I have searched a lot and I am surprised that this topic hasn't been discussed yet. I am an M.Sc. Student in Computer Science. Our lab is actually a dry lab in which we need to do a lot of reading of heavy maths on a daily basis.

The problem is that some people (mostly senior students such as PhD candidates) sometimes speak loudly to discuss their new papers with lab mates, etc., which is totally a must-do activity but disrupts my mind and obviously some others that are not involved in their discussion.

I have tried many ways such as music, white noise, natural sound, etc., but all of them had drawbacks that forced me to abandon them. I even think of studying in the library sometimes, but I think it is not a good idea because it may make me isolated and also it may cause people to think that I am not working as expected. I also don't like the idea of speaking with the Prof. about this, because: first, the prof himself doesn't pay attention to speak low in the lab and I think this would be strange to him and second, I am so new and it may harm me.

What I want to know is: is this situation actually normal? And if not, how can I cope with that?

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    This was my answer (although they did the best job at cancelling that loud ventilation we had, speech is trickier): worldwide.bose.com/productsupport/en_us/web/qc15/page.html
    – Cape Code
    Commented Aug 12, 2015 at 15:58
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    I always found the hiss from noise-cancelling headphones to be nearly as aggravating as whatever sound I was blocking. Good in-ear phones without noise cancellation for me do an adequate job blocking voices without the hiss. (I use Shure SE-series 'phones).
    – The Photon
    Commented Aug 12, 2015 at 16:56
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    Check out the Workplace for some similar questions, here and here. We have a number of questions about how to handle office noise.
    – David K
    Commented Aug 12, 2015 at 18:10
  • Would it be feasible to put up a big and prominent sign which says "Please be mindful of other people doing work/research. Thank you." If not then the sign should read "Silence is golden; please Shut The Front Up." :-)
    – MonkeyZeus
    Commented Aug 12, 2015 at 20:22
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    @MonkeyZeus That would only be feasible if you want to look like a total asshat. Sorry. Commented Aug 12, 2015 at 21:15

10 Answers 10


Is this situation actually normal?

Yup, pretty normal. It's what is called "office life".

I am almost tempted to vote to close this as a boat programming question, as it is really no different to any other "we-are-in-a-shared-office-but-my-office-mates-annoy-me" situation in any job. Anyway, I think this is common enough in academia that it may make sense to answer here.

Essentially, there are really only three ways to fix this:

  • Change the office layout. Either get smaller offices (very unlikely to be possible), or re-arrange the PhD student seating so that the quiet workers share offices as well as the enthusiastic discussers. Of course, if you have one big lab for all students, this solution is probably a no-starter (not common here in Europe, but I have learned that this is common in the US).
  • Home office. Probably the easiest, most immediate, and most common solution to the problem of the annoying other students is to spend more time working from home or another suitable location, especially if some high-concentration tasks are in the queue. Of course this requires a modicum of trust that PhD students that are not in the lab are actually still working, and not sleeping or using their XBox. Given your concern that you may appear as "not working enough" when you are not in the lab, this may indeed be a problem.
  • Noise cancellation. When we had this problem in our lab, the easiest fix was to buy a set of high-quality noise cancellation headphones from Bose. The ones we bought are massive enough that even just wearing them alone without any music already blocks out a lot of the regular room acoustics, and they are high-quality enough that you can wear them for hours without pain. Students that want to work now wear their noise cancellation gear, which incidentally also is a good "Do not disturb unless important" sign for other people that just want to chat.

I should mention that "talk to the other students and make them stop" isn't really a practical and permanent solution. There are just too many people with too many differing characters for too many hours a day in a typical PhD student office - if somebody is the chatty type, she or he will chat.

Btw., I feel for you. My productivity when I am alone in my office is twice of what it is when we are two persons, which is again twice of what it is when we are three. I was never in an office with more than three persons, but I presume I wouldn't even need to bother coming in. This Dilbert comic strip is representing my feelings regarding the current trend of "open floor plan offices" pretty well.

