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It seems to me that academic settings have a very high degree of social hierarchy and I find it very hard to deal with it while being at the bottom of the ladder. Any tips on how to deal with it?

I attend research meetings where I am the newest student in the subject while the other grad students are all very senior students with years of background. This makes it very hard for me to get my ideas or opinions be heard given implicitly how the time is proportioned between everyone. Like if one of these senior students has something to say which could be very silly or trivial or even wrong. he would get more social space to say it than anything I would want to say. Its very uncomfortable as to how much anything they have to say gets so much attention.

I constantly have to find ways to try to severely compress anything I would want to say so that in a few seconds of window of opportunity I might get, I can get across my point. Its like a constant battle for every sliver of time and space.

How do I get myself heard!?

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    Some academic communities are more receptive to new voices than others. One thing to do is look for the parts of your community that are less status-conscious. – jakebeal Apr 18 '15 at 20:16
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    May I ask which country this is because at least in the US and the Western European countries I'm familiar with, this sounds alien? I've seen questions on this site about countries in other locations where I could see this happen - and as you run into established cultural barriers, I find myself at a loss how to suggest help. If it's in the group of countries I first mentioned, I cannot imagine obvious "errors" bring shared to a nodding audience just based on seniority...so I wonder if maybe there would be some social interaction issues you, too, might want to consider working on. – gnometorule Apr 18 '15 at 21:15
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    It sounds to me as if the research meetings you're asking about are meetings of the students of one professor. If so, does the professor also attend these meetings? If so, I'd suggest that you take your concerns to the professor. If I were the professor supervising several students and if the whole group had meetings, then, as a matter of principle, I'd want everybody to have a fair chance to talk, but, in practice, I might get so involved with the content of the discussion that I don't even notice that the newest student isn't getting a chance to talk. – Andreas Blass Apr 19 '15 at 0:54
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    @guest How, exactly, is discussion in the group mediated or facilitated? Who, precisely, decides how much time people get to speak, and in what order? And who sanctions anyone who speaks out of turn or goes against the established norms? – MrMeritology Apr 19 '15 at 5:30
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    Some more detail about the context of these meetings would be helpful. What is the purpose of this meetings? To discuss a project or projects? If so, are these joint projects that you are involved in? What are they a meeting of, exactly? The department, a particular research group? – Faheem Mitha Apr 19 '15 at 6:04
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I think the previous answers make some assumptions that I am uncomfortable with: they describe how academia should work, but not always how it does work, especially for people who are from disadvantaged groups.

For a basically healthy academic community, I think the advice in the other answers is pretty good about essentially how not to block oneself.

A lot of academic communities are so not healthy, however, and often in ways that are not readily visible to their privileged members. For example, I have female colleagues who have frequently had the experience of having their ideas denigrated and dismissed for apparently rational reasons, then hearing the exact same idea readily accepted when spoken by a man. Or there may be a power-clique and anybody who isn't "blessed" by the clique may have a much harder time being heard.

Some academic communities are also simply downright toxic and not good for anybody. I have seen groups where any sign of weakness meant students and postdocs would start verbally attacking one another, trying to gain favor in the eyes of their professor.

I think the first thing to do, then, is to try to get some perspective on what type of academic situation this really is. Find some more experienced friends or a faculty mentor outside of the group that you can trust and who is generally "good at people", and talk to them about your experiences---not your feelings, but the actual words that people are using. That person can then help you figure out whether the problem is in the group or in yourself, and what the best path to take is, whether it is changing your attitude, improving your standing, or simply finding a different group.

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I partially agree with blankip's answer that you must improve your attitude towards the group and the ideas expressed there. It is very important to stop seeing people within your group as competitors and instead accept them as colleagues and partially mentors (at least initially). So, ask for advice when needed (outside those meetings) and listen carefully (by temporarily shutting down your ego) to listen to their suggestions and ideas, even if you think their ideas are silly. Being a researcher is about being open minded to different ideas and alternatives and you must only disregard those ideas when you have 100% solid proof that they cannot work. Otherwise, your opinion about how silly they sound has absolutely no weight.

On the other hand, you should not be intimidated by the same group either. Although you will always learn more from listening than talking, do not be afraid to say your opinion when you have valid reasons to believe your idea will work. Even if you are shot down in flames, you will have learnt why your idea was not good and that could save you months of work. In this context, the bruising of your ego will be helpful towards your research. Moreover, in academia you must learn to grow a thick skin for rejection, otherwise you will not make it. One harsh comment on a lab meeting is nothing compared to the rejection of your first paper in which you have invested many months of work.

