47

I'm a PhD student and I'm getting started in the field I want to work on after I finish my PhD. There were some very important works done by a very experienced researcher and collaborators that I've been trying to understand for a while. In fact there was claim in the beginning of one of the papers that was central to all that followed but I wasn't able to understand why such a claim is true.

Some weeks ago that experienced researcher gave a talk on the subject and he stated the same claim that's on the papers. Still, I didn't have the courage to ask about it because I really don't know yet whether it is something extremely basic that I'm missing or if it's really non-trivial.

I was thinking about sending an e-mail asking about it. But can that damage my reputation? I mean, if it is something really basic and obvious, and I'm missing it, won't it damage my reputation with him if I ask it? The reason I'm worried is that I really hope to be able to collaborate with him one day.

18
  • 30
    Difficult to know. Some people will belittle you for asking allegedly obvious stuff but which, in reality, is entirely nonobvious. Some people will claim wrong things with assurance because nobody probed it properly. Sometimes, people will give deep reasons or intuitions for this. Some stuff could asked without consequences - perhaps ask some friend you know and trust first and see whether this is common knowledge. You have to check with how many "trivial" question you can get away. If you do not ask, you will not know, neither whether it's trivial, nor whether you get away with it. Sep 14 at 1:20
  • 36
    Personally, I'm more frustrated by PhD students who don't show progress than by PhD students that ask some basic or trivial questions. It is important for your reputation that you show improvement and become an expert in your field. The (improving) quality of your questions and your contribution to discussions can be a good public indicator of this and help you build a good reputation.
    – Roland
    Sep 14 at 6:04
  • 78
    There's a quote I like, which is very relevant to your question: "When you finish your undergrad, you think you know everything. When you finish your masters, you think you know enough to know what you don't know. When you finish your PhD, you realise you really don't know anything When you finish your postdoc, you realise nobody else does either.". Sep 14 at 11:01
  • 18
    @TasosPapastylianou: And when you get tenure, you realise nobody is ever going to know anything, so you can just as well spend your time on meetings and other managemant stuff now. :-) Sep 14 at 11:49
  • 32
    My god, how has the system failed if people ask these kind of questions. I'm sorry but this is beyond disheartening. Absolutely nobody should be worried to repercussions, let alone asking a question...
    – TheVal
    Sep 14 at 14:49

17 Answers 17

111

No, asking reasonable questions won't damage your reputation -- and even a few unreasonable ones won't do any real damage, especially as a young grad student.

Still, I recommend that you start by asking your advisor, or someone else at your host institution, rather than jumping straight to asking this expert. If this is a basic result that everyone in your subfield knows, then helping you understand it is part of your host institution's responsibility. If no one at your institution can help, then the claim is probably sufficiently non-obvious that asking the expert is altogether appropriate.

2
  • 33
    I would also add that the standards for asking a question on the spot are lower than asking a question by email a few weeks after a talk. So if you're embarrassed to ask a question in real-time in person, I would think you'd need be quite a bit more confident to ask the question by email afterwards, especially days or weeks later.
    – Kimball
    Sep 14 at 12:46
  • 3
    I think most of the most "embarassing" questions I've seen asked, both in being very basic, and in being unreasonable, have been asked by people who are far from young (or grad students).
    – tomasz
    Sep 15 at 13:26
36

This is only anecdotal, but it applied over my quite long "career" as a student (undergraduate through doctorate). I was always happy to interrupt a lecture (small classes) to ask questions. Some of them were because the instructor had made a mistake in a proof (math). Some were just because I didn't catch the flow from one step to the next.

My fellow students thought I was much smarter than I actually was because of this. I don't know what the faculty thought, but I never got "put down" for my interruptions.

Sometimes a question that you have actually needs to be asked, and others in the class have the same question or difficulty, but aren't brave enough to bring it up. So, by asking questions you can also help others to learn.

As a kid, I was always asking my mother "why...?". She was less appreciative of my actions, I think.

There is an apocryphal story of a professor of math who made the statement in the middle of a proof that "such and such follows trivially". A student questioned it. The prof went into abstract mode, making small marks on the board and muttering a bit. He then wandered down to his office, with students following, and started pulling books off the shelf and looking things up. After half an hour or so, he returned to the classroom, students still following, and announced "yes, it is trivial".

