18 February 2009

Pizza seminars

In Penn's math department, there is a "Pizza Seminar". It is on Fridays at noon, only graduate students in the math department are allowed to come, and there is free pizza. Each week a graduate student gives a talk that is intended to be accessible to most graduate students; sometimes they focus on some accessible piece of their research, but more often these talks are expository. (Occasionally, maybe three times a term, a professor speaks -- but still only graduate students are allowed to attend the talk.)

If you Google "pizza seminar", most of the results are similar series in math or closely allied fields (physics, computer science). Is there some reason that such a format wouldn't work well in more distant fields, or is this just historical accident?


Anonymous said...

Why is that particular food item essential to the success of the seminar?

Anonymous said...

Sort of echoing Scott, maybe people in other fields tend to choose terms that emphasize the nature of the seminar. Back in New Haven we had the "graduate student seminar", which was pretty much the same thing, down to the food served.

Come on, surely you've met one or two graduate students in other fields. You could ask if they've got an isomorphic tradition in their department.

Anonymous said...

I think that, to some extent, most disciplines don't lend themselves to graduate colloquia. In math, graduate students spend their first few years learning lots of different math, and there's a sense that a graduate student ought to try to learn as broad a swath of math as possible. I think graduate colloquia like Pizza Seminars emerge from this cooperative atmosphere of trying to learn as much as possible.

In many other fields, you are expected to know what you want to research in when you apply to graduate school. There isn't much emphasis on learning the basics of other specialties. A pizza seminar in a discipline like that would probably be regarded as a taking up valuable research time.

Anonymous said...

Why can't undergraduates attend if they know the prerequisites? Why not "spread the mathematics"?

Most of the colleges I've inquired about seem, actually, to have seminars generally open to anyone willing to attend.

(Of course, one could institute a rule that only graduate students are allowed pizza.)

Michael Lugo said...


I suppose that in theory the undergrads are allowed (and we'd probably let them have pizza, too) but in practice that doesn't happen. By "grad students only" I meant to set an upper bound, i. e. "nobody who already has a PhD can come".

GB said...

Occasionally ... a professor speaks -- but still only graduate students are allowed to attend the talk.

So, what, the poor professor shouts from outside the door?

"... Gee, it really smells good in there! I hope you guys aren't playing pinochle again! Anyway, where was I? This is really hard without a whiteboard or anything..."

Anonymous said...

We specifically banned professors because of what happened in an earlier incarnation, when they were allowed in.

Higher-level graduate students would still give talks on their areas of interest, but their advisors would come. The graduate students would end up giving their talk to the advisor, who (obviously) already knew the basics of the field. The talks would quickly go over the heads of advanced students not in the same field, let alone the lowly first- and second-year students.

The whole point is that your first two years are dominated by trying to get through your quals, and then you're supposed to pick an area of research. The seminar is supposed to present them with a taste of the fields that are out there, but it can't do that if the talks get inflated like that.

As for undergraduates, none ever really asked to show up. I suppose they could come, but they have their own organizations to interact with students on their own level, and they really have no use for the main purpose of the seminar.