Cath’s post on whether it’s good manners to take some means of taking notes to a seminar, when you’ve been specifically asked for feedback, reminds me of a seminar I had the dubious pleasure to attend at a certain University department a long, long way from here.
This particular department had a seminar series, given by completed or completing PhD students. Now, in this particular country, PhDs weren’t defended. The thesis would be submitted, examined, and… that was it. You got told whether you’d passed or not. No public defence, no chance to go head-to-head with examiners or committees, no real feedback on the last 3 or (more commonly) 5 years’ work.
So the departmental final PhD seminar was a pretty big deal.
Also in this department we had some groups that I can only describe as being of a medical persuasion. Nothing wrong with that as such, except they tended to attract people who (a) weren’t very good scientists and (b) were only interested in alphabet soup. That is, they wanted as many letters after their name as possible. To be fair, this isn’t the only department in the world that suffers from such people, but it helps to understand what was going on.
So the departmental final PhD seminars given by these people were, to be frank, a bit crap.
Which meant we (the scientists) tended not to go along, feeling that we had nothing to learn and—perhaps more importantly—nothing to contribute. These coves were going to go away and set up in practice somewhere and make loads of money regardless of the quality of the science they had performed in their effort to attain those extra three letters. Nothing we could have said would have improved the science coming out of those particular groups. And lest anyone accuses me of being bitter or unfair, yes, we did see pour souls doomed to repeat the same worthless study as their predecessors year after year after year. Data, see?
The instructions came down from on high that it would be a Very Good Thing if we (as in the postdoc scientists) were to make an effort to attend these medics’ final PhD seminars, for reasons of respect if nothing else. The instructions were passed on by the PIs, with various annotations ranging from “don’t waste your time” to “actually, the Head has a point.”
I used to make a point of attending the scientists’ seminars anyway, if only because there was free canapés and wine, and to show willing, I went along to a couple of the medical final PhD seminars. After all, I thought, how bad can it really be if there’s free food and booze at the end?
The second—and as it turns out, the last—medical final PhD seminar I attended soon put paid to that bright-eyed optimism. I knew things weren’t going to end well when the besuited cove giving the seminar slouched in a chair by the bench at the front of the seminar room. He turned on the laptop, fiddled with it. The first slide had the project’s title, with “Dr” and “PhD” flanking his name. He fiddled with his mobile phone. Started, somewhat smugly, talking about his research. Fiddled with his mobile phone again. Droned (smugly) through a few more slides. Sent a text message. Showed something that was meant to be data. Answered a new text message.
By this time, I’d put my pen down—I’d been taking notes, see, because I actually understood what he was saying and had realized there were some dodgy assumptions in the experiments he’d been doing: I had a couple of questions I wanted to ask. But I’d realized he didn’t care.
Then I realized his supervisor didn’t care either.
I was sat just behind and to the right of his supervisor. Who, while he’d been talking, had been fixated on her laptop. I wondered if she was taking notes, but peering closer I realized that she was reading and responding to emails—the entire time he was talking.
At the end of the seminar, I really couldn’t be bothered asking my questions. He wouldn’t care, his supervisor certainly wouldn’t, and the examiners had already awarded him the PhD.
I didn’t even stick around for the booze.