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I'd imagine that a good fraction would actually start to tire (a bit) of the repetitiveness of describing their research hundreds of times over, and would probably want to talk about something else.. After all, does the professor usually benefit when they talk about their research to a random undergrad?

Yet, "ask the professor about his research" is generally considered to be standard social advice in academia... (after all, people love to talk about themselves - http://medicalxpress.com/news/2012-05-people-brain-scans.html ). Is the pleasure of talking about your research similar to the excitement of having the liberty to be self-centered and to talk about yourself?

But maybe professors would prefer to talk about something else - it's just that it's hard to think of a topic that they would prefer talking about, so it's simply a "safe option" to ask them questions about their research?

What I am really interested in - is this - would professors usually prefer to talk about something other than their research, if some such common topic could conceivably be found?

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    Whenever you meet anyone for the first time, discussing their job/work is almost always a safe topic of conversation and can serve as a good icebreaker. Academia is no different. – eykanal May 8 '12 at 2:18
  • Oh I see - good point. – InquilineKea May 8 '12 at 2:38
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    @eykanal: I kind of disagree. For most people, their current projects and publications cannot be found on their website, which is often the case for professors. At least in some situations - e.g. having an appointment with a professor to ask him about getting a project topic - wouldn't starting the conversation with "Can you tell me about your research?" be the worst possible start, immediately raising the first red flag for the professor by showing that you didn't even bother to check what topics that particular professor is actually interested in? – O. R. Mapper May 27 '14 at 6:17
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Two points from experience (as a student):

  • Don't ask/talk about something that can be googled

If you want to talk about the professor's research interest, that's great but the key point is not to talk/ask things that can be answered in a Google search. Asking a professor about his research interest might qualify as one of these cases. Checking his webpage (if updated) might answer the question. "Why did you use X instead of Y in your paper titled Z" might probably be a good question to ask (depending upon the occasion). Now that I reread my answer, I feel professors are like SE sites. Ask closed non-google-able questions while showing interest and initiative and you will have a good time.

  • Gauge the occasion

Needless to say, meeting a professor for the first time in an orientation party, conference or a course orientation might call for different "first conversations". Don't force what you want to talk about on the professor. (But then, this is true for all people not just professors.)

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    To expand on the last point. If you're meeting me in my office or at a conference, sure, ask me about my research. But if you're meeting me at a mutual friend's house, or in line for the movies, or at the kindergarten where we're both picking up our kids, there might be better options. – JeffE May 8 '12 at 13:40
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    +1 to the phrase in italics. I'll add, it also depends on whether you should have googled them beforehand. Chance meeting with a prof you haven't heard of - why not ask what they research. Arranged meeting with a potential PhD supervisor - do your homework first! – Sideshow Bob Apr 4 '14 at 10:42
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It depends on the context I guess.

If you are alone at a coffee break, and eager to discuss with someone, you should maybe consider discussing on something else, or on someone else research (talk about the talk just before the break, talk about the nice venue, talk about the quality of the banquet, etc.).

But If you have a purpose wrt talking to a specific person, go straight to the point. You have a technical question about one of my paper, ask it! You are looking for an intership, say it! Don't try to be too smart by starting a broad discussion that you will narrow later. You have only a few minutes to go from the status of "yet another boring chitchat" to "mmm, interesting", don't spoil these minutes.

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