11
  • 9
    Why don't we question the veracity of that apocryphal story more? =P
    – user21820
    Sep 14 at 15:05
  • 14
    @user21820, many graduate students swear that it happened a their own university in the year just before they arrived.
    – Buffy
    Sep 14 at 15:07
  • 6
    Many stories termed in deprecatory manner as "urban legends" are simply archetypes of events that happened in slightly varied form and with slightly differing parameters to different people. The "it's trivial" story is very similar to my experiences as math student - not precisely in that form, as details change, but sufficiently close to make me nod vigorously in recognition. Sep 14 at 19:09
  • 2
    Your anecdotal story matches mine: I've always asked "why?" and I've always increased my understanding as a result. From my studies to my work in industry; the question "why?" has propelled me far. After all, isn't that why I'm here: to learn?
    – Aaron F
    Sep 14 at 20:07
  • 8
    I heard a version of that as a joke around 1990: "OK, after working on it for a few days, I agree it is trivial". Sep 15 at 1:16
18

There is the "philosophically obvious" answer, namely, that if the big-shot is upset with your asking any sort of (sincere) question, you'd really not want to be involved with them.

So, srsly, ask.

Or, if you want to go on some sort of long march through a desert, ... don't ask...

That's the real choice, I think.

4
  • 2
    If it's obvious, you may not have to go as far as to ask him. Sep 14 at 22:09
  • @MadPhysicist, I tell my students (not only my Ph.D. students) that I especially like questions which turn out to be "easy", because (then) I can answer them instantly, with no effort. In contrast, my own PhD advisor did often publicly yell at grad students for asking (bad?) questions, thus powerfully inhibiting question-asking. Not so easy for kids to know whether a higher-level question is dumb or not. Indeed, knowing that is substantial meta-knowledge... Sep 16 at 22:03
  • Totally agreed. I'm not in academia, but I've always had an aggressive question-asking policy. The only thing that's changed with increasing experience is selecting the right audience better. Sep 16 at 23:31
  • @MadPhysicist, ah, yeah, the audience. Also a thing that is tough for beginners to gauge... Sep 16 at 23:58
15

Asking easy questions doesn't portray you as dumb. What mostly annoys people is when you take a habit of asking easy questions instead of spending 10 minutes looking the answer up online or in a book. To make it short, don't ask other people what you could have asked Google.

Lectures and talks are different still. The audience is expected to follow the train of thought, and if you can't, you're just wasting your own time staying there. If a fair share of the audience doesn't follow, they are also wasting the time of the lecturer. If you're expected to follow, it's best to ask any question right away, no matter how basic, to get back on track.

Clarifications after a lecture don't have the urgency of a question during a lecture, so the usual advice applies: ask about things you can't easily look up yourself.

4
  • Your second paragraph puts a lot of burden on students and suggests that the lecturer is perfect in their presentation. And the last sentence seems inconsistent with the rest of the paragraph.
    – Buffy
    Sep 14 at 15:02
  • 1
    @Buffy What exactly is "a lot of burden"? The expectation that the students can follow? Sep 14 at 15:07
  • More the "wasting time" comments. Both of them.
    – Buffy
    Sep 14 at 15:08
  • 2
    @Buffy If I sit on a lecture I can't follow, I'll be reading a book on the topic anyway for preparation. What do I get from the lecture then? Sep 14 at 15:17
8

My suggestion is to ask questions early. It's better to look uninformed as a neophyte than look uninformed after you've been in the field a few years.

When you are a new PhD student, faculty don't expect you to have much knowledge or experience. They likely won't think less of you for asking questions about basic things and will usually be very willing to help. When you are talking with a colleague outside your field, they won't be surprised by basic questions and will also typically be generous with their time to help you understand.

However, if you've been working in a field for years and then reveal that you don't understand the fundamentals of that field, this may indeed reflect poorly on you. People may have less patience to explain something to you if they feel like you should have already learned it.

For example, I am happy to explain enhanced sampling techniques to new graduate students in molecular simulation. However, I recently came across a graduate student who was 5 years into PhD research based entirely on molecular simulation. They asked some questions that revealed that they had little knowledge of enhanced sampling. After probing farther, I found that they had almost no knowledge at all of enhanced sampling and had never used any of the techniques after 5 years in the field. This demonstrated to me that something went terribly wrong in their graduate education. I try to be understanding, but it reflects poorly on both them and their advisor.

