Students: here are some tips for meeting one-on-one with a visiting speaker (UPDATEDx2)

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.

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). Or might just have some vague ideas you’ve been mulling over. Or somewhere in between. 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 #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.”

39 thoughts on “Students: here are some tips for meeting one-on-one with a visiting speaker (UPDATEDx2)

  1. Great post and I totally agree apart from this bit “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”. Meeting with a seminar speaker could make a huge difference, but always in a very positive way!!! This one of the key ways early career researchers can network to build careers. Talking with a seminar speaker might leave a really positive impression that could result in someone reading your work or providing opportunities for you like a future postdoc position! Start the discussion off with your elevator pitch for your own research and remember to lead with the big question first – then get into the details. It is always worth it to make time to speak with the seminar speaker, as it will allow you to think about new ideas, build your own confidence, and could change the trajectory of your future career – in great ways!

    • Yes, that’s possible, although I’m going to stick to my guns and suggest that it’s not common for a single one-off meeting to result in, say, a postdoc offer years later. Not without lots of other stuff happening in between (e.g., additional meetings and correspondence). In which case I wouldn’t point to the meeting itself being career changing, but the meeting plus all the other stuff that together led to you getting that postdoc offer.*

      I think what makes a difference to your career, usually, is the accumulation of lots of little things. A single one-off meeting with a visiting speaker is a little thing–but good students take a lot of those meetings. Similarly, a single conference is a little thing that typically won’t do all that much to build your reputation or professional network–but cumulatively, many of them will. Writing a single blog post is like dropping a pebble in an ocean of content–but posting often over a period of years can build you a substantial audience. Etc.

      I’m guessing that in saying this I’m actually agreeing with you and just quibbling over semantics? If so, sorry, not trying to be nitpicky about semantics. But I have the admittedly-anecdotal sense that grad students sometimes get anxious about meeting with visiting speakers not because they worry that the meeting will go badly, but because they think the meeting is a Big Deal. This half-hour meeting with Dr. Famous could make my career! Pressure’s on! To which I would say, relax, it’s not that big a deal. I mean, yes, you’ll likely get some good ideas and feedback out of it, which is great! And maybe it will be the *start* of something bigger, who knows. But the meeting in itself is not a Big Deal for your career.

      *Plus, had you not gotten and accepted postdoc offer X (or whatever), you might well have gotten and accepted some other postdoc offer instead (some old musings on this point:

  2. When I travel to be a seminar speaker, usually my favorite part of the day or two visit is the meetings with graduate students. So much energy and such really creative ideas. In those meetings I end up speaking science about 60% of the time and speaking about career mentoring perhaps 40% of the time (even higher at organized events like grad lunches). Even if you have a great mentor, it never hurts to get advice from other perspectives too.

  3. I’ll add that the biggest barrier for me back when I started grad school was that I initially thought that I had to have read at least a few of the speakers’ papers closely, and understood them, before even thinking about scheduling a meeting.

    But what you soon learn while meeting folks is that the speakers you know the least about often yield very interesting meetings. They bring completely unfamiliar points of view, that can really spark an exciting discussion. You learn so much from these meetings. Don’t feel like you have to spend a lot of time prepping for a meeting with a speaker, especially if that is going to be a barrier for you to ask for a meeting. Its ok to ask for a meeting just because you found their abstract interesting or for any other reason.

    I once met Simon Levin, who from what I remember, told me his advisor required that he meet with *every* speaker one-on-one! And he said that was one of the most important parts of his grad school experience, which he never would have done otherwise.

    Other things you shouldn’t worry about
    – having attended or going to attend their talk [unavoidable conflicts come up, and if for some reason you can’t go to the talk its ok to still ask for a meeting]
    – making your advisor look bad – this won’t happen

  4. Anecdotal observation, for any student who feels “too busy” to meet with visiting speakers: the grad students who most often meet one-on-one with visiting speakers are not those who are least busy. Rather, just the opposite: in my experience, they tend to be the students who also attend the departmental seminars without fail, organize group social events, volunteer to do public outreach, etc. It’s *not* that they work more hours per week than other students, it’s that they don’t exclusively fill those hours by keeping their heads down and beavering away on their own research. And those students tend to be as or *more* productive as others in terms of writing good papers. Yes, there are times when you need to put your head down and focus on your own stuff. But if you feel that way *all* the time, you should probably meet with your supervisor to ask advice about time allocation.

    • In my experience, this is very just. Some students are always busy with their own project, never doing anything else but they never seemed to be the most productives.
      I always liked meeting with visiting speakers. I often brought along the “too shy students”. I found that I got as much benefits from meeting one-on-one than in very small groups (3-4 students).

  5. Also, don’t worry that you and the visitor will just sit there staring awkwardly at each other if you don’t have anything planned to talk about. If there’s a lull in the conversation, the visitor will probably ask you “So, what are you working on?” or “How long have you been at [name of your institution]?” or “That picture on your desk is a great mountain shot–did you take that?” or etc.

