The talking cure

This is not a post about psychiatry (although this link Jordan Ellenberg shared recently makes me think I could use some therapy, and it IS Sigmund Freud‘s birthday today), but rather about the benefits of giving talks in mathematics: they help your research, your chances of getting a job, and with general networking.

  1. Talking helps you do research: I feel that structuring a talk helps me structure my papers. Explaining something is a way to realize when you understand things clearly and when you don’t, and it also gives you a new perspective on your theorems and proofs. This is not that surprising. The fun thing is that there is potential for good feedback from the audience (many times composed of people who know a lot more than me) and even potential collaborators in said audience. As I mentioned in another post, a few years ago I attended a conference and went to a talk that was closely related to my research but from a different point of view. I talked to the speaker afterwards (so I guess I’m also encouraging this kind of “talk”) and now we are working on a very exciting joint project. 
  2. Talking helps you get a job: And I don’t mean job talks, because by that point you’re doing pretty well. People who will be hiring soon may be attending your talk, which gives them some information about you even before you are applying for their job. Earlier last year, I invited a friend of mine, Ben Weiss, to give a talk at Bates because he was around Maine at that time visiting family. Later, we were hiring a one-year position, and even though we did a larger search, of our top candidates Ben was the only one who had given a talk (essentially, he had done a job talk without knowing it). We knew him and liked him and hired him for the year. During that year, he met people at the University of Maine, who were hiring a tenure-track position that year. Networking put him, again, at the top of the search, and now he has a tenure-track job starting this Fall! I can’t think of a better “giving a talk” success story.
  3. Talking helps you get invited to give more talks, to attend conferences, and other fun things: I have been invited to really great things recently, that wouldn’t have been possible if not for the fact that the people inviting me have seen me talk. Here I mean both types of “talking”. By meeting strangers at conferences (coming up to them after their talks, or just starting a conversation, or them coming up to me after my talk) I have been able to do some really cool things like talk at Brown and MIT and go to a workshop at AIM for undergraduate faculty. Cool things that I have coming up are teaching at a summer school in Benin (yes, in Africa!) next year and talking at Purdue’s ADVANCE Prime Speaker Series in July.

There are many ways to end up giving a talk. At some point, you will get invited to things, but not before you put some effort into going to conferences, meeting people, and applying to give contributed talks (at contributed paper sessions, special sessions, poster sessions, etc). Workshops are great ways to meet people, too. You can also invite yourself to give a talk, but you have to be careful about this. In general, I wouldn’t do this unless I knew someone there. I recently sort of invited myself to give a talk at my undergraduate school, but I knew many of the professors and was sure they would be happy to catch up and see me again. I heard from a friend of mine at a sort of famous research school that she once got an email from someone (keeping people anonymous makes for terrible grammar, sorry) saying something like “I’ll be in town next week, let me know when I can give a talk”. These people had never met, and she thought this was an incredibly rude email, so she never replied. I agree with her, that if you’re going to do something like this you should not assume that they need to make room for you (no matter how amazing you think you are). You should politely ask if you could give a talk, and you really need to have a good reason for it, like people in their department do similar research to yours. In fact, I would say that what makes the most sense is to say you’re in town, you want to discuss your research with Professor X (email them directly), and hope that they invite you to give a talk (which you gently nudged them to do). 

This post has been mostly about how giving talks is great, but there are some limitations. First, don’t give talks at the expense of your work or your sanity. There was one semester where I was traveling every other week, and it made me very tired for my teaching (although I managed not to miss any teaching days). You need a balanced approach to this. Also, the last series of talks I gave I realized I was always talking about the same things, and that I really needed to step back and work on my research so I could have newer, more interesting things to talk about. This last year I haven’t given very many talks, but attending workshops and working on research with my collaborators has proven to be very fruitful.

Finally, I have to say that giving talks is great, as long as your talks are good! They don’t have to be fantastic pieces of stand-up comedy together with genius mathematics, but you don’t want people to remember you for mumbling a lot or chewing on your hair. You need to be relatively presentable (this is quite flexible in math world), be clear, have interesting math, try not to say anything too wrong (but it’s not the end of the world if you mess up), and people will remember you for the right reasons. This blog post is already long so maybe I’ll leave my advice for how to give a talk for some other day, although I think plenty of people have written about that. I leave you with a great post on Terry Tao’s blog on the subject, which has some other helpful links at the end.

So, dear readers, any other talking success stories you want to add? Other reasons you think giving talks is good (or bad)? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

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2 Responses to The talking cure

  1. Mike says:

    I can’t add anything, but that’s a great story about Ben Weiss. Now I have to try to figure out why the correlation between searches for cohomology and PTSD.

  2. evelynjlamb says:

    I don’t really have anything insightful to say other than it’s awesome that you’ll be teaching in Benin. That is really an amazing opportunity! I hope you’ll blog about your experiences. :)

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