On taking notes

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.

About rpg

Scientist, poet, gadfly
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10 Responses to On taking notes

  1. Benoit says:

    I wouldn’t stand for that, and would have said something right then and there. Bollocks, as you might say.

  2. rpg says:

    You could have got away with that… actually, now I come to remember it, there were no senior *scientists* at that seminar—no PIs who could have said something and had an effect.

    Which is rather ironic given the emails from on high.

  3. cromercrox says:

    When, in my capacity as an editor with Your Favourite Weekly Professional Blah Blah Blah, I have occasion to interact with papers written by people of a medical persuasion, I immediately look for two things.

    1) The sentence ‘this has therapeutic implications’, which just hangs there, with no sign of an outline of what these might be, still less any leanings toward going ahead and testing them;

    2) instances in which the author has conflated correlation with causation.

    Now, one might chortle, one might even – if no-one’s looking – giggle, but this is actually serious business. Research is in vogue these days if it is ‘translational’, which means that scientists will have to go to seminars by medics — and medics will have to up their game.

  4. ricardipus says:

    Ah, this fine story reminds me painfully of similar coves found in these parts. One of whom was awarded said three extra letters for participating in a large, international, collaborative project, his main contributions to which consisted of, and I shit you not even slightly, booking airline tickets to joint meetings.

    Rumour has is that a certain highly respected scientist of my acquaintance made his views as to the quality of said “research” quite clearly known during the defence. But of course, it had no impact in the end.


    P.S. In these parts we have a *whole programme* that takes care of medics doing these advanced degrees. It’s an “Institute”, in the same way that I am “always sarcastic” – i.e., virtually.

  5. rpg says:

    I’m sure we’ve all got such horror stories—as I’m equally sure that we preferentially remember the bad ones.

    Nonetheless, I do wonder how much money, in terms of studentships and consumable/capital funding, is wasted on people who are simply playing the alphabet soup game.

  6. In America we have something called the MD/PhD program, in which students earn both degrees in an extended stint that lasts something like 7 or 8 years. But these programs take only the best and brightest. The MD/PhD students I’ve worked with have been excellent, and those I’ve kept in touch with are now doing excellent clinical research. So I think the combination of medicine and research training *can* work if it’s done properly.

  7. rpg says:

    Yes, and through the day job I’ve had the honour of talking with quite a few of them.

    But some are simply taking the piss.

  8. Cath@VWXYNot? says:


    There’s rude and then there’s rude. Texting during your own talk is almost off the charts.

  9. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    p.s. Henry, do you get many new fossil finds with therapeutic implications?

    (runs away)

  10. Steve Caplan says:

    With first-hand experience, I agree with Jenny’s outlook on MD/PhD programs in the US. To spend an extra 4 years on a graduate student salary and graduate medical school 4 years after their peers demands a high level of motivation and maturity–and it’s there.

    With regards to awful lectures, I’ve seen them with any combination of letters. If it’s a student or post-doc, the mentorship from his/her PI is probably pretty bad. If it’s a PI, mentorship is too late, but he/she will undoubtedly pass along the bad attitude and habits to the next generation.

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