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    If one wants to go the noise cancellation route without wearing hot, heavy headphones, in-ear monitors are another way to go. Just web search in-ear monitors and you'll find a plethora of products. You do have to plug them into something and pipe in some quiet music or white noise to really block out all the sound, but they work wonders for me in my noisy office. Commented Aug 12, 2015 at 16:32
  • @Todd: Does wearing noise cancellation headphone or earphone do hard to ears/hearting?
    – Tim
    Commented Aug 12, 2015 at 22:56
  • @Tim only if you play loud music through them.
    – Chris H
    Commented Aug 13, 2015 at 9:33
  • @Tim I'd like to add that noise cancellation is not able to cancel human speech because it changes frequencies and amplitude too fast. There is currently no algorithm to cleanly isolate or cancel human speech, and if it was, there is no technology to apply it in realtime. Noise cancellation decreases noise, adds a bit of a low hiss, and may feel as if it adds a little air pressure, but this shouldn't hurt your ears in any way. If you choose ear plugs instead earphones, it may lead to irritation of the ear channel, earwax compaction, or pressure equalisation issues when removed incorrectly.
    – Jano
    Commented Feb 10, 2016 at 8:57
  • @Jano True, although subjectively it does seem to me that constant lab background chatter is filtered to some extend.
    – xLeitix
    Commented Feb 10, 2016 at 11:12

I sympathize with your situation---though at least the problem is only people! At one point when I was a graduate student, there was a building under construction right next to the lab, the noise was continuous for many months. The worst was the weeks when they were setting the foundation with pile-drivers and every few seconds a loud metallic "Ping!" would go right through your bones and make the building vibrate. The only thing to do to get focus was to abandon the building and work elsewhere.

Which is the same thing that I would suggest to you to do in your situation. Find a good quiet place where you can be highly productive (maybe the library, maybe somewhere else---there are usually lots of good hidey-holes around a campus) and use it strategically. If it were one or two people, then you might think of talking with them, but it sounds like the group has an established culture of interaction, and it's appropriate for you to adjust your behavior to work with that culture, rather than asking the whole rest of the group to cater to your needs. It would be different if there were bigger issues involved (e.g., a culture of offensive jokes), but this is just a value-neutral matter of preferred working style.

That then leaves the question of how to maintain connection and visibility. First of all, it's probably important that you spend only a minority of your time away in your quiet place. If you're there all the time, you most certainly will become isolated from your group, and will miss out on all of the benefits of interaction. As a relatively new graduate student, you may think you should spend all of your time reading, but that it very unlikely to be the case.

I think that you should have a conversation with your professor---not to ask for anything to change, but just to say that you intend to spend occasional time away from the lab doing your reading for better focus, and to express the same concern that you have expressed here, with making sure that this does not lead to bad impressions or less connection. Your professor may tell you not to worry, or may have suggestions for you. You can also use active means of communicating your location to lab-mates, e.g., putting a note at your desk to tell people where you are and making sure that you are available electronically (e.g., via IM) if somebody wants to find you. Finally, make sure that you do participate in laboratory informal social culture when you aren't trying to focus, e.g., eating lunch with people, joining some of those research conversations, etc.

In short: figure out what actions you need to do to be productive, then make sure you communicate actively with both your professor and labmates in order to keep those actions from interfering with other aspects of your participation in the lab.


This is actually a pretty common problem for many people. The problem is that it is very difficult and possibly unadvised to try and change the behaviour/culture of the lab you are in, especially if you are the only getting annoyed by the talking. I would recommend that you ask the other people to try and speak a little bit softer, but if this does not work then I would not advise you to bring it up with the lab advisor / the other people much because it will create the impression that you are (a nag/annoying/hard to please).

I would personally use headphones or the like, but you said that there was a problem, so I guess you would know best.

If you are not actively participating in the discussions that are taking place, I would recommend that you go to study in the library instead if that is better for you. If you wish, you can tell your lab advisor that you are having some issues concentrating in the lab due to noise and that you will be available in the library. However, I would still show up to lab as often as before, though maybe not stay there as long before finding a more quiet place to study.


Earplugs are the best solution, you can buy earplugs that will damp the noise levels by 40 dB, the problem you then have is that you may not hear a phone ringing or an alarm go off. But, of course, you can then use earplugs with a lower noise damping level.

  • +1 for earplugs. A pack of foam noise protection earplugs with strings from the hardware store is cheaper than buying foam earplugs from the pharmacy, and they work even better. Commented Aug 13, 2015 at 15:54
  • Where did you find 40 dB earplugs? The highest I've ever found topped out in the mid 30's.
    – rob
    Commented Aug 14, 2015 at 8:09

What you have experienced may be at least related to Misophonia, a rarely diagnosed but common auditory discomfort caused by irritating or distracting sounds. One of the only ways I have found to combat it in an office environment is to wear rubber in-ear headphones, and put some very familiar, repetitive music on.


