So bobthejoe said this:

The PhD students I remember the most are the ones who came up to me and made meaningful comments or suggestions regarding my work. They get extra bonus points if in the middle of the night the next week they offer more meaningful comments or suggestions.

Here's the question though: how many PhD students actually manage to make meaningful comments or suggestions about a professor's work? And how often does the professor follow up and inform the student that those comments are helpful (rather than pretend that the comments are helpful as a matter of politeness)? And if the comments are implemented, does the professor ever notify the student?

I'm saying this as someone who makes a lot of suggestions/comments to other people, but who can never be sure whether or not they find them helpful. Most suggestions seem to be discarded simply because it takes too much time/effort to implement them.

  • 3
    The title needs a revision, I'd say. "How does a PhD student make meaningful comments" - by putting in a lot of thought in his comments. Seems "Not a real question" to me.
    – Bravo
    Commented May 28, 2012 at 4:26
  • 4
    If you want to make meaningful comments, you typically need to first learn a lot about the topic the professor works on. Commented May 28, 2012 at 6:18

5 Answers 5


The other answers make good suggestions for the asking of questions or posing ideas to professors. Most professors are open to questions and new ideas. I personally love it when my students come to me with something that I hadn't thought of before. As for getting recognition, it depends on the relationship between the Ph.D. student and the professor.

If you, as a grad student, ask a poignant question at a visiting professor's lecture, and then the professor returns and gets his or her group working on the matter, the you will very likely not receive any further communication about the matter. You will, however, be able to determine if your question had an effect when the publication came out. If nothing else, you can have that warm little feeling that something came of your question.

If you, as a senior graduate student, pitch something to your adviser that is relevant to your project, your adviser should listen. At some point you know more about your project than your adviser does. I pitched many things to my adviser over the years. Sometimes I was shot down, and then did them anyway. One of my questions, however, transformed the direction of my thesis work. I started and finished a whole new project in my last year based on an idea I pitched.

Senior graduate students weighing in on other projects going on in their group also tend to get listened to, and occasionally acknowledged in the publication for "helpful discussions." Yes, sometimes those names are graduate students. For one example I know of, see the acknowledgements in this article. "The authors would like to thank... ...Mr. Benjamin N. Norris for helpful discussions."

  • "Poignant"? That's probably not the word you wanted.
    – Jim Conant
    Commented Aug 7, 2016 at 15:25
  • Likely. However, I have no idea what might have been in my mind four years ago.
    – Ben Norris
    Commented Aug 7, 2016 at 15:55
  • Ha! I didn't notice the question was 4 years old. It was recently bumped to the main page. Maybe "pointed"?
    – Jim Conant
    Commented Aug 7, 2016 at 17:30

From my perspective, even a good question at a department colloquium will make a student stand out. Often, a student will ask a question or make a comment that I've thought about but didn't bother to mention. That is also something that catches the eye. Ultimately I think that Bravo's point is a good one: just try to think about the problem and comment if something comes to mind.


Very very carefully. One of the important aspects of being a PhD student is learning how to think critically. Turning that critical eye on a colleague, and even worse on an advisor, can be a real disaster. The key is for the student to be able to provide his/her insight into the issues without putting the colleague on guard.

  • 4
    While this may be too idealistic to hope for, one would hope that within a department, students are given more leeway to critique faculty, even if the critique is incorrect - they are there to learn after all.
    – Suresh
    Commented May 29, 2012 at 3:18
  • A department where professors can only be criticized "very very carefully" for fear of "disaster" should not be allowed by the university to exist, in my opinion. Commented Mar 5, 2015 at 20:19

The same way any other researcher would make meaningful comments or suggestions regarding a colleague's work. By having real insight, and presenting it carefully and respectfully.

(And I agree with all the other answers.)

  • But PhD students generally don't have a lot of experience being "any other researcher"
    – Max
    Commented Aug 7, 2013 at 16:40
  • 1
    @Max: True. Hence the second sentence of my answer.
    – JeffE
    Commented Aug 7, 2013 at 22:24

If a professor finds your comments insightful and valuable, he/she would take the initiative to request your opinion or collaborate with you on a project. If not, they won't make an effort and may keep silent about it to be polite or outright request that you not give your opinion. Just keep in mind though... Some professors may regard your comments as being a bit ostentation or arrogant... I know, because I've been there and done that myself :)

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