Summary: I am a shy/introverted PhD student and I have a collaborator at another university. They are setting up a meeting for me with an important researcher in the field. What should I even say in a meeting like that? How can I make it productive?

I am a PhD student and I have a collaborator from another university which invited me to visit. I came here and this collaborator suggested me to meet with one quite important researcher there in the field we work, with whom he works as well. By the way we had a very brief interaction once and he is very nice.

Now, I would certainly like very much to meet such an important researcher, but the thing is that I have no idea what to say in a meeting like that. I'm pretty much a beginner, and right now I don't have any bright ideas to put forward nor any useful comment.

In that case I feel pretty much confused about what to do. I feel like not going to such a meeting might be losing one opportunity and, moreover, might feel very discourteous. On the other hand I'm afraid of going, having not much to say and just being in an awkward situation.

Given that I'm a visiting researcher in another university and I'm invited to meet some other important researcher in the field, what should I even say in a meeting like that? How can I deal with this in the most appropriate way to not lose this quite nice opportunity and also not being in an awkward situation?

One small detail about myself: I'm very shy and introvert, so I'm not much the talkative type really.

  • 2
    Browse thru' the questions in this forum, select a few, and use them to initiate conversations. Mar 9, 2022 at 2:13
  • 7
    @VitaminE Better yet, pick at random and greet them with gems like "Can you do research during a strike?" or "Sometimes, I want to punch people in the face, what do I do about it?" ;) Are there any legitimately good conversation starters on academia.SE though?
    – Lodinn
    Mar 9, 2022 at 7:54
  • 1
    ++++1. I'm a postdoc and still feel this way. My number 1 tip is don't be afraid to ask questions about the topic they're telling you about, even if you think the questions are really stupid/low level/naive. This way you can keep the conversation going, and try to learn something. They're not expecting you to come up with the next groundbreaking idea in the field, so don't place this expectation on yourself either :) Mar 10, 2022 at 13:00
  • Your collaborator proposed this meeting; what did he say the purpose of the meeting would be? Advice for you will be quite different depending on whether the purpose of the meeting is for the researcher to learn about your work, or for you to learn about their work, or for the three of you to talk about working together—or perhaps it's just a social meeting so that you'll know each other in the future. Mar 11, 2022 at 17:54

6 Answers 6


Rather than put forward your own ideas, which might still be a bit naive (as you suggest), ask for advice. Let the superstar take the lead. If you've read any of their papers, you can mention that.

But, for a beginner, it is enough to express some interest in your own areas, even if that is different from that of the other.

You can always ask questions about what interesting research threads you might want to look at over the next year or so.

But, don't present yourself as something that you are not.

And if the meetings are informal, the discussions might well turn to non-academic topics: in the US, the drama of the impending baseball season, for example.

  • 2
    Hi @Buffy, thanks for the advice ! Yes, I have read his last paper (which turned out be in one particular subject in the field I'm very interested in), though I have not yet fully understood it because it employs a formalism which it's new to me.
    – Aegon
    Mar 8, 2022 at 22:50
  • 24
    @Aegon Then the things you haven't understood yet will form natural questions! Mar 8, 2022 at 22:58


Try to keep up with the ideas and look for openings where you could potentially contribute something interesting.

Take this intimidation caused by a perceived power and skill imbalance out of the equation and focus on the content of the research instead.

Realize we all start somewhere and this one encounter would not make or break your career. People tend to overestimate the importance of such singular events and then the impostor syndrome kicks in.

Believe in yourself. Others (your collaborator) do. They think extending the collaboration might be fruitful - so, in a sense, you are "deemed worthy". Instead of questioning it, try to accept it and move on to, well, the actual research.


Pretend you understand something you do not. It gets you nowhere and more often than not is blatantly obvious anyway.

Over-prepare for the meeting. This can be outright creepy; some may find joy in this flattery but it is way more often than not bound to be a faux pas.

Retreat into the "coziness" of being timid and borderline subservient. Prefacing nigh every sentence with the likes of "Of course, I could not possibly understand this on the level you do, but maybe..." is disastrous and totally unacceptable for a topic you are actually working on. This is only potentially useful to establish some knowledge boundaries in interdisciplinary research and even then is more annoying than anything.

Hang onto this conversation long after it is over. See above: you might describe this event as life- or career-changing in some 30 years or you might forget about it entirely in a couple of weeks. You might even end up not having much in common at the end of the day, and clinging to this possibility for the sake of possibility is highly unproductive.



If you are anxious about a meeting like this, make sure you are prepared. Some things you can do in preparation

  • Be prepared to explain what you are working for your PhD. What is the overall goal? What have you found so far? For an initial explanation try to stick to the big picture. Initially try to be concise (i.e have an elevator pitch ready). Also be prepared to adjust the level of technical detail of your explanation. Just because the person your are talking to is a big shot in your field, doesn't mean that they are up to speed on the nitty gritty technical details of the work you are doing. Therefore start at a relatively low technical level, and adjust the level based on the question they ask and the amount of interest they show.

  • If you have produced nice figures that illustrate some of your results or particular aspects of the approach you are taking, it is a good idea to have them somewhere you can easily access them (possibly on your phone, or on a tablet/laptop if you happen to be bringing one to the meeting).

  • Read up on what the person is working on. Look through their recent publications.

  • Be aware of the major achievements of the person (e.g. look at their most highly cited papers).

During the meeting:

  • It is OK to let the person you are meeting and your collaborator lead where the discussion goes.
  • Don't feel pressured to ask a highly technical question about their work.
  • To keep the conversation going, some fairly standard "small talkish" questions to ask, include asking them about what they are currently working on. In general, this is the favorite topic of most scientists. (Although, in some fields people may be more tight lipped about ongoing research.)
  • Remember that despite their reputation the person you are talking to is also a human being.
  • ("your are talking to""you are talking to" (flag this for deletion after use)) Mar 11, 2022 at 22:14

You should tell from your current research, so that the other person get an impression on what you work and how far in the process you are. He might think of you in the upcoming months and you can profit from this. It could be a recently published paper by a third party, he might mention you in a meeting with somebody else, you might be able to write him a question later on.

Often they have questions, as they know the field and they want to clarify what route you are heading for.

Beside that, just let it flow. He might be telling something, your contact might drive the discussion, or you are ending up just getting known each other without too much talk about his or your research. He might be a star in your field, but never forget he is also human. He might be shy, too.


I want to add something that I think is implicit in the other answers (which are good):

I would not expect a particularly "productive" first meeting. I would definitely not put pressure on yourself to make the meeting "productive" in any concrete sense.

It sounds like the researcher is happy to meet you and get to know a bit about you. That's probably all they are expecting, and it will be easy to meet those expectations -- just be yourself. On the other hand, if you set ambitious goals like starting up a research collaboration or saying something impressively smart, that's more likely to backfire and create unnecessary pressure on yourself.

Sure, it's a good idea to be prepared for some possible topics of conversation. You should know how you're going to describe your history and what you're currently working on. You can be prepared with some questions, even simple ones like "what are you currently interested in?" But I wouldn't expect any concrete result other than you two getting to know each other a little, which is "productive" or useful to both of you in a long term sense.

The other possibility, I guess, is that the researcher has a particular idea or project to pitch to you, but if so, you'll find out -- no particular prep is likely to help.


Imagine their situation. Would you like to get praised the whole time? Perhaps not. Treat them as a human being and not as an important researcher. Have a conversation on eye level. Ask how they are doing, how their travel went etc. If you're unfamiliar with small talk, copy what your colleagues say in such situation.

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