Often, people aren't aware of how much noise they're making. Have a chat with the people who have the loud conversations and ask them if they could try to be a little quieter when they're talking. Don't interrupt one of their conversations because then it sounds like you're telling them to shut up. Just something short and simple like, "Hey, John. When you and Jane are talking about work, I find it kinda hard to concentrate. Could you try to be a little quieter?"

You'll probably find it gets quieter for a bit but gradually ramps up again.

  • This is a short term solution. It's not manageable to keep doing this if he doesn't hold a higher status than the rest of the room.
    – Mast
    Commented Aug 12, 2015 at 22:02
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    @Mast What does status have to do with it? "Oh, I'll ignore you because you're just a master's student. But if Bob the postdoc told me, I'd sit in silence forever"? Commented Aug 12, 2015 at 22:10
  • You don't have to agree, but I've often encountered students in the end phase of their studies have a higher natural authority in such situations then fresh students.
    – Mast
    Commented Aug 12, 2015 at 22:16
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    @Mast In my experience, people who have shared goals (e.g., getting lots of research done) tend to at least try to co-operate with reasonable requests from other members of the group, regardless of status. Commented Aug 12, 2015 at 22:23
  • There are many definitions of reasonable and many methods of getting lots of research done. One prefers a quiet area, another feels uncomfortable in silence and prefers sound but refuses to wear headphones or starts talking more/louder. The point that it's a short term solution still stands, unless you're in a small group with always the same people (in case they could remember).
    – Mast
    Commented Aug 12, 2015 at 22:30

My solution as a PhD student was to work in the departmental reading room which was conveniently next to the common room. When I wanted to be social, I went next door, when I didn't I got on with work. If people talk in the library you are entitled to remind them where they are and get them to shut up.


The problem with noise-canceling headphones is that they can only produce inverse sound waves for repetitive audio patterns--they don't block human conversation at all.

I tried a half-dozen high-end noise-isolating headphones a few years ago and found them to be uncomfortable and no better (actually worse, in most cases) at isolating noise than inexpensive shooting earmuffs.

After much experimentation, I found that doubling up was the only thing that even remotely worked. Foam earplugs+earmuffs work fairly well, but still aren't perfect. Earplugs+circumaural closed-back headphones, or noise-isolating in-ear headphones+earmuffs work great. You can turn up the headphones or earmuffs sound just barely enough to ear it, and that's usually enough to drown out any sound not attenuated by the double sound isolation.

When I have to use music to quietly out the extra little bit of noise, I always opt for something with no vocals. Classical and instrumental jazz are okay, but video game music works great.


This is very normal situation. I would say that you're on the right track by, where possible, seeking non-confrontational strategies. There are of course advantages in sharing office space and indeed you might soon come across a situation where you'd like to have an open-office discussion about a certain topic or problem. These kinds of discussion have been advantageous to me throughout my time in shared research office spaces and make good use of the intellectual capital sitting within a paper plane's throw of your desk.

I even think of studying in the library sometimes, but I think it is not a good idea because it may make me isolated and also it may cause people to think that I am not working as expected.

Personally I quite regularly make use of the silent study space in the library (through my PhD and now as research staff). I don't feel isolated and I'm free from interruptions there. You ought only to worry about your supervisor's opinion on whether you are working as expected.


Complain again and again to the people in charge and let them know that a better arrangement would be in their own interest. Hundreds of studies have shown that open office spaces decrease productivity, increase sick time, and interestingly also decrease teamwork. Working with someone now bothers everyone else in the room, so is discouraged. People also tend to hide or work frome home.

Of course, this won't change anything alone, but if everyone complains, things might change.

Don't just be an unimportant cog happy to work his ass off for nothing in a laying battery. At least complain. And always remember, you can make twice as much in industry and have better working conditions.

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    So, you mean industry companies don't use open office spaces much?
    – Nobody
    Commented Aug 13, 2015 at 7:19
  • Some do, some don't. I have worked on and off in industrial and academic research, and never have I seen workspaces as miserable and unsafe as in universities. Academia can get away with it because young people are gullible so that they can exploit their idealism. If companies have cubes, typically management sits there as well. Faculty would never do that. If we in the chemical industry had as many accidents as universities, we would be shut down.
    – Livings
    Commented Sep 7, 2015 at 19:30

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