Why are physics talks so bad?

As I get closer to the end of my PhD, I wanted to talk about why grad school sucks so much. For my first complaint, let’s talk about physics talks. I’m not referring to popular stuff like Stephen Hawking’s TED Talk or whatever. I’m referring to talks given by physicists to other physicists in their field.

By design, a physics talk starts out with a broadly accessible introduction, and dives into technical details that only two people in the audience understand. This is followed by a Q&A where those two people ask (apparently) extremely intelligent questions, and everyone else silently feels stupid as they listen to arguments over arcane details.

When I started out my PhD, approximately 0% of physics talks made sense. I thought that maybe when I got further into my PhD I would understand much more. Nope! Now, maybe 10% of talks make sense. And even that high rate comes from knowing when to avoid going to a talk in the first place.

The 10% figure, by the way, is just a number I pulled out of my ass. Obviously that’s not something you can easily quantify. How much of the talk do I need to understand? How strongly do I need to understand it?  Which talks am I counting in the first place?

And if I could quantify it, would I want to? Maybe every other grad student in my position understands 30% of the talks they go to, and by saying 10% I’m publicly admitting to stupidity. I’m admitting that I’ve wasted a whole lot of my time, and the time of the speakers. I’m admitting that my entire academic career is a fraud. There’s no way I could know, because people don’t talk about it. Maybe everyone else is afraid too.

I’m working on the assumption that it’s not just me. Probably most grad students feel this way, more or less, depending on the field and the individual. And it pisses me off. Why do we spend so much effort getting the technical details of the talk correct, while ignoring the elephant in the room that nobody understands it? Why do we cater so much to that one professor? Why do we try so hard to make sure everyone feels like an impostor?

This sort of thing makes me feel like science is just awful. I can’t recommend anyone else become a scientist. I can’t be excited about outreach efforts, not to underrepresented minorities, not to anyone. I can’t respect Nobel laureates (because believe me, their talks are some of the worst). I can’t support pop science enthusiasm. And I hate the notion that physics is the most superior of all sciences.

You know what would be great? If we had more social science funding. Then social scientists could study the culture around science talks and figure out how to fix it. Because it’s fucked up.


  1. Rheb-El says

    I cannot speak for all, but every year UW-La Crosse has a physics Nobel laureate speak each fall, and I have felt fairly well able to get the gist of the ones I have attended. Maybe because at these they play to a general public the topics are toned down. Not sure (I have undergrad degrees in math and 3 science fields)

  2. Rob Grigjanis says

    Yeah, you don’t learn much physics by going to specialist talks, especially as the fields, sub-fields, and sub-sub-fields get more and more specialized. You learn it in the classroom, reading papers, and asking questions. I doubt other sciences are much different.

    I think the main purpose of such talks is a social one. Show your face, meet people. Then go off and maybe do some real work with the other two people who actually understood your talk. And there’s a small chance that someone in the audience might actually be inspired to look more deeply. As an audience member, that happened to me precisely once!

    If there’s a cultural problem, maybe it’s location dependent. My PhD supervisor made it clear that he didn’t understand most talks, and he only encouraged me to attend those he thought I would gain from, socially or technically. I generally ignored the social aspect.

    Have you discussed this with your supervisor(s)/colleagues?

  3. Mano Singham says

    Ha! I can relate to this. And trust me, it does not get much better even after you get your PhD and have spent years in the field. You will still find the talks largely incomprehensible. It is not you, it’s the fault of the speakers and those who invited them. The speakers pitch their talks to those who invited them and not to the others because that is the audience they are trying to impress with their detailed knowledge.

    I discovered a long time ago that when invited to give a seminar talk, it is best to pitch the first 80% of the time at the level of an introductory graduate student with the next 10% at the one or two specialists, and the last 10% again at the introductory student. After all, I had plenty of opportunities to talk to the couple of specialists in the audience privately anyway. It was not only the graduate students who liked such talks, pretty much all the faculty also liked it because they too could understand what was going on. My general rule is that it is almost impossible to make seminar talks too simple.