You must also should not care about these imaginary social hierarchies. Those senior graduate students are also in the same bottom as you in your fictitious hierarchy structure. Many of them may probably have many years doing a PHD without their PHD being any closer. At least you are at the beginning and that means that the sky is still your limit. For many of them, even if they are getting close to their PHD, their limits have been already set for them.

Also understand that in Academia having a big ego is part of the game. We all partially believe (one way or another) that our contribution will advance the human state-of-the-art and promote the boundaries of human knowledge. You must really believe in yourself to actually embrace such a concept and insisting on doing research despite of the inevitable rejections. In this sense, in Academia you will meet many people who are full of themselves. This is partially normal and expected. You do not have to be like them. But you must also not allow yourself to be intimidated by them either. After all, we are all judged by the magnitude of our research and not by our magnitude of our egos.

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Like if one of these senior students has something to say which could be very silly or trivial or even wrong. he would get more social space to say it than anything I would want to say.

Have you ever thought thought that this is a group that has met for a while so they like to have a little levity to the meetings? It is likely that most people on the team understand that the person saying the silly or trivial thing is just trying to have a little fun at the mundane meeting.

Its very uncomfortable as to how much anything they have to say gets so much attention.

You need to have a better attitude about your group. You just joined and you are already making judgments about how others should act. It is likely that this group has a dynamic that they like to have a little fun. Even if you are 100% correct and the group just has dumb ideas... Well first maybe the group appreciates hearing ideas without being shot down. And then secondly maybe they aren't that dumb and the ideas come with a bit of history of the project/research. There are a lot of things I could say in a bubble that I wouldn't agree with myself but might be perfectly fine given X, Y, and Z.

I have to like constantly find ways to try to severely compress anything I would want to say so that in a few seconds of window of opportunity I might get, I can get across my point. Its like a constant battle for every sliver of time and space.

If you are handling it this way, chances are you are just making it worse. If you are just providing slivers of ideas then there is a chance that the group thinks that you are scatter-brained or can't form an idea. This could actually make others want to cut you off even more.

How do you overcome all of this?

  • make sure you don't have body language that senior members ideas or conversation is "dumb". If they feel this they will want to tune you out.

  • when you do talk have well formed ideas and continue talking until they are understood.

  • have more communication with the team outside of these meetings. To gain acceptance faster you need to share your ideas/wants outside of the meetings. If there are a few people you are closer with, talk with them first and run things by them. If you bring something up via email that is a good idea there is a good chance someone will give you a good amount of time to explain it further. Note that this might not be the amount of time you wanted, but will be more. There is also a good chance that a senior team member will take over your idea, but this is how groups work.

Your status with this group needs to be earned, that is apparent. Incrementally showing your worth and also showing appreciation of others is key.

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    But given how severely time constrained the profs. seem to be, its a huge competition to get to hold their attention for a minute or more - unless I have something really good to say immediately then the prof will just tune out! Thats where it gets competitive to get the profs' time and attention. (emails are worse because they are even easier to ignore!) – guest Apr 19 '15 at 21:58
  • @guest - It is about quality. Make sure when you say something it is good. Don't get offended if people "tune you out". At the same time, don't mind repeating yourself if you think you have a good idea that was tuned out. One of two things will happen eventually. Your group will appreciate your idea or they will eventually tell you why it doesn't work. – blankip Apr 19 '15 at 22:14
  • Also email isn't good if you are sending one email to one professor about something and this professor is usually busy. Either send the email to people in the group that will respond or send it to the entire group. Even if they don't respond, if you have a good idea and they read the email, then they might be looking to give you more time. – blankip Apr 19 '15 at 22:16
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Here are some ideas:

  1. Bring along an ally who has some interest in the material.

  2. I was going to say, follow up after a group meeting, with an email to all the members of the group, but I just discovered you tried that but they ignored the email.

  3. Ideally the group should function with a talking stick.

  4. Visit some other groups to see if it's just your group, or if it's the general climate at the institution.

  5. When you get a turn to talk, if possible give them a little outline of what you're going to talk about. For example: "I have two comments. First, ... (develop this one as extensively as you like)... My second comment is (this one should be the shorter one -- in fact it can be extremely short -- it was simply designed to buy yourself some uninterrupted time)." If you get interrupted anyway, do assert yourself.

  6. Jot down key words and phrases of the things you'd like to talk about, 5 minutes ahead of time. It can be nerve-racking to try to speak when you keep getting interrupted.

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