Friday, October 23, 2009

Seminar Manners

The reason I’ve not been blogging this past week is because I was away giving an invited seminar. I give several seminars each year, usually at universities, and am typically invited by a colleague. Visiting a new place, talking with strangers, and making a presentation to a roomful of people can be somewhat daunting, even for an experienced scientist. However, it is good experience and also can lead to useful contacts, potential students, or new collaborators.

The first few times I gave a seminar at another institution, I was quite nervous and felt very out of place. People were generally very friendly and welcoming, but the fact that I was expected to give a great talk, was somewhat nerve-wracking. When people have covered your travel expenses, even provided an honorarium, you feel obligated to give them a memorable talk.

Not all invited speakers are similarly inclined. In fact, some well-known scientists in my field are notorious for giving appallingly bad talks. I remember one scientist in particular who had been invited to give a talk in a special speaker series at the university where I worked. He was quite well known and considered to be an “elder statesman” in our field. His talk was not only atrocious, but insulting.

He used the old-style transparencies on which he had scribbled crude diagrams, apparently on his flight to our city. That, plus the disorganized rambling that characterized his presentation told everyone that he did not consider this event important enough to prepare for. He then proceeded to crow about all the excellent research his group (and university) had done in this field---and that no one else had even come close to their accomplishments—including the members of the audience (who in fact were major contributors to the field).

I sat there dumbfounded, with my mouth dropped open. I was much younger and inexperienced then, but recognized the insult to our faculty. To rub salt in the wound, this guy continued to disparage anything he was shown around campus or the city. I tagged along as he was given various tours, so heard a lot of his insulting remarks. To the credit of the department members, they behaved politely and ignored the obvious insult.

I doubt that this visiting scholar realized what a bad impression he made. He was so arrogant and self-centered, that I imagine that he was unaware of the looks we were exchanging or the long silences after one of his outrageous pronouncements.

Anyway, that is not how to behave when you are a guest. During my recent experience, I was careful to be polite, cheerful, and enthusiastic.—even when I was talking to someone more taciturn. I always thanked people for taking the time to talk to me (during individual meetings with faculty) as well as thanking my hosts at the beginning of my presentation. When I was given tours of facilities, I always expressed interest and asked questions. Any glitches in the schedule or other issues, I brushed off and ensured my hosts that it was not a major problem.

Giving seminars at other institutions throughout your career is not only good experience, it might lead to a future job offer. So leaving a good impression, both professional and personal, is always wise. If you are visiting for a job interview, you obviously want to put your best foot forward. It’s not just the seminar and official interview that are important when you are being interviewed for a job. Manners are doubly important. In fact, it is how you behave and interact with potential coworkers that may determine the outcome of a job interview. The faculty, students, and staff are looking at you and wondering what it would be like to have you in the office next door or present at faculty meetings. Perhaps your scholarly record is so outstanding that it can overshadow negative personality issues. But I wouldn’t count on it.

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