    So that tells you what to do to give good talks when you are invited to do so. What should you do now as a student at the receiving end of lousy talks? Forget trying to follow the details of the talk. As Rob says, you can think of it as a socialization process. What I do is try to find one key insight or reference that intrigues me and then try to follow that up later.

  4. Owlmirror says

    Can you expand a bit on what makes the talks incomprehensible? Is it the use of jargon, or poor enunciation, or ambiguous phrasing, or a little of all of the above?

    Maybe it would help if you explained what made talks you did understand comprehensible.

  5. Mano Singham says

    There is a difference between physics departmental seminars (which is what I think that Siggy was referring to) and popular talks aimed at the general public. The latter tend to be much better in terms of intelligibility because the speakers who are invited to give them are usually seasoned speakers on the lecture circuits and thus have honed those talks to meet the needs of their audience.

  6. Sunday Afternoon says

    The institution where I did my doctorate made a good effort at educating us post-grad students to recognize the audience and pitch the talk appropriately. In our 2nd year we had to prepare “Secretary of State (for Education)” talks (this was the UK). Legend had it that one year these talks were in fact given to the then SoS: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kenneth_Baker,_Baron_Baker_of_Dorking

    Talks given by visiting researchers were of 2 types.

    First, informal 15 minute “coffee talks” given during the daily social gathering for morning coffee – more of an advertisement for what you were working on and an invitation for follow-up discussions during the person’s visit. A significant part of my thesis grew out of one of these talks.

    Second, a series of the more traditional formal seminars which were in-depth presentations on the visitor’s research.

    I got more out of the first type of talk from visitors.

  7. milù says

    “I can’t support pop science enthusiasm.”
    so, how does that follow from the above? you seem irritated specifically by academic science talks. maybe there’s a connection i don’t get. i’m not a scientist. and I do enjoy pop science 🙂

  8. robert79 says

    In mathematics, I think the rule of thumb is:

    The first 15 minutes are for a general audience (here, in my experience, general audience is defined as anyone having obtained a PhD in maths… Possibly they need to have done a post-doc or two. PhD students don’t count.)

    The second 15 minutes are for the specialists (anyone doing research in the specific sub-sub-…-sub-field the talk is about)

    The last 15 minutes is meant to be only understood by the speaker.

    Then you get to the drinks and you realise why the room is so packed with PhD students.

    Anyone time I, as a PhD student, thought the talk was good (wow, I managed to understand the subject, possibly the first 5 minutes!) my professors would complain that the talk was boring and full of stuff they already knew…

  9. says

    If the purpose of a talk is mainly social, then it ought to be much smaller! A speaker usually can’t have meaningful social interactions with more than a handful of audience members. And large audiences often discourage social interactions.

    I have talked to other grad students, and the problem is ubiquitous as far as I know. Also when I write a blog post I often do some basic googling–I only really found one article talking about it. So it seems like every grad student figures it out by word of mouth or personal experience.

    Physicists could probably improve their presentation to make their talks more engaging. But that’s doing it the hard way; the easy way is to simply present more basic material. Physicists are perfectly capable of making better talks, they just don’t for various reasons.

    I’ve known a few professors who consistently give accessible talks, and they are well-liked by students. I’ve never really understood how it is other professors don’t look at that and realize what a good thing they have going.

  10. says

    It’s pretty hard to feel like public understanding of physics is important when the culture in academia doesn’t even seem to think *my* understanding of physics is important.

  11. says

    You know what would be great? If we had more social science funding. Then social scientists could study the culture around science talks and figure out how to fix it. Because it’s fucked up.

    Don’t hold your breath. I’m a social scientist, and we’re all trying to become more like you. We would be thrilled to death if only 1% of our educated audience could understand our work.

    The only reason our seminars are usually comprehensible is that your models are like a million more complicated than ours.

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