15

The project I work on has numerous members -- several graduate students, a couple of postdocs, and my advisor. We meet every other week to discuss progress and update one another on our status. Almost to a point these meetings run over, as we continuously find ourselves in tangential discussions.

One effect that I've noticed from these tangents is that certain individuals in the group tend to get interrupted more than others. Specifically, there's a single female postdoc (hereafter referred to as postdoc A) in the group, and it seems to me that she gets interrupted more often than anyone else.

There are multiple guilty parties here -- my advisor, the other postdoc (who is male and is hereafter referred to as postdoc B), even my labmates and I (the other graduate students). We (my labmates and I) have noticed this and are making a strong effort to no longer interrupt postdoc A while she is speaking. My advisor and postdoc B seem to be oblivious to this, and often times will discuss potential ideas and pitfalls about postdoc A's research during her own presentation.

I'm guessing there may be multiple factors at play -- issues of gender, societal norms (postdocs A and B and my advisor are all from different countries outside the US, while my labmates and I are all from the US), power dynamics, etc. And I also realize that I'm a bit biased here -- I work most closely with postdoc A, so I have a sense of loyalty toward her especially. But it's gotten out of hand in my opinion, and I'm not sure as a student how to best assist her.

This post has some suggestions for students and advisors on how to conduct effective group meetings, but it doesn't directly address this issue. I'd appreciate any advice the Academia S.E. community has on how I, as a student, can best support this postdoc during group meetings.

  • 10
    Does she dislike being interrupted in group meetings? Some people don't. (Personally, when I am the presenter in group meetings, I want others to discuss ideas and issues having to do with my research - that's why I give internal group presentations in the first place. Often the most productive meetings are the ones where I never get to finish my presentation because of all the discussion.) – ff524 Oct 14 '16 at 19:01
  • 3
    @ff524 I should have mentioned - I have talked to her about it, and while she doesn't mind questions, she does mind the long tangents where she gets interrupted even when she tries to speak. – tonysdg Oct 14 '16 at 20:49
  • 2
    None of the answers so far, including my own, address the issue of professors with wandering minds. I'm not sure that can be prevented. – Anonymous Physicist Oct 15 '16 at 6:07
  • 1
    This happens in all kinds of contexts and I would leave gender issues out. I have seen females trampling all over the rest of the group (males and females). I suggest the helpful advice of @JeffL, and stay mostly neutral. Keep in mind, though, that some people may be a bit vagrating and that can also tire out listeners. I'm not saying this is the case here, it may help to make a point of staying focused and compact when presenting which can limit disgression (depending on which level of discussion is desired). – Captain Emacs Oct 15 '16 at 9:02
18

This sort of thing has roots way beyond academia. There is a lot about the dynamics of women having difficulty being spoken over in meetings (though I imagine it could apply without respect to gender too, based on differing levels of assertiveness). Maybe a few things to try:

  1. When someone, even your advisor, talks over her, say "Wait, what were you about to say?" addressed to her, so it's not directly confrontational toward the interrupter. This is as opposed to something like "Wait, let postdoc A finish" addressed to the interrupter, which is more confrontational. That is, assuming you want to avoid a confrontation with your advisor.

  2. Mention it casually to her after a meeting. She might appreciate and/or be emboldened by the support. Something like "What was it you were going to finish saying before soandso took over?" This way you show you're both interested in what she had to say and also noticed that she was talked over in the meeting.

  3. Wait until the interrupter finishes, then bring the focus of the meeting back to postdoc A. "Sorry, what were you about to say earlier?" or "Hey, postdoc A, what was it you were saying about X a minute ago?" This is probably the safest thing to try, and if you do it enough the others might even get the point!

4

Great answer from Jeff L. Related to idea #1, it can help to look at postdoc A.

If Postdoc A is comfortable doing this, she can try some interruption deflection techniques. Here's an example. Suppose she got interrupted while she was trying to say, "What we found most interesting about these results --". The trick is to repeat just the beginning part several times in a row until the others stop talking: "What we found most -- what we found most -- what we found most interesting about these results was etc." You don't have to raise your volume a lot for this to work, but it does help to use a slightly higher pitch than normal, remain very calm, and kind of extend that last word "most" a little extra.

A person who interrupts is successful with his interruption if someone else responds to what he says. What I'm getting from your question is that Dr. Prof and Postdoc B provide these responses to each other. That could be hard for a bystander like you to interfere with.

I wonder, since you work closely with Postdoc A, if you and she could make some co-presentations. It would take careful preparation, agreeing ahead of time on your content and your outline, and who's going to present what.

I have no way of knowing if things have reached the point where you'd like to ask the university for help, but if they have, it might be worth talking to your Title IX coordinator about what's going on.

2

I do not know about the culture of your research environment, but in my experience, the purpose of group meetings is discussion. Presentations get interrupted frequently, and the advantages and disadvantages of particular research are discussed bluntly and openly within the group. If A is interrupted and B is not, then that may mean B is boring.

It may be that some members of your group are interrupting inappropriately, possibly for sexist reasons. But don't assume interruptions are necessarily bad.

  • 3
    I don't disagree, but I've discussed it with this postdoc and she's said she's upset and a bit hurt by how frequently it happens. And by the fact that even during her own presentation, she's interrupted while trying to answer questions about her own research. – tonysdg Oct 15 '16 at 7:07
  • If presenter A can finish his speech and the discussion starts after it and presenter B is discussed within their speech, it is neitherr polite neither advantageous to anyone (except for interrupters ego). Another question is whether the interruption keeps the topic the interuptee was talking about or the topic is changed to something completely different. Or does the discussion include interruptee or it is discussion within the audience only? – Crowley Oct 15 '16 at 11:07
  • @Crowley: The discussion becomes audience only (generally between my adviser and the interruptee) because unfortunately postdoc A (the presenter) can't get a word in edgewise. I'm encouraging her to be more assertive about it (and sharing the advice I get here with her), but it's obviously easier said than done. (I'm loud and assertive by nature lol, so it comes fairly easy to me -- something I try to always keep in mind.) – tonysdg Oct 15 '16 at 17:24
  • @tonysdg Would there be problem if the interuptee would continue with the speech regardless the (closed) discussion? Maybe continue in discussion with you. – Crowley Oct 15 '16 at 17:31
  • @Crowley: The particular example I'm thinking of from this past week was supposed to be a group meeting, where we were all sharing our work. The problem is that it started as a question that the adviser asked postdoc A, but postdoc B started answering, and then the adviser began discussing with postdoc B. (I don't mean to paint my adviser or postdoc B in a negative light, I'm just thoroughly frustrated with the behavior.) – tonysdg Oct 15 '16 at 17:33

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

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