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I'm a PhD student in social science. Recently, I have been invited to present my work at a conference and a lab meeting. I'm glad about the opportunities to present my work in front of colleagues. But at the same time, I'm afraid that I won't be able to answer questions from audience and they will think that I'm dumb.

To be clear, I don't have anxiety about giving a talk per se, or at least know how to deal with it. I have a script for my talk, rehearse it so many times to the point I almost memorize it. I even practice my facial expressions and voice tone during the talk. I just learn and practice how to present my "ideal" academic self to colleagues.

However, when it comes to Q & A after my talk, I sometimes couldn't answer questions professionally. I think there are two reasons for why sometimes I couldn't answer questions.

  1. I'm not a native English speaker. When someone asks me a question that I couldn't understand, I ask the person to repeat the question or ask a follow-up question for clarification. But this strategy doesn't always work. One time, at a conference, I couldn't understand the question after asking the person to repeat the question twice. It was so embarrassing.

  2. When I'm under pressure, my brain stops functioning and I couldn't really think! When people suggest a new idea that I'm not familiar with, I feel like my brain stops working, my mind goes blank and I cannot really provide "sophisticated" answer, which is possible only when I fully understand what their question actually meant and when I know how to connect their idea with my work. Also, it is so hard for me to come up with a good answer in a minute. I cannot really think when everyone is looking at my face waiting for my answer.

Given that how judging academia is, I feel like people will eventually find out that I'm not that smart. My frustration is that I cannot prepare for questions in advance. They are often unpredictable and random. I'm wondering if you have any tips or advice about how to deal with questions after talk or how to overcome anxiety about questions.

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There are other questions about "imposter syndrome" on this Stack, it might be useful to look through them because some of what you describe might fit into that area.

Besides that, I think the best way to feel better about answering questions during presentations is to do it a lot. Seek out opportunities to present to a "friendly audience", and ask that they challenge you with questions. Talk about your research informally with fellow students in your area. Do all of this in English, in case you typically use another language in those contexts.

You can also try to plan ahead for certain questions or areas of questions, and even make slides to respond to those questions ahead of time if they are asked. Generally I wouldn't suggest purposefully leaving information out to prompt certain questions, but it is rare that you can fit every single caveat and counterexample and piece of background into a talk.

If you can't figure out what question someone is asking, try to ask it back to them, even if you are off the mark or don't get it exactly right - that's usually more productive than just asking someone to repeat. I see native English speakers including everyone from students to full professors have trouble understanding what someone is asking about all the time - it's quite normal. Also, questions asked during a talk aren't like exam questions where a grader is judging your answer based on some rubric for that specific question. Usually the asker is hoping to get you to elaborate on something, so even if all you can pick up is a key word you can repeat back a possible question based on that key word, or just start elaborating on that area. I'm also a fan of being honest with language difficulties. I would never think less of someone who just gave an entire talk in their non-native language but doesn't understand a particular word or phrase I used.

Lastly, I don't think academia is nearly as "judging" as you may think it is. Especially when you are presenting your own work, know that you are the best expert in the world in your own work. PhD-level research does build on what has been done before, but ultimately if it's research worth doing as a PhD student it is pushing some boundary of knowledge. You're the only person who has yet crossed that particular boundary, and the whole point of giving an academic presentation is to bring your colleagues up to speed.

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    "but doesn't understand a particular word or phrase I used" Don't ask them to repeat, ask them to rephrase. – Roland Aug 19 at 8:53
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Your problem starts with how you approach giving the talk. You say:

I have a script for my talk, rehearse it so many times to the point I almost memorize it. I even practice my facial expressions and voice tone during the talk. I just learn and practice how to present my "ideal" academic self to colleagues.

Given you are presenting in a non-native language, this is understandable, but you should try to be more spontaneous in your talk. Start by reducing your verbatim script into shorthand, and remove the phrases/expressions that you find easiest. Once you have become comfortable with that, reduce your script further so that it occupies just one sheet of paper, on which you outline the structure, key points, and any quotations.

Once you have become more spontaneous in how you give a talk, you should find yourself better equipped to handle questions on the spot. As for dealing with these questions, remember that conferences are about presenting "work in progress" and providing an opportunity to discuss such work with peers at a formative stage. In that context, you should expect to be challenged.

Think of the tough questions as feedback, and engage with it in good faith -- that is to say, try to respond with some discussion relating the ideas/issues raised by the question to your work, even if you cannot actually answer the question. Think of it as a very brief seminar discussion or supervision, and participate in that spirit:

  • do not dodge the question;
  • do not change the question to something you wish the person had asked; and
  • "I do not know" is perfectly acceptable as a starting-point for an answer, as long as you then elaborate by making a connection to something you do know (practice saying expressions such as
    • "I do not know about this issue specifically, but what I can say is that..."
    • "I am not sure about ..., but it may be connected to what we have observed with ..."
    • "I have not got enough information/evidence to be sure about this, although I suspect that..."
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    I'm not sure I agree with this. I try to be spontaneous in talks. I even sometimes get up at 4am to make the slides, specifically so that it's super fresh in my mind and includes responses to previous talks at the same meeting. But that spontaneity came only after a lot of experience. When I started out I practiced until it was perfect, just like the OP. That worked fine for me too, though I was generally incredibly nervous. At that stage, if someone had said "try to be more spontaneous," it would just have added extra pressure and not been helpful at all. – Nathaniel Aug 19 at 6:56
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    With respect to the spontaneity part of the difference may be field specific, I have heard stories of philosophers giving a talk by getting up on stage and reading out their most recent paper (which is apparently normal for their field), and have seen historians give talks by reading a prepared statement. It may be that this is the standard of OPs field which is not the case in the hard sciences (in my experience). Though I will end this by stating a belief that more spontaneous talks are better but this might be separate to the question being asked here. – N A McMahon Aug 19 at 9:08
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When someone asks you a question, pause before you answer. This gives you a chance to gather your thoughts and make sure you're answering the question they asked (and not the question you assumed they were asking when you heard the first few words from them). The pause will also reassure the asker that you've really listened to them. I often find that during such a pause, I come up with a better, more coherent, answer than I would have otherwise. Pause for what feels to you like an awkwardly long time (it will feel much shorter to the audience). One way to force yourself to pause is to breathe in slowly.

Remember that the audience is on your side; they want you to do well. There might be someone in the audience who likes to take people down, but other people will recognise this as mean-spiritedness; they will have empathy for you. And it won't be your job to deal with such a person (beyond a good faith attempt to answer the question). The conference or session chair will step in if things get out of hand.

If someone asks why you didn't do Y instead of X, treat it as a suggestion rather than a criticism. It's usually fine to say something like "for this experiment, we did X because it was convenient/familiar/etc., but it would be interesting to repeat the experiment with Y in future".

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Confidence is key. Confidence to say ‘Interesting question, I don’t know the answer but will look into it’ or ‘can we take this offline?’ Most people respect admission of not knowing more than a faulty attempt just to answer

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