Grad students: if your department has a seminar series that brings in visiting speakers, meeting with them one-on-one is a great time investment. Going to the pizza lunch with the speaker and a bunch of other students is fine. So is meeting with the speaker as part of your lab group. But a one-on-one meeting has some unique advantages. It lets you talk with the visiting speaker about your own work. And it’s good practice for going to conferences–it gets you used to talking to strangers, gives you practice explaining your work to strangers, and helps you get over the feeling that faculty are your superiors rather than your professional colleagues.
Here are some tips on how to approach meeting one-on-one with a visiting speaker. Also some reassurance re: some common (?) anxieties about meeting with visiting speakers.
It’s fine to ask for a one-on-one meeting with the visiting speaker even if the speaker doesn’t work on exactly the same stuff as you, or works on totally different stuff than you. You are as entitled to meet with the visiting speaker as anyone else; don’t think you’d be taking time away from somebody who “needs” it more. And no visiting speaker minds meeting with someone who works on totally different stuff. Most people a visiting speaker meets during a visit work on totally different stuff than the speaker.
If grad students in your department rarely or never meet one-on-one with the visiting speaker, well, that probably means none of them ever ask to, not that it’s frowned upon or forbidden. That’s their loss.
Remember: the visitor wants to talk to you about whatever you want to talk about. She likes hearing about your stuff! Meeting people is a big part of being a visiting speaker. The speaker wouldn’t have agreed to visit if she didn’t want to meet people and talk to them about their science. Plus, she’s already going to be giving a talk on her science. She’d be happy to talk about her science with you if that’s what you want–but she’d be at least as happy to talk about your science instead.
Don’t be apologetic or over-modest about what you’re working on. If you don’t think it’s worth doing, no one else will either. You don’t want to go too far in the other direction and come off as cocky or like a stereotypical used car salesman, obviously. But that’s probably not a problem you have to worry about. I’ve yet to meet a grad student who comes off as cocky or as a hard-sell salesman in one-on-one meetings.
You can plan the conversation to varying degrees. You might have something very specific and technical you want to pick the visitor’s brain about (in which case, arrange to meet in a room that has a whiteboard, and/or bring your laptop). You might want to talk to the visitor about her past work, in which case you should familiarize yourself with that work before the meeting. Or might just have some vague ideas you’ve been mulling over. Or you might not want to talk about science at all. You might want to talk to the speaker about her amazing blog or whatever. All of which is fine! Don’t feel like you should only book time with a visiting speaker if you have something very specific or technical to talk about. Most people don’t, and visiting speakers don’t expect you to.
Don’t worry about the visiting speaker judging you or your work negatively. Definitely don’t worry about conversation’s potential long-term consequences for your career, because there won’t be any. Seriously, a one-off half-hour conversation with one person, even a famous senior person working on the same topic as you, isn’t going to make a dime’s worth of difference to your future career no matter how it goes. My own experience provides an illustration. As a postdoc I embarrassed myself in a one-on-one meeting with the Alan Grafen, one of the world’s leading experts on a topic (the Price equation) that became one of my main lines of research. The long-term consequence of which for my career was that…I got a good story to tell in a blog post about how everybody embarrasses themselves sometimes. 🙂
Protip: volunteer to take the speaker to breakfast or lunch. You’ll get more time to chat than you otherwise would, and the dept. ordinarily will pay for your meal. 🙂
UPDATE: In the comments, Matthew Holden adds some great points: Don’t feel like you have to read a bunch (or even any!) of the speaker’s papers in order to book a one-on-one meeting. And don’t feel like you have to impress the speaker because otherwise your advisor will look bad. UPDATE #3: In case it wasn’t clear, I am not saying that you shouldn’t do any advance prep before meeting with a visiting speaker! I’m saying that you should match your level of advance prep to the purpose of the meeting. If you need to do some advance prep in order for your meeting with the visiting speaker to serve its purpose, then you should do some advance prep. If not, not.
UPDATE #2: question for grad student readers: is anything in this post new to you? Does this post address anxieties you’ve had? Has your advisor ever talked to you about the topic of this post? Interested to hear from you no matter how you’d answer those questions. Because I’m flying blind whenever I decide to write an advice post. When I write an advice post, I’m usually writing about stuff that just came naturally to me as a grad student, or that I picked up by osmosis from hanging around with my supervisor and lab mates and following their excellent examples. For instance, I’ve never been shy about meeting with visiting speakers. I’m blessed that I’ve always been a self-confident person. And I went to a small liberal arts college as an undergrad in part so that I’d have lots of opportunity for faculty-student interaction outside of class. So by the time I got to grad school I was completely comfortable talking to profs. So as with most of my advice posts, I have no idea what fraction of grad students would find this post helpful. Basically all of my advice posts could be titled “Here’s a thing that I was lucky enough to have been told, or not to need to have been told. I have no idea if you need to hear it, but just in case here it is.”