot” faculty members spoke most of the time leaving only 1-2 questions to the audience, which annoyed most of the people.

    As mentioned before I also think the faculty must attend, but also should encourage students to go to the seminars or may include the participation in some other courses. At some universities the audience of the seminars I attend were over 50% experienced undergrads or M.Sc.-students. And you can really learn a lot from seminars as a student besides biological knowledge: “What are people currently researching”, “What actual research looks like”, “What it is like to be Scientist”, etc.. Once a professor said in the first week introduction: “You can skip some lectures and enjoy life, most of the stuff is well-known and you can read it in books anyway, but don’t skip seminars, there you will see what is currently going on in science”

    • At Rutgers, we have both a weekly departmental seminar (the EEB grad program, to be more precise) with an invited, adult speaker, and a weekly graduate student talk. The format is really different in the two, and I think the grad seminar is much better.

      They’re both at the end of the day. For the grad seminar, there’s a good bit of social time at the start (faculty, staff, and students mingling) and talks are short, like 25-30 minutes, with a lot of discussion time. At the departmental seminar, there is mingling outside the lecture hall, but inside, people generally take their seats and behave like audience members even in the five minutes before a talk begins. Average speaker quality is perhaps slightly better, and talks are certainly more polished. However, they are usually 45-55 minutes long, leaving next to no time for questions. A few people typically ask the few questions allowed by the short time.

      Furthermore, we bring in speakers with a delightfully diverse array of research programs. This means most people in the room have little familiarity with their work, topic, and sometimes even basic methodology. This is, in general, a really good thing for us. However, I think it meshes better with a short talk and ample, open discussion time.

      One great tradition we have here is lots of meetings and meals with seminar speakers; the talk is a fairly minor part of a speaker’s experience here. One challenge this tradition faces is the talk is at the end of the day, meaning that the talk’s potential to catalyze conversation and build familiarity is wasted, unavailable to those who schedule a morning meeting.

      I like many of the suggestions here, especially the diversity comment below, but I think a lot of the success of a series rests on the formal aspects (what room do people mingle in, how long is the talk and how much time is allocated to discussion, what time of day is the talk at), and would love to hear more ideas regarding that.

  10. One thing worth adding to the recipe for success: invite a diversity of speakers.

    Gender bias is common in ecology – in the publication process, hiring rates and editorial boards – and is also evident in many departmental seminar series. But ecology is a lot funner and more productive when everyone is invited and represented.

    A simple solution is to have a 50/50 split of male and female speakers. We started doing this for an ecology seminar series at University of Melbourne in 2014 and had a very positive response.

    Also, pizza.

    • Personally, I haven’t noticed any long-term trends, or heard of any elsewhere. My anecdotal sense is that variance in seminar attendance is more spatial than temporal. Some places have, and have long had, very well attended seminar series. Others not.

  11. Seems to me like there are 3 constraints: frequency, attendance, budget. Changing attendance likely requires a change in one of the other two constraints. Seems like your options are (1) reduce frequency and increase attendance by increasing speaker awesomeness; (2) live with low attendance; (3) or find a way to increase your budget.

    Other thoughts:
    Tou could require grad students to show up. The U of Minnesota EEB department required (requires?) grad students in their first 2-3 years to attend the weekly department seminar series, which, yes, is the same time and place each week. There was a sign-in sheet students had to sign. To make it have teeth, the seminar series was a one-credit “course” that you needed to take prelims.

    You could change the scope of the seminar series. In addition to U of MInnesota’s department seminar series, there was a Friday lunch seminar series that was run by grad students. This series was more informal, and was used by students and postdocs within the department to give practice talks, was used for ethics training, and only sometimes had invited speakers.

    In addition to speaker quality, consider speaker relevance. I’ve seen seminar series with low turnout because the topics were all over the place. The potential audience didn’t know whether that week’s seminar would even be understandable, because the scope was so broad.

