Thursday, October 20, 2016

Inviting speakers

Not talking about conferences here--there are a whole other set of considerations when organizing sessions for a conference. I am talking about invited seminars. The sort of thing that has a limited budget with many slots to fill, including slots at times that are very unpopular for travel. How do you decide who to recommend as a speaker? Do you suggest friends? Big name speakers? People who you want to hear? People who you want to meet?

In my department, there is a seminar coordinator (a service position usually given to newer folks to help them network) who organizes the seminar schedule. This person solicits suggestions from the department for speakers, but has discretion over who to invite. The person who makes the initial suggestion acts as host, though the seminar coordinator takes care of the invitation, scheduling, and travel details. The host organizes the visit schedule, introduces the speaker, and arranges for dinner. So the host gets a lot of contact with their suggested invitee. Thus, I tend to suggest people who I want to meet and people whose research I want to hear more about after seeing a short conference talk.

My suggestions tend towards the early- and mid- career side, as there are many other mechanisms (and prestigious named lectures with actual budgets) that bring in well established big names. I figure that I am more likely to make a possibly useful connection with someone earlier in their career, especially since the seminar coordinator gets to do all the inviting and off campus interacting. Plus invitations are a whole lot more meaningful to less established people. I am sure the big name folks could probably travel every day of the year if they wanted to. Even better, newbies tend to have fewer schedule constraints and are often happy to take slots at less desirable (like January in a place with winter) travel times, since they do less travel overall. Lately, I have also tried to include people I've seen give great talks at meetings who are also visible members of underrepresented groups, even if I don't have a huge amount of research overlap, because I think it is really important to put a diverse slate of speakers in front of our students. I think I saw this idea a few years ago on Drugmonkey's blog (I'll admit that I am too lazy and too much in the middle of F*cktober to go looking, but I think it was there).

I guess I put a lot of thought into something that nets me an average of one hosting opportunity per year. One of my colleagues thinks I am nuts, and only suggests people who are either mega-big names or people directly in his research area. But how hard is it to start a list at a meeting, and just keep adding to it as you see people who might make good seminar speakers in the future?


Funny Researcher said...

Networking with big shots in the field never paid off; at least for me. They know that they are the big shots and you are a tiny assistant professor. I have found that people at the same level as me are most useful in terms of meaningful networking. But may not be very useful in terms of getting monies/awards/fancy-blah-blah-stuff.

prodigal academic said...

Me too, FR. I've met with some big names, but unless there was something particularly memorable about it (like we attended DARPA funding meetings together), nothing ever really seems to come of it, at least for me. Networking with less established folks has led to invitations and at least one joint publication.

xykademiqz said...

As a colleague pointed out, these really big names operate differently than the rest of us. They are part of the in-crowd and only look to and cite and care about the work of others from the in-crowd. If it hasn't been published by one of their in-crowd peers, they completely ignore it, like it doesn't exist. It is very hard to penetrate these circles unless you are academically born into them (right pedigree). I have some highly cited papers, but getting one of the big names to bestow a citation on this work is quite a challenge. I have also noted that these big names can certainly get away with citing basically just themselves and their buddies and get published anyway, and then get all testy when you call them on it in review.

Yeah, not much comes from schmoozing with the big names. They don't give a $hit. Peer connections are more valuable, starting from grad school and into independent career.

Sadly, any type of award and generally even tenure require endorsement, in terms of letters, from at least some big names. So we can't just totally avoid to schmooze to them, at least not until tenure.

pyrope said...

We are limited in budget to driveable only, so that makes nominations a bit more targeted. Meeting new people is always my goal, but I could probably do a much better job of perusing listings of faculty to find people at surrounding universities. For me, the most flattering invites to give talks are the ones that come out of the blue from people I've never met. So, I should try harder to pay that forward.

prodigal academic said...

Thanks for the comments. Xyk, my experience is the same as yours. I am not in the in crowd, and don't get cited much by them. Meeting big name folks when they come to campus has done nothing for me. I have no idea why the "received wisdom" tells new assistant professors that they should focus on getting big names to campus.

Pyrope, I totally agree--it is a great feeling to get an invite out of the blue. Makes me feel like my work is appreciated for its own merits!

xykademiqz said...

have no idea why the "received wisdom" tells new assistant professors that they should focus on getting big names to campus.

Honestly, it's just so you'd make sure they remember you at least for a little while because they may be asked to write a tenure evaluation letter for you. They are certainly too important to invite you or give you the time of day at a conference, so inviting them over may be the only way to have some face time with them pre-tenure. They probably won't cite you afterwards either, but at least they may remember who you are for that letter.