Who should organize your department’s seminar series?

My home department’s Fall 2018 seminar series wraps up soon, and I’m looking forward to next semester’s.  We’ve got an interesting lineup of speakers with lots of variety, and I’m very grateful to our seminar organizers for that.  Today’s question: who were those organizers?  And who should they be?

Across University departments I’ve visited or been involved with, over the years, the identity of the seminar organizers has varied widely.  Sometimes it’s a single faculty member; sometimes it’s a small committee of them.  Sometimes it’s a departmental administrator.  In my current home department, it’s the graduate students – and I’m a big fan of that arrangement.

I should probably specify what constitutes “organizing” the series, in my department.  Roughly: a small team of grad students solicits suggestions for speakers, chooses the ones they’d like to actually invite, contacts invitees, sets up the schedule, books accommodation, and arranges for someone in the department to host each visit.  The student organizes are handed a budget with which to do all this*, and our office staff handle a bunch of the paperwork, like issuing purchase orders for plane tickets or processing reimbursement claims after a speaker has visited.  But the grad students do the large majority of the work.  And if you think it sounds like quite a lot of work, you’re quite right: it is.  I’ve done it, and if you’ve done it too, I bet you’ll agree.

So why should we expect grad students to do this work?  It’s unpaid work, not part of their theses or their paid TAships or anything else.  Of course, I’m exaggerating a bit: we don’t “expect” them to do this work.  Instead, we ask them if they’ll volunteer (and I encourage my own students to do so).  But volunteer or not, it’s still work, and one could argue that it’s administrative work of the department that ought to be done by someone who’s paid to do it**.  What’s our excuse for downloading this work onto the grad students?

It’s simple, really.  While organizing a seminar series takes work, being an organizer also has an enormous upside, and it has the biggest upside for organizers who are grad students (or perhaps postdocs).  There’s no segment of the department with more to gain from being able to choose who comes to visit – seminar visitors who can make fresh suggestions from their outside-the-department perspectives and thus influence the direction of a thesis or, sometimes, of a career.  Even more so, there’s no segment of the department with more to gain from establishing connections with invited visitors.  Organizing a seminar series is one way of building a network of professional connections in one’s field.  It’s a powerful way, too, because receiving a seminar invitation from a grad student favours a stronger interaction than the average conference-hallway chat (but those are important too).

I can testify to the value of networking via seminar organization from both sides.  As a faculty member now, I appreciate getting invitations from grad students, and when I do, I see a grad student who’s involved in the life of their department and who’s thinking about science more broadly than just their thesis.  When I make the visit, I’ll usually have done a bit of research on that grad student’s work and be prepared for more-intense-than-usual discussion.   And from the other side: back when I was a grad student, I co-organized our Ecolunch seminar series***.  I met many speakers I didn’t yet know (for that series, we drew only regionally, but the region was rich in universities), and I interacted fairly extensively with some of them.  One became my external examiner.  Another came from the university that would later offer me my very first job interview, and he explained (in introducing my job talk) that our interaction during the seminar visit had impressed him.  I’m sure this wasn’t the only reason they chose to interview me, but it certainly helped.  (Did I convert this head start into a job offer?  No, in spectacular fashion I did not.)

So: grad students do a great job of seminar organization; and grad students stand to gain from doing it.  If your department isn’t offering the role to them (offering, not requiring), please ask yourself why not.

© Stephen Heard  November 22, 2018

Hat tip to Ken Thompson, who suggested I write this post.  That doesn’t, of course, mean he necessarily agrees with any of it.

*^In the past, some cohorts of grad students have pursued fundraising to supplement – not replace – the allotted budget for seminars.  There have been sponsorships (bars/restaurants), silent auctions, dinners, and so on.  I have mixed feelings about this.  On the one hand, what marvelous initiative!  But on the other, I’m a firm believer that funding a seminar series should be a priority for a department that wants to take the research side of its portfolio seriously. Over my time as department Chair, I invested money in boosting our seminar budget.  But it wasn’t enough.  At my publicly (under)funded institution, there’s never enough.

