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On Science Talks and the End of my Tour

Thinking back to my time as a postdoc in Hawaii, I can remember waiting around for invitations to give science talks at other institutions. My thesis work had fully matured, was yielding exciting results, and was promising to lead to even more exciting research directions. On top of that, I was following the advice I had received by branching out into other projects of my own design. I was eager to go out and share my science with other astronomers.

Unfortunately, the phone rang very infrequently. I gave talks at JPL here in Pasadena, and another at the University of Washington. Both were excellent experiences and confirmed my feelings that I was ready for other big stages. I later recognized that I should have been inviting myself to various places, but at the time I was feeling discouraged that I wasn't able to book good gigs, so to speak. After all, how was I going to get recognized as a good faculty candidate? How was I going to move to the next stage if I couldn't show off what I was doing?

Well, all that changed after I got the job I was seeking. Once I became an assistant professor, the phone finally started ringing. At first I thought this was rather ironic: now that I have the job I was hoping to advertise for, I finally get the chance to advertise. But it turns out things were working as they were supposed to. As an assistant prof. I was seen as a fully vetted speaker, someone definitely worthy of inviting to other institutions. And by taking these invitations, my efforts are certainly not wasted. I have tenure to earn, and as such I'm pretty much still applying for this job. And while a few usual suspects will write me letters of recommendation, my tenure committee will solicit many more letters from colleagues at other institutions. My advertising has just begun!

A big part of professional science is communication. I spend a large fraction of my time writing papers, writing proposals, writing letters of recommendation, giving lectures and giving talks. The small fraction of the time left over is spent writing code, planning observations and actually observing, in decreasing order of time spent. As such, a large part of my future (and ongoing) job evaluation is based on my ability to not only do good science, but communicate it clearly and enthusiastically to a broad scientific, and in some cases public audience.

Hitting the "talk circuit" in astronomy is a lot like a band playing gigs. As a new, struggling act (grad student) you first start locally giving talks at your group meeting. From there you give a journal club talk, whereby you give a 30-minute presentation about a research paper you read that week. Later, you might get invited to a neighboring institution to give a lunch talk. These are informal brown-bag affairs during which the speaker gives a 30-45 minute talk on their research project, while the audience of students, postdocs and a stray prof or two much on sandwiches. From there you give your thesis defense, and perhaps a postdoc job talk or two, and in astronomy it all culminates in a 15-minute dissertation talk at the American Astronomical Society meeting.

I vividly remember my dissertation talk. At first I was extremely disappointed that it was scheduled for the last session on the last day of the Austin meeting in Jan 2008. However, since there was nothing else for everyone left at the meeting to do, I had an audience of about 500 astronomers and I gave my presentation in the huge plenary session room, the stage flanked by two 40-foot projection screens. It was awesome!

After you graduate and take a postdoctoral position, you either wait around for the phone to ring like I did, or you do the smart thing and invite yourself to institutions. This is where the connections and friendships you built in grad school start to pay off. Give your buddy at Princeton a call and ask if you can get a Wednesday lunch-time seminar talk (a Wunch Talk as they call them). Book an early flight home for Christmas and stop over somewhere on the way to give the last theory seminar talk of the semester.

All of this presenting can be for naught, or even a net-negative, if you don't put the necessary time and preparation into your science talk. This is where paying close attention to the fine details of colloquium talks pays off. Take notes on what works and doesn't work in weekly talks at your institute. Talk to other postdocs and professors and get advice on how to make clear slides, tips on organization, and pointers on how to dress, where to look (e.g. not at the screen), how to handle Q&A, etc. As I tell my students, you spend months writing a paper and a dozen people in your subfield will read it carefully. But if you give a good talk, you can reach dozens at a time from a wide variety of subfields. You should therefore but as much or more effort into your talks.

The next step up involves giving colloquia. While lunch talks are like playing local bars or doing opening acts for bigger bands, colloquia are like the big shows at downtown venues. Think the Troubador in LA, or the Great American in San Francisco (sorry, I don't know the big venues on the East Coast!). They are usually held at the end of the day on a Wednesday or Thursday, right in the heart of the week. Not the end of the week when people might take off early for a long weekend, or the beginning of the week when people are returning from weekend travel. There's usually a "tea time" before the talk consisting of Costco cookies, coffee, maybe some wine and cheese. After eating and drinking, a large fraction of the department gathers for the big talk of the week: 45-55 minutes followed by 5-10 minutes of Q&A.

Another big part of giving colloquia are the meetings you get to have with various people in the dept before and after the big talk. These are usually 30-60 minute chit-chat sessions during which you talk about your research ("tell me something you won't cover in your talk"), ask about their research, and maybe even get a lab tour or two. These are great opportunities to learn about exciting science outside your field, put names to faces, and have your face put to your name. Colloquium visits also usually involve a lunch date with the grad students, and a big post-talk dinner out at a fancy local restaurant. These dinners are where you get to hear all of the good gossip, catch up with old friends and enjoy good food and good drinks. Think: the post-show part in green room.

