Navigating Seminars—A First Year’s Perspective

By Adam Boocher

Navigating seminars can be a tricky thing to do, especially when you’re new to the whole grad school game.  I was lucky in that I had plenty of older students (and a few professors) to give my advice.  I thought I’d share my experiences and what I learned from the seminars I attended last semester.

Last semester at Berkeley was a particularly busy time in algebraic geometry, mainly because this spring there is a semester-long program in the subject at MSRI.  There were several “official” seminars… and of course the student algebraic geometry seminar, and then the seminar we first year students organized to try and decipher everything we were learning.  And of course don’t forget about colloquia and other regular seminars open to everyone!   It was quite daunting to try and attend all of these seminars every week, but once I got the hang of everything I really got a lot out of going.  It was a great way to meet older students, and also to see mathematics “in action”.

Ravi Vakil has some great advice on his website about attending seminars : http://math.stanford.edu/~vakil/potentialstudents.html  He says everything here much better than I can, so before reading further you MUST read everything he has to say.  I suppose what I can offer might be just a few comments about the different types of seminars.

The student seminars are often the most fun because they are talks given by your peers.  Also you often get to see some of the intuition or “how I think about it” that is sometimes left out in other seminars.   One of the best components was that after the seminar we would all go out to dinner afterwards and this was a great chance to covertly ask all the questions you didn’t get a chance to ask during the seminar.  If your afternoon seminars don’t involve dinner afterward, try to get a group together yourself.  It’s a lot of fun.

I’m also a huge fan of organizing your own seminar.  The first years interested in algebra organized our own seminar this year and it has been a great success so far.  We were able to go at our own pace and chose topics that would help us with classes (and other seminars) and we were always in a friendly, easy environment.   As someone once said, they best way to get a lot of out a seminar talk, is to give one, and what better place to give one than in a seminar like this.  It’s just one level above working on homework together, but it gives you practice speaking and listening as well.

The bigger research seminars seemed a little scarier at first, but they really weren’t much different.  A great speaker could make any topic seem interesting and accessible, and some of the talks I ended up enjoying the most were ones I thought I wouldn’t even understand!  Of course there were plenty of talks I didn’t follow until the end (there were plenty I didn’t follow much past the beginning!) but I knew I wasn’t the only one in this situation and there’s nothing wrong with letting your mind wander to a homework problem you’ve been thinking about while sitting in the seminar room.   In fact, this is not uncommon.  I’ve known professors who would come to seminars only to work on their own projects; a friend of mine goes to colloquia because if he gets lost, he’s in a great place to work on his research and the environment helps him focus; I even knew a professor who seemed to fall asleep during every seminar he went to (I remember because he fell asleep during one of mine!)  The point I’m trying to get across is that even when I thought I wouldn’t get something out of the seminars I would go anyway. At worst, I would understand a little and then start thinking about my own problems.  But in the best cases I got to see really cool lectures.  There’s a quotation due to Plutarch which Terry Tao has on his blog, “Know how to listen, and you will profit even from those who talk badly.”

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