    Finally, consider developing a feeling of shared ownership of the series. Ask for faculty (and grad students!) to contribute speaker ideas. Ask them then to “host” their speakers — even if it’s just for cookies or something else not too expensive.

    • “Finally, consider developing a feeling of shared ownership of the series. Ask for faculty (and grad students!) to contribute speaker ideas. ”

      As seminar coordinator, I always do that–and basically never get any suggestions. To the extent you have a keen seminar coordinator, others are going to be content to leave it to the seminar coordinator to pick the speakers, seeing it as part of the coordinator’s job. People do sometimes host speakers, but it’s generally people they’ve invited themselves for some other reason, such as an external examiner they’ve invited. I think if you’re going to develop a culture of “shared ownership” of the seminar series, with everyone eager to make suggestions and host speakers, I think everyone will have to feel like there’s something in it for them. I think you’d need a culture in which everyone “selfishly” invites in an external speaker every year for their lab group to meet with, but those invitees are doing work of broad interest to others in the dept.

      Agree that it’s going to be hard to generate attendance for an overbroad series. “Ecology and evolution” should be fine. But if it’s “biology”, then I doubt you’ll get the whole dept. attending every week. Ecologists will only attend when an ecologist is speaking, etc.

  12. I’m late to the game here. But at least anecdotally this is partly an EEB vs NatRes cultural thing. Most EEB departments I am part of pull off a formal and informal seminar every week. Most NatRes departments I’ve been in struggle to keep just the formal one going. I recall trying very hard to get a weekly seminar series revitalized in an NatRes department. Despite a fair amount of time invested, by the end of the semester I was just embarrassed how low the turnout was for the speakers (less than 10 in some cases). It is possible though – at my current campus both Wildlife and Forestry have successful seminar series.

    Here at Maine we got a 2nd (the informal internal) ecology seminar series up and going in the last few years. The key was to have 4-5 faculty who committed to being there every single week they weren’t out of town and bringing their students. It took doing that for a couple of years when things were sputtering. But after a few years people started thinking they were missing out and showing up. I think constant time/place is pretty important too.

    I definitely think offering 1 credit to graduate students where the only expectation is showing up can help too.

    • “anecdotally this is partly an EEB vs NatRes cultural thing. ”

      Yeah, I suspected that as well, but didn’t have enough first hand experience with NatRes depts. to want to speculate…

    • Brian, I’m intrigued by your suggestion of an EEB vs NatRes contrast. Would you be willing to speculate about a mechanism?

      • I’m not sure it’s just an EEB vs. NatRes thing. Hypothetically, I may be familiar with Peter’s hypothetical units. Hypothetically, let’s say I have experience with a Biology Department there. It too struggled with a seminar culture. So, this hypothetical university has an interesting scenario: two struggling department seminars and 1 vibrant seminar series. The two departments – with different cultures that come with the focus of those units – have a lot of faculty who are also affiliated with the unit with the vibrant series.

  13. Actually the NR-oriented department involved here has pretty good turnout for its seminars and the college even has pretty good turnout. True, there are some faculty who never attend and that affects student attendance. But at times our departmental seminar has too many people for a good-sized room. Speaker quality varies, and I agree that that should be a prime consideration in choosing a speaker. Money hasn’t been too much of an issue, though we are paying for at least one airline ticket and a few other expenses.

    As department head I occasionally get on faculty about not coming to seminar, but it has limited effect. In fact the ones that are always chipping in and helping out are the ones who usually come to seminar and they don’t need much prompting. The ones who don’t come don’t participate much in general.

    Having just put together our departmental seminar for the spring I like the idea of a faculty member volunteering to run it or a group of students, or maybe both.

    • “In fact the ones that are always chipping in and helping out are the ones who usually come to seminar and they don’t need much prompting. The ones who don’t come don’t participate much in general.”

      Sounds like behavioral syndromes, but for faculty rather than their study organisms. 🙂

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