**^This is a constant refrain these days, mostly around peer review, and I think it reflects considerable confusion about what it means to be paid to do a task.  We like to think that all jobs have tidy lists of responsibilities, and if something isn’t on that list, it isn’t something we’re “paid” to do.  This may be true in some sectors of the economy, and it may even be true for clerical and other staff at a university.  But it’s a risible notion with respect to the professorship.  What about grad students?  Here we get to the question of how the grad student role sits on the ternary plot of employee, student, and apprentice.  It’s an issue for another post, but for now I’ll stipulate that it’s reasonable to consider organizing a seminar series outside what we’re “paying grad students to do”.

***^Not the “real” departmental seminar series.  In my grad department, this was considered a sacred thing, to be held far above the meddling of lowly grad students.  In case it isn’t obvious from the rest of this post: this attitude was foolish.


7 thoughts on “Who should organize your department’s seminar series?

  1. David Hunt

    As a grad student who has organised a seminar series for coming up on two years now, I am happy I did it. It has raised my visibility within and outside the department, and I have learned and met a lot of people. But… after two years, I’m glad to pass it on. Especially since eyes start looking in my direction when something special needs to be organised (I was basically voluntold for Christmas party).


  2. Jeremy Fox

    So if a seminar series isn’t currently run by grad students, how would one switch it from the current faculty-run “equilibrium” to a new grad student-run “equilibrium”? At your institution, grad students have been running the seminar series for a long time (right?). They know how to do it, they like doing it, and there’s an institutional “memory” or “culture” that passes down the knowledge of how to do it (and the value of doing it) from one cohort of grad students to the next. Any advice for how to create that institutional memory or culture?


    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      That’s a great question. You’re right, here at UNB it’s been grad-student-run since time immemorial (by which I mean, of course, before I was hired). And I checked with our organizers: they do a transition meeting where the how-to knowledge gets passed on; there isn’t (yet) a written manual. Ditto for me at Penn – I inherited from previous grad student organizers. I would think that a team approach – pairing an experienced faculty organizer with one or two grad students for the year – would probably work as a transition.


  3. Amanda Cavanagh

    Hi Steve – I think you’ve hit the nail on the head in the many benefits to running a seminar series as a grad student. Especially at a smaller institution, the networking potential it opens up is invaluable. I think the focus on unpaid work misses the biggest drawback though – the role comes with a financial hit if the students are relying on the department to reimburse them for expenses (i.e. snacks & coffee, or speaker meals), which can sometimes take months to weeks to arrive.


    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Excellent point, and one I wish I’d hit upon in the post. There are ways to reduce this problem – on Twitter others have pointed out the use of departmental purchase orders to pay for seminar snacks, etc. Departments who have grad student organizers should think hard about ways to remove the financial burden of waiting for reimbursement – it’s not fair to put this on those who can least afford it!


  4. Eric Walters

    Great points! When I was a grad student at Florida State, I made it a routine to meet with all visiting speakers. Thinking back, I met a lot of influential ecologists / evolutionary biologists. Here is the list I could think of off the top of my head (it has been 14 years since I was in grad school so I have probably forgotten many):
    John Avise
    Andy Blaustein
    Mark Butler (I ended up getting a job in his dept)
    Judy Bronstein
    Joel Brown
    Jon Chase
    Larry Crowder
    Don DeAngelis
    Michael Doebeli
    Aaron Ellison
    Stan Faeth
    Doug Futuyma
    Geoff Hill
    Bob Holt * I was his grad student host and organized his visit
    Marcel Holyoak
    Carol Horvitz
    Steve Hubbell
    Jeremy Jackson
    Sue Kalisz
    Peter Kareiva
    Walt Koenig (this led to a postdoc)
    Alex Kondrashov
    Mathew Leibold
    Michel Loreau
    Don Ludwig
    Mike Lynch
    Marc Mangel
    Bruce Menge
    Peter Morin
    Kevin Omland
    Mercedes Pascual
    Dan Promislow
    Mark Rausher
    Steve Reilly
    Dave Reznick
    Bob Rickleffs
    Mike Ryan
    Doug Schemske
    Ken Schmidt
    Ellen Simms
    Geerat Vermeij
    Charlie Walters
    Bob Warner
    Earl Werner
    Mike Whitlock



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