The physics Colloquium

I routinely receive requests for explanations from graduate students in my department, who wish to know why they are expected to attend the weekly physics Colloquium. When I was a graduate student, back in the late 80s-early 90s, it was more than an expectation — attendance for first year graduate students was compulsory; indeed, it was a class, for which a student would regularly register for credit. I remember not being happy about that back then (yes, even with the cookies…), mostly because I do not do well with requirements of any kind… however, it has occurred to me that I was never explained what the purpose of that exercise was. I am not saying that if I had been explained I would have attended more enthusiastically; still, it may not be a bad idea to put down into words why I think going to the colloquium is important, not just for graduate students (of any seniority) but for postdocs and faculty alike.

(This is actually a piece I wrote about three years ago, when I was the colloquium organizer in my department)

The weekly physics colloquium is a universal fixture of physics departments at research-intensive universities in North America. The tradition of a colloquium in physics departments dates back at least forty years. The colloquium is often confused with a “seminar”, but there are important conceptual and practical differences between the two. A seminar is a rather focused, often fairly technical presentation, aimed at communicating recent research developments to colleagues in the same field of study.
The colloquium, on the other hand, is supposed to be a general lecture; its subject will normally belong to a well-defined research area, and the speaker will typically describe some experimental or theoretical results. In some cases, however, the topic may belong to a discipline other than physics, and some colloquia may be about such issues as science policy, or physics education.

Regardless of the subject, a colloquium should be delivered at a basic level, so as to be accessible to a fourth year undergraduate student. In fact, in some departments the colloquium is a regular course, for which students register and receive a mark at the end of the semester (normally pass/fail; sometimes students are required to write a summary of one or two colloquia of their choice). But even where it is not a course, attendance of the colloquium is expected of all graduate students, and encouraged for senior undergraduates. For these reasons, the colloquium is held during the regular academic terms, and is suspended during the summer months.

The main purpose of the colloquium is to expose students and faculty to research topics and areas different than their own, including (and perhaps especially) those areas that may not be presently pursued in the department. In a way, this practice is directly related to what makes a physicist, and how (s)he operates within the scientific establishment.
Unlike in other disciplines characterized by a high degree of specialization, a good physicist is more than just a world expert in a specific, relatively narrow area of inquiry; (s)he maintains a broad interest for the “big picture” (i.e., the field as a whole), is curious about developments in other fields, and is typically looking for connections between seemingly unrelated problems. This mental habit is one of the things that render physicists so versatile, as evidenced by the amazing variety of professional paths that PhD graduates take in life.
It seems a good idea to encourage this intellectual curiosity among students early on, particularly since physicists frequently have to switch to new problems, change areas of research, or even completely re-invent themselves, during their scientific lifetime. A broad knowledge of at least the main current themes of research in different fields, is regarded as an asset for a scientist.

It is also important to promote attendance of all faculty, postdocs and students in all research areas, not only to provide at least a weekly venue for social and scientific interaction in a more casual and relaxed setting, but also to facilitate discussion of new topics among people with different backgrounds.
At the end of a good colloquium, students and faculty should walk out with at least some basic understanding of the field of research; should have some useful pointers for a literature search; and, some general appreciation for the effort and skills required to work in that field. This is particularly important for graduate students still on the lookout for a supervisor. An effective colloquium will enable them to answer, at least in part, the question “would I be interested in working on this type of problem?”
In that sense, it is not crucial to understand everything that the speakers talk about, particularly during the last fifteen to twenty minutes of a colloquium, which tend to be the most technical (very few people in the audience will normally understand them anyway).

Of course, delivering a good colloquium is not easy, and not all speakers succeed at presenting the material in a way that is both understandable and compelling. Then, again, the same can be said about instructors…. A shoddy colloquium will often consists of rehashing material that the speaker utilizes to deliver specialized seminars. It is usually the job of the colloquium organizer(s) to remind invited speakers of the type of lecture that is expected.
In general, the colloquium is organized by an individual faculty member, as part of his/her service to the department. Sometimes, a departmental committee is appointed to that task. The job of the organizer(s) is not that of identifying speakers; rather, they should take suggestions from colleagues and students, extend invitations, obtain titles and abstracts, and make general arrangements for speaker visits.

Suggestions for colloquium speakers are usually solicited and welcome of all faculty, students and postdocs in the department. It is usually a good idea to forward suggestions to the organizer(s) in early summer, as many of the speakers people think of are in great demand, and are often fully booked months ahead.
Colloquium speakers usually spend one or two days on campus, and are usually eager to meet with interested faculty, postdocs and students. From the perspective of a visitor, a colloquium is often a great way to get acquainted with a department, recruit potential graduate students, postdocs and sometimes even faculty.

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