4

On a slight corollary. I was asked to be an "audience" member for someone practicing a PhD viva. He got about three minutes into it, and had made a basic error in his assumptions - I asked a pointed question and he stood there like a gaffed fish not realising we were in the same field.

It took him six months to patch over that error and another three rewriting it. The error came from something that his supervisor had glossed over and gotten wrong and he hadn't bothered to follow up and query.

You MUST ask. if you are not sure — ask.... If you want ask without asking - say that you are not sure how X works and Y follows from X - could the expert please help you work though it to understand properly. Some questions can be asked like that some can't - but regardless if you don't know - ask now.

3

Asking questions is almost never wrong. What would be more harmful is other people realizing you don´t understand a subject while you have been pretending that you do.

3

The standard ethics norm in academia is that an author of a paper must answer all questions related to the paper and should be grateful to everybody who asks questions. Thus there are no "naïve" questions. In your particular example clearly you found a problem with the paper: it contains a statement which is not completely justified.

3

Since this point has not been explicitly brought up I will say asking "basic" questions has a hidden benefit. There may be many others with the exact same thoughts who will be grateful you've asked the question.

I am in industry, not academia, but on many occasions I have asked these "stupid" questions in a public forum. Never has anyone thought less of me for asking them and I have on occasion had individuals afterwards inform me they were afraid to ask the same question but glad I did in their stead. Knowledge is something to be openly spread and socialized, not some exclusive resource reserved for those willing to dive into the esoteric.

2

I'm going to go against the grain of most of the answers and say in my experience "yes, asking dumb questions CAN hurt your reputation". As much as everybody wants to say people aren't judged for bad questions, they are. Now most people aren't insanely judgmental, so they will likely forgive one or two obvious questions, and likely their impression of you will be the summation of their interactions with you. If you pair that one dumb question with 6 insightful questions that show you do understand highly difficult subjects/topics they will think you're knowledgable/smart. And if you ask 6 obvious questions and no insightful questions it will imply you don't have any high level understanding (with high probability). And if you have 4-5 obvious questions, and maybe 1-2 high level questions it might suggest you have some insight but not complete understanding.

As for my practical recommendation, give it your best effort to try to make sense and due your due diligence before asking a question just to be sure you're not just being careless, but after that just ask because there's no real point trying to hide your knowledge/intelligence level. Eventually it's going to be figured out over a long time of interacting with people. So just try your best and then over time people will likely understand your true talent and knowledge level anyway. Hope that helps! Goodluck

1

Most likely you should not be worried. But as always there are exceptions to this general rule -- if your question is about something truly basic in the field, yeah it's going to raise some eyebrows and may cause some lasting damage. For example, if you are in a math PhD and can't follow a basic epsilon delta proof of the limit, it's certainly not going to look great since that is something anybody with basic experience in intermediate math should know like the back of their hand.

It's sort of like the imposter syndrome. The vast majority of the time feeling like an imposter is all in your head, but there's certainly (rare) examples of people who got in over their head and the feeling is reality.

1

Emailing a question is very unlikely to damage your reputation. If it's truly as basic as you think, he will probably assume you are someone from an unrelated field or an undergrad. That's if he even reads your email. As a student, I also often indulged into all manner of fantasies about all the very positive and very negative consequences my emails might have, only to discover that 99% of them have no consequence at all, because the recipient doesn't read them. Your average professor logs into their mailbox and stares down a 4 digit unread mail count, if an email is not to their liking, they will just ignore it.

As for asking questions generally, people tend to overestimate how simple and stupid their question is. Even very basic questions can be valuable because they highlight some fundamental aspect that the speaker failed to communicate well. I have often wrestled with my embarrassment to ask "stupid" questions, only to have other people later thank me for asking them because they were confused about the same thing.

