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I'm a PhD student in Physics and I'm very worried about something. I have participated in two conferences in the last year. The first one was in a field related to the one I'm studying and the second exactly related to the field I'm studying.

In these two conferences something got me very worried. I've watched the seminars and during the seminars I didn't have any idea of questions to ask. On the other hand I saw people raising all sorts of interesting questions that led to all sorts of interesting discussions.

This got me extremely worried because (1) I think that asking the right questions is the most important thing in order to do a good research and (2) asking questions and starting discussions seems like the way collaborations get started and certainly having people to collaborate with is very important.

After going through this in the first conference, in the second I've watched the lectures trying hard to find things to ask, but I only got ideas of some things that I felt could be so stupid that people could look at me as someone who isn't really good at the subject.

Now the main worry I have is: having ideas of questions to ask during seminars like that is something that comes with experience (and therefore all this is just reflecting the fact that I'm inexperienced) or is it some sort of ability that either we have or we don't? This is being quite alarming to me, because I fear that this might tell that perhaps I just have no ability to do research, which would be terrible to me since I really do want to follow this career.

Finally, a disclaimer. I know some people might say "talk to your advisor about this", but I really never had conversations about the process of doing research with him. In fact the way he works is more like "calculate this, then we talk about the calculation" and he really does not have much patience to talk about much else, so that I don't really feel comfortable bringing this up.

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  • 9
    Does this answer your question? How to ask dumb questions Feb 4 at 4:23
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    Do you go to these talks looking for questions or just to absorb what the speakers present? My normal practice was just the latter, actually.
    – Buffy
    Feb 4 at 13:26
  • How far are you into your PhD and did you already publish?
    – lalala
    Feb 4 at 16:15
  • 1
    I think it is fine. It is especially fine not to be distracted from your own work. But it is useful to take a few notes at such talks if something springs to mind, even if it isn't a question.
    – Buffy
    Feb 4 at 17:50
  • 1
    Well, you asked this question which has now been viewed 2000 times. I found this more helpful than any "question but more of a comment" in a conference.
    – juod
    Feb 5 at 2:12
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A conference sessions might have 50 people in it (at least in the conferences I go to), and yet there will only be 3 or 4 questions on each talk, even if five people have questions for every 1 that has the guts to put their hand up and ask it that most people don't have questions for most talks. You might also notice that its the same people that ask questions about every talk.

I wouldn't worry about it, especially if you are just a PhD student. One thing I would say is that questions should be asked from a position of ignorance - that is you ask a question because you genuinely don't know the answer and want to. Not because you think you can trip the speaker up, or make yourself look clever, so questions that you think will make you look dumb might be the best questions.

8

Ian's answer is already good, as is the link to "How to ask stupid questions". But I wanted to touch on the last paragraph of your question:

Finally, a disclaimer. I know some people might say "talk to your advisor about this", but I really never had conversations about the process of doing research with him. In fact the way he works is more like "calculate this, then we talk about the calculation" and he really does not have much patience to talk about much else, so that I don't really feel comfortable bringing this up.

This is something you should seek a solution for. It doesn't have to come from your supervisor. One of the most inspiring courses I took was titled "Better Science for Computer Scientists" and it was filled with a mix of Master and PhD students, and led by a veteran professor. Much of the course was really a view at what really happens behind the scenes - how to people behave at conferences, what do they do in breaks during conferences, what really goes on at the editing desk of a journal and so forth. The key was that academics are people, there is much more of a human and social dimension to academia than you might imagine seeing it from a distance as an undergrad student.

One of the things the professor pointed out is that a lot of academics like being magicians: pulling complicated results out of a hat and making it seem like that's easy. We all like other people to think that we're amazingly smart. But magicians' tricks take a lot of practice that you don't see.

What I encourage you to do is talk more with people you're not answerable to. It's a bit easier to have an honest talk about how things really work with someone that isn't also deciding on your thesis. So have conversations with your peer PhD students, and talk with faculty members that you think are nice people. If you're finding this difficult, then that's definitely a warning sign that there may be some impostor syndrome at work; "I don't dare ask such things because I'll be found out!" indeed.

5

I am the opposite. I always have many questions and try to limit myself to one or at most two.

If you truly never have questions about a seminar, it can mean a number of things:

  1. You believe the speaker is infallible and therefore you believe everything they say unquestioningly.

  2. You find the seminar easy or obvious. You really don't need to ask anything.

  3. You are scared of looking stupid. You can bet that half the audience are wanting to know the answer to this question and they are all unwilling to ask first. Very often I have asked a question and a number of people have turned to me and nodded approvingly or said, "Yes, I was wondering that".

  4. You are shy. This was something that I had to overcome. Things get easier the more you do them. The first question is the hardest.

Note: I was twice offered a job at one seminar, by a scientist who had a big team and lots of funding. He did this in front of the audience! I asked what seemed to me to be a seemingly obvious question. He was impressed that what had seemed obvious to me was actually very rarely spotted by those in the field. (It wasn't even my speciality - I was attending out of interest). I didn't accept the job because I was involved in other things.