  6. Great advice! I think my first one-on-one seminar speaker meeting was with Ian Dworkin–I had requested a meeting because I had this somewhat out-there idea I thought he would be able to help me think about. But I was so nervous about bringing that up that I read a whole bunch of his other papers and spent the first 15 or 20 minutes (of a 30 minute meeting) talking about something that was related to his work and my work but not especially interesting. When I finally brought up the idea I really wanted to discuss, he was SO encouraging! I still haven’t done anything with the idea, but that conversation was some of the first validation I had gotten that my ideas might be interesting to grown-up-scientists who had no stake in my career, and it was a tremendous boost of confidence in the middle of the grad school doldrums. So yes, seek out those one-on-one meetings!
    (Another grad school highlight was my advisor managing to sneak in a meeting between me and Peter and Rosemary Grant, in the form of me walking with them from their hotel to the campus, since the rest of their schedule was understandably jam-packed with meetings with faculty. We managed to talk a lot about science on that walk!)

  7. In response to UPDATE #2: Some of this is news to me. Particularly that you shouldn’t be afraid of long-term consequences. If a speaker I’m interested in meeting with could be a potential post-doc advisor, shouldn’t this meeting carry more weight? If one ends up coming across unprepared, dogmatic, etc, then would his not affect that potential future colleague?

    Also do folks typically mind if you present a problem you have been having in your research and want to know their opinion on how to move forward?

    • “If a speaker I’m interested in meeting with could be a potential post-doc advisor, shouldn’t this meeting carry more weight?”

      Nothing in the post says or implies that it’s totally fine to be unprepared! You should match your level of preparation to the purpose of the meeting. The point of the post is just that it’s completely fine to book a meeting with someone even if the purpose of the meeting is just to chat, so that the meeting requires little or no advance preparation.

      “Also do folks typically mind if you present a problem you have been having in your research and want to know their opinion on how to move forward?”

      That’s a pretty common thing to talk with a visiting speaker about.

  8. Good point here that I should’ve made more explicit in the post: don’t be afraid to meet with a visiting speaker because you feel like you don’t know the speaker’s work well enough and might ask a “dumb” question. No visiting speaker expects you to know anything about their work, and no visiting speaker will think you’re dumb if you ask basic questions about their work.

  9. Advice for both faculty and students when meeting a speaker: Don’t expect the speaker to be able to solve your technical problems. Most likely they will have no idea what is wrong with your experiment/system/equipment/whatever. So have something else prepared to talk about for the remaining 40 minutes of your meeting. It’s great when somebody says, “I’d really love to hear your thoughts on XYZ-Specific-Problem.” But if it’s something I know nothing about, the conversation needs to move to something else. Don’t you have some DATA to show or talk about?

    • I’d only add that, if the visitor has relevant expertise and experience, it’s perfectly reasonable to at least ask about some technical problem you’re having. For instance, I work in protist microcosms, and as a visiting speaker I’m occasionally asked technical advice on growing protists in the lab. Sometimes I can’t answer, but it’s perfectly reasonable for folks to ask me.

      The other thing I’d say is that, in my experience, technical problems often are unwittingly self-imposed. The solution to your technical problem might be “take a step back, remind yourself of your ultimate scientific goal, and then pursue that goal using a different technical approach.” In my admittedly-anecdotal experience, a lot of technical statistical problems are like that. Often, when people in my department come to me for technical statistical advice, I find that the most productive conversation to have isn’t about the stats, but about “what’s your scientific question and how are you trying to answer it?”

  10. What do you talk about if you don’t have a research project yet? This is the major barrier for me right now, as I’m in my first year of graduate school and don’t yet have a whole lot of research of my own to talk about

  11. Back in grad school I managed to elbow my way onto the seminar committee as a student representative. Thus I had a say on who to invite and often got 1-2 of my own choices each semester. I was also involved in organization and scheduling, so I scheduled my own one-on-one meetings whenever I was interested in the speaker, or it was one of my scientific idols. Those chats were always fun, memorable, and sometimes useful for my own research.

  12. Yes, I remember this one event recently where I had chance to talk to a renowned vision biologist. I was nervous because I could only glance through the endless publications all seeming interesting. The conversation did not pick up pace (I felt so) as I continued with my age old PhD tales…but then I discussed few observations which I had just thought over, always wanted to work on them but could never get closer, and it was surprising how the speaker encouraged me on the same. In fact that part of the conversation was engaging enough to improvise on my ongoing work. Besides, I was advised to pursue that idea, which I always felt was churlish way head in my research.

    I wrote this because as evinced by lot of experiences shared here, I was worried about knowing nothing in vision and speaking one on one to an authority in the field. But it turned out that the ice was broken way too fast and I enjoyed the rest of the session. We ended giggling as to how biologist personalize the models they work with….

    Thanks Jeremy for this post!

