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I am a second year PhD student working in math.

I find that in most discussions with postdocs or even my own supervisor, the pace of the discussion is too fast. The other party invariably seems to think faster and go through to the next step before I have fully processed the current step. I usually have to take photos of the whiteboard, go back, work it through and then realize either that the argument is correct or that there was an error. At conferences or talks, the same is true - the pace of the discussion is too fast for me to meaningfully contribute. I mostly end up listening and this makes it difficult for me to find collaborations because the conversation is too one-sided. If there is no whiteboard and the discussion is over a meal, or when there are multiple people involved, it is that much harder!

While some of it is down to experience, I imagine that even experienced researchers working in fields that are new to them face this issue. How does one "informally" brainstorm with others in an effective manner in technical fields?

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  • Not sure that this will work but you might produce an outline or an abridged version of the subject matter and request feedback on the accuracy of your takeaway. Oct 14 '20 at 3:35
  • I take it "second year PhD student" means you've got a bachelor degree?
    – Karl
    Oct 14 '20 at 22:48
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Don't worry about it. You're a second-year PhD student, so you're one of the least experienced people in the room. Everyone should find this reasonable. What matters is that you show a willingness to learn, to grow, to understand, to improve.

Don't be afraid of asking questions. Don't even be afraid of asking stupid questions. Most scientists will gladly elaborate if you show a genuine interest in understanding the topic better.

Study the topics in your field. Deepen your understanding in your own PhD topic, and adjacent topics on which other people at your conferences are working. If you keep working on improving your understanding, you will notice that over time, you will be able to keep up with the pace. The key is to not panic that you're not there yet, but instead display that you are willing to learn.

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    +1 for questions, even rephrasing something to see if you've truly understood it can be useful. In discussions where I start to lose the thread and things are going over my head, I like to try to think of at least one meaningful question I can ask. This is good to actually get the answer, but also to bring the discussion back to something you know enough to ask about. If it gets to the point where you're not even sure what would be a relevant question about what you're not understanding, you may have waited too long. Oct 14 '20 at 19:25
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    On "stupid" questions, I think that the most stupid thing to do with a genuine question is not to ask it... Of course, in most social situations asking such questions can be a risk, because you display weakness to others. This is one (good!) reason why many people do not like or are afraid to ask "stupid" questions (i.e. questions that might make them look stupid). However, when you need to learn something (either as a student or scientist), such questions must be asked in order to reach understanding. Oct 15 '20 at 9:04
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    Experienced scientists know that such questions need to be asked, so they won't hold it against you. (unless they're jerks, of course, but then they can just as easily hold something else against you.) Oct 15 '20 at 9:04
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Your experience is normal: A second year PhD student should not keep pace with postdocs nor advisors. They should learn. It seems like you're doing that.

In a meeting setting, try to understand when it is appropriate to slow the pace to improve your understanding. Don't interrupt when you can learn later; interrupt when you can't, either to learn during the meeting or to arrange a tutorial afterwards (likely with the most junior person, beside yourself). (Meetings are presumably to get work done, so too many interrupts will preclude that.)

In a seminar setting, ask the speaker after their talk, over lunch, or arrange a one-to-one later in the day. (External speakers are usually visiting someone and will have some free time during the day.)

At conferences, you have plenty of opportunities to ask speakers for more details.

I mostly end up listening and this makes it difficult for me to find collaborations because the conversation is too one-sided.

Having conversations will allow you to build bridges. (As a PhD student, I'd suggest focusing on relationships within your department, rather than the broader field. Bridges are useful for research visits, internships, subsequent positions, etc.)

If there is no whiteboard and the discussion is over a meal, or when there are multiple people involved, it is that much harder!

Such discussions will become easier once your knowledge broadens. Sit-back and enjoy your meal. Ask questions one-to-one, e.g., after dinner, whilst walking a guest back to their hotel, or the following day.

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    Dear Downvoter, Is it a coincidence that each of my answers gets a downvote? ;-) Many thanks,
    – user2768
    Oct 14 '20 at 9:51

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