Conclusion

If you literally never have a question at any seminar then either you are a genius and you have understood everything, or the subject matter is very basic. If you understand everything then you can ask, e.g. "Why did you choose to do it that way - couldn't you have done it this way instead?" or "That was fascinating, thank you for such a clear explanation, what is your next step going to be?" If you really are fascinated by the subject, you can even drop a hint that you would be interested on researching the same subject and say what part of it - it might even pay off with a studentship or a collaboration.

Finally, don't try to 'think of questions', that is completely pointless and will come across as insincere and annoying. Ask about what you don't understand or think could have been done better or where the research will lead.


P.S. If you agree with this answer completely, then please upvote it and accept. If you disagree then please ask me a question about the part(s) you disagree with. It is much more tactful to ask than simply tell someone they are wrong. If there is a point I made that you are not sure will work, ask me a question, e.g. Has it actually worked for me in real life - can I justify my answer? Stack Exchange is all about asking questions and you have just asked a very good question, i.e. "Should I be worried that I don't have ideas of questions to ask during seminars?"! Practise asking questions on Stack Exchange.

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    It seems that you're only considering questions that you would ask when you don't understand a part of the talk (e.g. "where does that term come from?" or "Why is that inequality true?"), I think OP was referring more to deeper questions about the results (e.g. "Does this imply that..." or "Have you thought about relating this to..."), which are the questions that usually spark interesting discussions. The former are much easier to ask. Feb 4 at 14:55
  • @user2723984 - Maybe I should have made a long comment, asking which if any of the 4 points was true for the OP and if none, what did they believe was the problem. It would be useful to know. Feb 4 at 21:33
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    This is all true, but don't think it helps OP. I am also a "non-questioning" person, and usually find myself either in situation (3) - this is not my field and if something looks weird to me, they probably have a good reason, or (2) - this is my field and I understand why they did it that way.
    – juod
    Feb 5 at 2:05
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    @juod - "this is not my field" This is where many of my questions come from. Very often a new perspective from a different discipline is of great value. "this is my field" - In that case I might enquire what ther plans are for continuing the research. If I am more expert in some part of the field, I could gently suggest an improvement such as "Have you considered ...?" Feb 5 at 11:37
  • @user2723984 - but one of my suggestions for a question was, "what is your next step going to be?" - That is not an inequality type question. I would ask about an inequality if I could see that it was wrong. E.g. It took mathematicians a while to notice that you can't generalise unique factorisation from reals to imaginary numbers. If you spotted something like that during a seminar it would make a big difference to everyone's understanding. Feb 5 at 11:39
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Some of the other answers here are good, particularly the point that as a PhD student you are still relatively junior and no one really expects students to ask questions in conferences, or even departmental seminars. I think the key message is not to beat yourself up about this.

Like yourself I generally do not come up with questions during talks - essentially I tend to think about things slower and (hopefully!) in more depth. I find I will sometimes come up with good questions hours or even days later after a little more thought. If I am sufficiently interested I will email the speaker with them and on more than one occasion collaborations have been born out of that email. Additionally, social anxiety means I am reluctant to raise my hand even when I do have a good question to ask.

Is being able to quickly come up with and ask questions a useful skill? Absolutely, aside from anything else it will help get you known in your field, which has clear benefits for career progression. Additionally as a skill it tends to correlate with being able to quickly gain a reasonable understanding of a paper, another useful ability.

However, is it a requirement for forging an academic career? No. There are many other ways to demonstrate your abilities and other abilities besides being able to quickly digest talks.

Returning to anecdote, despite essentially never raising my hand in conferences or seminars I landed a series of decent to good postdoc jobs before eventually getting a permanent position at a top-tier university (also in physics) - so it doesn't have to be a barrier (though insert caveat about survivorship bias).

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I had the very same problem. Practice helps. You could make a goal to ask one question on a conference. Then on the next conference, two questions, etc...
About what to ask: for me, questions come when I ask myself: "what would I ask if I had to continue this study from tomorrow?".
About being afraid of asking silly questions: you can begin with "You might have already said it in the presentation, but I just want to ask..."
But don't worry about asking something too basic. People at conferences come with different backgrounds. Nobody knows what your curriculum was. Also, I think people rarely ask questions that are "groundbreaking".

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  • The counterpart to "You might have already said this" is "Great question!".
    – user151413
    Feb 4 at 13:47
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I agree with Anon21: this issue has probably to do with the way you reason, i.e. "absorbing" the content at talks and drawing conclusions later, vs. reacting immediately. I experience the same. There might be some reinforcement to the process by some extent of impostor syndrome, which is absolutely normal at PhD stage (and later, too). At the same time, I do see that people who "work" either way look more brilliant at conferences. Again, I agree with the advice you've been given: talk to your peers in different settings, in which you feel more comfortable. Reactivity at talks, anyway, partly improves with experience.

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Don't worry too much about it. I still have issues coming up with good questions, especially without thinking that I'm asking a stupid question.

One thing to latch on to is if the presenter is looking at a temperature or pressure series is to ask "Why did you choose those temperatures/pressures?"

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    The OPs question was not "Which question should I ask". Of course there are always pointless questions.
    – user151413
    Feb 4 at 13:46

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