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Conquering your first invitation as a guest speaker

It was in spring this year that I received a formal invitation to summarize my PhD as part of a seminar series at a well-respected research institute. After a first gasp and sputter of the heart, I felt honored and excited to give a full lecture about my research – to an audience that I do not know and in a context other than a conference or a symposium. It seemed like a great opportunity that I would not want to miss, and one that most senior PhDs will likely face as an important part of their graduate education. And since sharing is caring, here is my 6-step guide to making it fun:

 

1) Get invited

I will start with presumably the hardest part… you have to receive an invitation to be a guest speaker. For me, it was part of a prize that I had been awarded for my PhD research. I believe that it definitely pays off to actively look for different PhD award calls and apply. As I have learned through my university and graduate school experiences that is only one option amongst many to get an invitation: Talk to people at seminars, conferences and workshops. Be in close contact with your collaborators and even talk about it to your mentor. If he/she knows that you are interested in spreading the word about your lab’s progress, they will most likely support you (e.g. through introductions to the right people). Ultimately, it is in their interest too because your performance reflects on your mentor in a positive way.

 

2) Prepare your talk

Once you know where and when you will give your talk, you should start to research your audience – it is not a lab meeting or a progress report to your thesis advisory committee. They likely do not have a clue about your field of research and your specialization. My job was to introduce various aspects of a chicken tumor virus to medical virologists. My catch line was the virus I work with, a virus that can serve as a model for human virus-induced cancers like in EBV or HHV8 infections. Make space for a thorough introduction to your science, you will have enough time for that. It is a good idea to highlight the importance and societal impact to get everyone excited. To do this, present the big picture and put your science into context. Finally, practice your presentation to be confident on the day and try to have positive expectations – that will certainly help.

 

3) The personal interviews

Once there, you will be offered drinks (coffee) and food (cookies) accompanied with one-on-one chats to graduate students, postdocs and/or principle investigators of the hosting institution. They will certainly talk about their stuff because that is their area of expertise. Nevertheless, be prepared to talk about your research topics and do not stress about it because after all you are the expert in your field! For me, one of these sessions was a great opportunity to refresh a collaboration.

 

4) Your presentation

If you are lucky, the talk venue is quickly filled with people that were attracted to the title of your talk or your name – or simply to gain easy graduate school credits. It caught me by surprise that I received a thorough introduction based on my CV, but I got over it pretty soon to focus on the talk. While presenting, do not rush, do not read paragraphs out loud (as people can usually read faster themselves), maintain a strong speaking voice and keep eye contact. I recognized some faces in the audience that I’ve been talking to earlier that day, which helped with the eye contact thing. For better comprehension, avoid using jargon or too many abbreviations. To properly convey your message, do not worry about repeating things – like in effectively placed ‘take home message slides’ for example (that is what I did). Finally, and most importantly, try to enjoy it!

 

5) The Q&A session

I was told to present for an hour and that the presentation will be followed by a 45-minute Q&A session. Alright then…! Possible questions will definitely range from simple comprehension questions to very detailed scientific ones. They might be challenging and link your research to different disciplines or topics, or they could be superficial and provoke pop-science answers. I felt comfortable answering to content-related questions while I thought that it was complex and demanding to extrapolate some of my research to different disciplines. Regardless, it is very okay to say “I don’t know” followed by “…but here’s what I can tell you…” to demonstrate confidence by discussing your opinions. Alternatively, cork-screw yourself out of the situation by having a nice and crisp answer at the ready: “Excellent question! We’ll definitely look into that!”

 

6) Dinner

Talk done – ready for the compulsory dinner?! Time to relax, enjoy yourself and make yourself comfortable because this is one of the best opportunities to talk about your future career steps and get career advice in a private and collegial setting…  if you’re lucky, they’ll offer their help and support for your next career steps. It is a great chance to talk science and to talk about people and projects. I was introduced to the little-known facts and the story behind the discovery of a super strong gene enhancer that virologists (and others) use very often. I believe that you should see this event as a unique opportunity to listen to remarkable science anecdotes and ask renowned scientists questions you always wanted to ask.

So do not be afraid of what could go wrong but rather envision the things that will go right. It was a great experience that pushed me to think “out of the box” and taught me that leaving my comfort zone isn’t all that bad. Action breeds confidence! Take the chance if it’s there, it’s rewarding!

 

 

Featured Image: Lecture Lecture by Alan Levine, Flickr, Public domain.

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