An NCI-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center
By Cassandra Ramos | October 31, 2016

It’s Monday morning. You sip your coffee and fire up your email to see what this week will hold for you. There’s a message in your inbox announcing a guest speaker at a seminar. Maybe it’s a prospective faculty member at your institution discussing research in your field, or a scientist from a company describing a new technology that will be applicable to your work. Seminars are nice opportunities for getting out of lab and maybe snagging baked goods at the refreshment table, but seminars can be so much more than that. While it’s tempting to wander into the seminar and passively listen while guzzling coffee, you may be missing out on a more enriching opportunity. Here are some tips to effectively utilize your time at the seminar:

  1. Do some research beforehand.
    Perform a web search for the speaker since the abstract accompanying the announcement might miss something that interests you. To help you determine what potential this speaker can have for you, you can read primary research articles that the speaker has authored and look at current review articles in the speaker’s field. You will be primed to spend less time asking superficial questions about subjects that are already known in the field, and you’ll be able to focus on more detailed nuances of the research. You might even answer some of the questions you had initially formed about the research.
  2. Examine what you want out of the seminar.
    Having a goal before heading to the seminar is an excellent way to ensure that you will maximize your time with the speaker. Maybe you wish to learn about the speaker’s methods or the software she used. You may see this speaker as a potential collaborator. Or, your goal may be motivated by simple curiosity and you would just like some exposure to this research field.

    When you know what information you want from the seminar, you will be more likely to hone your attention to the things that matter most to you. You will also be able to ask questions in a guided way that suits your own research needs.
  3. Ask for one-on-one meeting time.
    It might be in your interest to request a personal meeting if the speaker is visiting your institution for an extended period of time. This will give you time to ask questions that are very specific to your own research needs in person rather than in front of the seminar’s large audience. One-on-one time may also be a good option if your goal is professional development. This can be an informal informational interview about the speaker’s institution or position.

    A meeting can be arranged by contacting the host of the seminar and asking to add an appointment to the speaker’s agenda. Don’t be intimidated! The worst that could happen is the host declining the meeting request.
  4. Take notes during the seminar.
    In addition to that cup of coffee, make sure you bring along a notebook and pen for jotting down notes. Use these notes to organize your thoughts during the seminar, particularly when you think of a question or want clarification on a point. These notes are helpful when you follow-up after the seminar and reflect on what you’ve learned from the talk (see #6 and 7!), but may be especially helpful in a few months after the presentation—you may run into a setback with your own research and recall that the speaker mentioned this during her seminar!
  5. Ask questions.
    After the seminar, the researcher almost always leaves time for questions. Use this time wisely, especially if you aren’t able to meet one-on-one with the speaker (see #3!). Hopefully by now you’re able to identify how the speaker’s work fits in with yours, so feel free to ask about whether a drug in her study can also be used with your model. It can be extremely useful to ask the speaker to speculate about an unanswered question in your field if you believe her expertise lends a unique perspective.

    Keep in mind that the questions should add to the growing body of knowledge about the subject and should not be an attack on the speaker or her work. (Think “Did you have a rationale for using that drug instead of others with similar mechanisms?” instead of “You know there are other drugs that work better than that one, right?”) A collegial atmosphere brings about collaboration and learning while a hostile environment leads to tension and strained relationships.
  6. Reflect on lessons learned.
    It’s tempting to close your book of seminar notes and never look at them again. To really make sure that you gained something from the seminar, take some time to figure out what you learned from the speaker. Even if the speaker presented published work with which you’re already familiar, something new can always be learned. If this speaker bored you to tears, you can even think of how you can prevent this from happening when you give your own presentations. Hopefully your understanding of the subject is richer than before the seminar.
  7. Follow-up after the seminar.
    A simple thank-you email goes a long way to show appreciation for the efforts of the speaker. As you already know, research is an exercise in willful persistence and patience, and scientists are pleased when someone acknowledges that their work is making an impact in the community. A follow-up email is also great for asking additional questions if the speaker ran out of time at the end of the seminar. This email can serve for opening up further communication in the future.

    Visiting speakers are a valuable resource, but even more worthwhile if you’re primed with the skills to apply the speaker’s experiences to your own. Like many things in life, research seminars are what you make of them, so make the most of them!