I'm becoming more and more convinced that these colloquia engagements are a vital part of one's career development as a young scientist. I'm learning a lot about others research, other departments' approaches to teaching, meeting interesting people in my field, gaining a lot of public speaking experience. Plus, people are learning a lot about me, my research and what I'm up to over here in Pasadena.

At the same time, all of this travel has its cost. It leaves Erin home with the kids for long stretches, I miss my kids, it takes me away from my students, and it's not easy to do research on the road. So after two solid years of monthly speaking engagements, I've decided to take a long stretch off from traveling. It's going to be a good summer home with the kids, lots of hands-on advising, weeks at a time to do my own research, and I even plan to take a 3-week vacation!

This is also a good time to look back. For my own records, if not your entertainment, here's where I've traveled in the past two years. Think of it as the JohnJohn 2009-2011 US Tour:

2009 March: Caltech Job Talk, Pasadena, CA
2009 June: Gordon Conference, Invited Speaker, Mt. Holyoke, MA
2009 Sept 10: UC Berkeley Astronomy Colloquium
2009 Sept 16: Penn State Astronomy Colloquium
2009 Oct 22: Missouri University of Science & Technology (MST), Physics Homecoming Colloquium
2009 Oct 27: MIT Astronomy Colloquium
2009 Oct 28: Boston University Astronomy Colloquium
2009 Nov 4: UC Santa Cruz Astronomy Colloquium
2009 Nov 5: Kavli Institute of Theoretical Physics (Stanford), Astronomy Seminar
2009 Nov 9: Keck Institute for Space Science (Caltech), Invited Speaker
2009 Nov 13: Sagan Fellowship Symposium (Caltech), Invited Speaker
2010 Jan 5: 215th AAS meeting, Oral Session Speaker
2010 Feb 23: University of Texas-Austin, Astronomy Colloquium
2010 Mar 23: Kavli Institute of Theoretical Physics (UCSB), Exoplanets Rising Workshop, Invited Speaker
2010 Apr 15: University of Utah, Astronomy Colloquium
2010 Apr 21: Discover/TMT Discussion Panelist
2010 May 3: European Geological Union (Vienna, Austria), Oral Session
2010 May 15: Caltech Seminar Day
2010 May 18: Caltech Planetary Sciences Seminar
2010 July 10: Palomar Public Lecture
2010 July 22: Keck Observatory (Hawaii) Public Lecture
2010 Aug 18: Penn State Public Lecture
2010 Aug 19: Penn State Precision RV Conference, Oral Session speaker
2010 Aug 21: Cool Stars Meeting (Seattle), Oral Session speaker
2010 Oct 15: Keck Science Meeting, invited speaker
2010 Oct 21: UCLA Planetary Science Seminar speaker
2010 Oct 28: Ohio State University, Astronomy Colloquium
2010 Oct 30: Caltech Board of Trustees, public lecture
2010 Nov 10: UCLA Astronomy Colloquium
2011 Feb 10: Harvard Institute for Theory and Computation Lunch Talk (my talk starts at the 0:54 mark. I'm really proud of this talk because I had never given it before, nor had I practiced it.)
2011 Feb 10: Harvard CfA Colloquium
2011 Feb 15: Carnegie Observatories (Pasadena), Astronomy Colloquium
2011 Mar 2: Princeton University, Astronomy Colloquium
2011 Mar 3: Institute for Advanced Study (Princeton, NJ), Astronomy Seminar
2011 Mar 30: Columbia University, Astronomy Colloquium
2011 Mar 31: Hunter College, Astronomy Colloquium
2011 Apr 20: University of Florida-Gainsville, Astronomy Colloquium
2011 May 2: American Physics Society, Plenary Speaker
2011 May 4: Exploring Strange New Worlds conference, Flagstaff, AZ, invited
2011 May 16: NASA Ames, Space Sciences Division seminar

Whew! It has been quite a ride. I'm glad to say that I have no talks lined up until September. After that, maybe I'll play a show near you.

Image credit: (top) Random Physics Colloquium Image, Harvey Mudd, (middle) my blurry iPhone image during setup before the APS Plenary Session, (bottom) Group photo from the NASA Exploring Strange New Worlds conference in Flagstaff, AZ. Where in the world is JohnJohn?


mama mia said…
That is one long set of tour dates, rock star! Found you in the bottom photo, Waldo...the gal in front of you looks like she had a hangover :)
When will your tour bus come to Rice or someplace close to Texas? any colleges here do astronomy?
Missy said…

Also, you said Costco cookies and now I'm having flashbacks to Wednesday seminars in grad school.
blissful_e said…
So non-conformist... where's your name tag?!! :)

Any talks lined up in the Southern Hemisphere?

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