  13. Wow!. I’ve been doing my Computer Science PhD (part time) for over a year now, and I had no idea that booking time to talk with visiting speakers was even a possibility.Now I need to work out how to find out who might be visiting in the future.
    This does leave me wondering what else I don’t know about and have never thought to ask, though…

    • You’re welcome! Glad you found the post useful. Though since I’m an ecologist and not a computer scientist, I hope that “meeting one on one with visiting speakers” is a thing in computer science. There are other respects in which computer science and ecology work totally differently, so I hope this isn’t one of them! 🙂

      • Grad students booking time one on one with speakers is more part of the ecology culture than for math, operations research and I’m guessing probably computer science too. But, even in the fields where it isn’t part of the culture, usually, who ever is in charge of the speaker’s schedule will welcome students to meet with them if they ask. And if not, the worst thing anyone can ever say in this context is no [and that’s unlikely to happen].

      • @ Matthew Holden,

        re: grad students booking time with speakers being part of the “culture” of ecology (or at least, more commonly part of the culture in ecology than it is in some other fields): I’m now wondering if there are any parts of the culture in other disciplines that ecology would want to adopt.

        I ask because it seems to me that there are many respects in which the “culture” in ecology is good compared to other fields. I’m thinking for instance of how it’s common in ecology for PhD students (and sometimes even MSc students) to have a fair bit of freedom to develop their own projects. As opposed to the culture in cell/molecular biology where graduate students often are treated as cheap bench labor–handed projects to do as instructed. As another example, we’ve talked a lot in the past year about how faculty hiring practices in many fields of social science are considerably more hierarchical than in ecology. If you don’t have a PhD from a “top” program, you’re not getting a faculty job in (say) sociology; the same is emphatically not true in ecology. There are some good or at least understandable reasons for that, but still.

        Surely there must be *some* aspect of the culture of *some* other discipline that would be transferable to ecology, and that would improve ecology if it were widely adopted?

    • @Jeremy That’s a good question. I’d say one thing in my anecdotal experience, is that in ecology grad students almost never lead their own undergraduate course. In math and some of the humanities, it is very common for a grad student, who is making good progress on their thesis, to teach a course rather than TA it. The University uses the lower wages of the grad student to then lower the class size of the service course. For example a student might be in a calculus class led by a professor. Such a class at an R1 would almost surely have 100+ students [not unheard of to have nearly 1,000 students!], but the one led by a grad student might only have 30. The department analyzed some aspects of grad student and professor instruction (via results on a common final exam, and student evaluations) and found the grad students with lower class sizes at a minimum don’t harm the instruction over a professor with larger class sizes (and potentially improve teaching). Giving students who want experience and more independence teaching, I think is a good thing. My guess is that in ecology, because there are less students to teach, this might be harder to implement. So in some respects Ecology gives their students great research freedom but not so great teaching freedom, but in math and potentially other subjects it is more of the opposite.

  14. Seen several tweets from students to the effect that the advice in this post is news to them, or that they wish someone had told them this years ago. But also retweets of the post from people who seem to have already been familiar with the advice it provides. And of course, people who choose to tweet are a highly non-random sample of all readers of the post, or of all grad students. So I dunno, I still have no sense of what fraction of grad students found this advice new vs old hat.

    • When I was a grad student (back in the Devonian Period), I certainly had no idea that I should or even could meet with seminar speakers. I would have found this post to be a huge help. There was even one speaker who invited me to join him at dinner with the faculty (he was in a related research area, and I had asked a lot of questions at his talk), but that was not something that was done in our department, as far as I aware of. So I was way too intimidated to accept the invitation, and I still remember and regret that.

      • Thanks for sharing this. It’s puzzling to me how much the culture varies on this from lab to lab and institution to institution.

  15. Re update #2: Speaking as a current grad student, yes this post is super useful! Thank you for writing it! The social conventions around meeting with visiting speakers have always been one of the more mysterious aspects of academia to me. I’m never sure if I’m doing it right, either in terms of what to talk about or in terms of which speakers to meet with. Since I tend to find one-on-one conversations with people I don’t really stressful, this uncertainty often serves as an excuse to err on the side of not meeting with speakers. Hopefully having read this post will help with that :).

  16. Via Twitter; click through for the entire thread.

  17. “Don’t worry about the visiting speaker judging you or your work negatively.” I think you are talking from your experience as a speaker, which is of course related to your personality. In my experience as a grad student, I would say that many speakers do care about, and expect you to have a clean “elevator speech”. They want you to awe them with your descriptions of how you’re answering a question that will revolutionize science and change the world. And they will say judging things when you are not able to convey their expectations. Or simply move on and keep speaking with other students that may have more interesting things to say.

    Maybe I have been unlucky, but I have felt this way many times. Maybe it is also a product of my shy personality. Anyways, I do dread now meeting with speakers, especially one-on-one, and it comes as a surprise to me when they actually are relaxed and act as you describe in your post.

    • I’m sorry to hear that your experiences talking to visiting speakers haven’t been more positive. Have you talked with your supervisor about your experiences on this, and if so did your supervisor have any suggestions for how to address it?

      • I have not, but that is also because [I feel] people in science tend to trivialize these topics: you had a bad experience? Don’t complain, suck it up, and learn from it so you can be better next time. Which is something I partly agree with, and have applied many times. But many of us don’t realize that it can take a lot of energy from a student and that it can be very demotivating.
        Your post, however, encouraged me to ask around and start a conversation. Thank you!

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