Seminars suck

Seminars suck, writes Adam Ruben: "In the idyllic vision of the uninitiated, a seminar tells a story, starting with a clear description of a problem, then outlining a series of steps ... In reality, scientific seminars usually consist of quasi-related PowerPoint slides cobbled together from prior seminars." [via Metafilter and 3 Quarks Daily]


  1. Welcome to the real world?

    All knowledge is based on what has been discovered in the past…

    Welcome to science! It’s not magic.

  2. We have a thriving seminar series in our research centre, with both internal and visiting speakers. It’s always interesting, frequently fascinating, and we get people from all over coming to it. Oh, and we don’t provide donuts and our grad students don’t behave as the author describes himself as having behaved. But perhaps it’s because we’re actually interested in a range of ideas and issues not just in ‘getting back to the lab’…

    I suggest that perhaps the author has never been part of a institution that has a proper ‘intellectual culture’… but then that’s hardly surprising as they are few and far between these days.

    1. After reading that article, I tend to agree with your observation about a lack of “intellectual culture.” The seminars that I have the pleasure to view at my institution are generally enlightening and fun, but that might be because I’m at one of the best schools in a particularly fun area of science (acoustics).

      Frankly, the author sounds like a whiny brat. All I can read is, “Boring presentations suck,” and “Making a good presentation is too hard!” I have little sympathy for that mindset. If you think the presentations suck, get involved and find better speakers. And yeah, making a good presentation takes effort. But it’s effort well spent, because people will always remember that great scientific seminar they attended and learned from.

  3. I wonder how much of the crappiness comes from not having interactive seminars. In my field we ask questions. Aggressively. Makes for very good seminars, and generally more robust work…

  4. Seminar–composed from “semi,” which mean “half,” and “nar, as in “narcotic” or “narcoleptic.”

    definition–A meeting in a darkened room where one person speaks in a monotone voice in order to induce a state of somnolence in the audience.

  5. Seminars have always tended to be boring as presenters assume that the audience has intimate knowledge of his/her field which they rarely do.

    However the scourge of powerpoint has taken this to a new level with (often literally) flash presentation replacing verbal explanation.

    Yes I know the article labels me as a caveman for avoiding powerpointlessness.

  6. I have attended many seminars in the sciences (mostly life sciences) and enjoyed most, though the Powerpoint sickness does abide.

    In humanities worlds, however, the seminar is the great joy. We use seminar to mean a small course, usually around a round or oval table, in which all participants discuss a previously circulated reading. Sometimes one or more persons are tapped to be lead discussion, but the vibe is the most democratic of any of our teaching opportunities. Night and day from the lecture, the bane of any humanities teacher.

  7. There’s a geeky game I’ve seen played where the player is handed a completely random deck of slides and told to ad-lib a presentation that seems to go with them…

  8. I’m a former grad student. Ph.D. dropout actually after 6 years, but that’s a post for another time.

    Most seminars I went to were OK. This was before the Age of Powerpoint though, and slides where /slides/. So yeah, they were re-used, but they cost time and money and effort, so there weren’t so many of them and they were generally informative.

    We did very nearly rebel when the doughnuts were switched to bagel chips for about a few weeks, though.

    Many just seemed like prof A was visiting prof B for some reason and the seminar was an afterthought or justification for the trip. Some talks were good and interesting, others (perhaps most) felt like the grant proposal roadshow. The best discussions though were afterwards over beers, though.

    Heard Richard Smalley talk about fullerenes shortly after they were detected. You’d think that one would be wonderful, but it was so early in the work that you could read the paper and know all there was to know.

    I did get to go to a seminar by Linus Pauling before he died, but the room was so full of celebrity worship (they filmed it) that the substance of it (his rather old-school interpretation of “high temp” — liquid nitrogen temp — semiconductors) just floated by without any real discussion.

Comments are closed.