Out of context, if you ask an extremely stupid question in a very focused meeting (so not a place where undergrads and laypeople can attend) where everyone knows you, you might raise an eyebrow or two. But only the one time. If you make a habit of asking questions, people will just think of you as "the guy who ask questions" and nobody will care that here and there you ask one that was a bit superficial. Of course you don't want to ask 100 questions such that all 100 are totally naive. So it's a good idea to do your homework, make sure you pay attention to the talk/paper so that you don't miss something that was already clearly stated, and make sure you at least spend a moment thinking about an answer. It also helps to phrase the question in such a way as to emphasize why it matters. Even extremely simple matters are worth explaining in depth if they are critical to the point being made. If you do these things, far less than 100% of your questions will be truly stupid, and nobody will be counting the handful of ones that are.

1

The purpose of giving a talk or a lecture is to transfer knowledge/understanding from one brain to another (hopefully more than one). If asking questions leads to better transfer, then the speaker/lecturer ought to be grateful that someone asked. The transfer is more effective if both transmitter and receiver take an active part.

I've always taken the approach that there is no such thing as a stupid question*, if only because I don't want to do anything to stop people asking me questions if they don't understand something. If the audience are not going to ask questions or interact, then they may as well be watching a video of my talk.

*there really isn't. I was asked once whether it mattered which order the statements in a computer program were written down. Now to me (as I understand computer architecture) the answer is obvious, but it made it very clear that the student didn't understand something fundamental about programming, and asking the question meant they got their mental model of programming rapidly improved. Kudos to the student!

1

Ask it and damage your reputation?

Don't ask it and damage your understanding?

Which is more important to you? Which should be more important to you?

1
  • 1
    follow-up comment: OP, you are a student, you can do the dummiest thing in the world that would reduce your reputation by a factor 1000 and no one will remember you in 3 months from now, because your reputation is 0.
    – EarlGrey
    Sep 17 at 9:12
1

There are a lot of good answers here, but I wanted to add some information that might be helpful.

As a professor, when I'm giving a seminar, teaching a class, or even talking to one of my students I have to make a guess about the knowledge of the audience. If I guess that the audience has very basic knowledge then I waste a lot of time talking about things that they know already. If I assume that they are experts, then they might not understand anything that I'm saying. So, I do my best to estimate the the level of the audience, but feedback can substantially improve the quality of communication.

The audience does a speaker a great service by asking clarifying questions during a talk (or class or conversation) because it is impossible for the speaker to know that the audience does and doesn't know. Rather than seeming dumb, the person asking a question shows that they are engaged and interested in the content. That's far better than remaining silent and missing the point and leaving the speaker wondering whether or not they are understood.

I specify clarifying questions because it is not helpful or recommended to ask a question which is only tangentially related to the material (but that is not what the OP was about).

0

"It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt." - Mark Twain

That said, if you never ask you will remain a fool forever.

2
  • 5
    You don't have to remain a fool forever if you know how to read. Books don't get offended even if you keep staring at the first page of the introduction for 10 minutes. They also won't tell anyone you did. Sep 14 at 15:00
  • 2
    But if you are a fool then what's the problem? If you're not a fool then you will have learnt something. This answer presumes that OP is a fool, which is quite unlikely. More likely is that they're the type of person who likes to question things - which is a fine way to be!
    – Aaron F
    Sep 14 at 20:10
0

Personal experience here:

  • it took me 6-9 months to barely understand the main assumption and claim from my supervisor works;
  • it took me 1-1.5 year to understand the advisor was "wrong", or at least that the claim was central but not necessarily true in all cases, plus the work following from the assumption/claim was a kind of dead branch (the advisor was scooping up all the low-hanging fruits, only "menial" tasks were left to do for PhDs and PostDocs);
  • it took me 6 years into the PhD to finally give up on my PhD with my advisor, because by following my way, a way perpendicular to advisor's claim and assumptions, I found out plenty of positions in the Academia, including one that liked me so much to hire me as an Assistant Professor and to support for my defense with said supervisor.

What did I earn by asking the advisor "why do you make that claim?" after 2 months of working in that group? I got an unsatisfactory answer, and I embarked in a long bibliographic journey where it turned out that the central claim was just the approximation of some results from someone else 30 years before.

(spoiler: even with such a slow PhD, I then went on having a decent career in the academia, until I found a better life/balance work in the industry. That's also the reason I stick so long with the first advisor: very liveable place, plenty of life opportunities besides work AKA research and academic life)

So go ahead, ask the question, but be ready to find yourself the rationale behind that claim, because it is a central piece of your advisor work, and you need to understand it even without having the possibility of talking directly with your advisor.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.