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I am starting my PhD in cosmology in October of this year. I have already met some of the older PhD students and postdocs in the department where I will be studying, and I am going to be attending two summer schools before I start the PhD where I will meet more new people, from other institutions.

It seems a natural conversation opener to ask people what their research is about or what they are working on at the moment, and in response I generally get their 1-2 minute elevator pitch summarising their work.

My question is: what questions are best to ask them to keep the conversation going after they have given this spiel when I am a novice in the field?

I don't want to squander what could lead to a valuable discussion, but at the moment I can do very little except make some banal comment such as "that sounds interesting..." and let the discussion drift away from the nitty-gritty details of the field, because most of the time the things they tell me about are completely new to me (but presumably old hat to them).

I don't feel that I know my own topic well enough yet to explain it properly in return- so what could I say instead?

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    i would be surprised if you understood much of anything. so just listen, go home and google some words you remember. – mystupid_acct Jul 13 '17 at 21:59
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    I'd say "Oh interesting, I wasn't aware that was possible." - honestly, there's nothing wrong with admitting ignorance and it will almost always bring out more details from people passionate about their subject. Just show interest. Do ask questions when you don't understand or follow what is being said. The act of asking questions shows interest and gives the other person an indication that you want them to keep talking. Most people will pick up those cues alone. If needs be, a "Sounds fascinating, how do you deal with X?" will get the ball rolling. – Basic Jul 13 '17 at 23:23
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    Is cosmology such a wide field that asking questions until you have a clue about what they do would be a waste of your time? I don't quite see if you're asking about appearing suitably polite or getting some value out of the conversation. – JollyJoker Jul 14 '17 at 13:11
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    @JollyJoker, yes, I think cosmology is a very wide field. My question essentially boils down to "is it ok to ask a million ignorant questions about someone's work until I understand it or is there a more elegant/ concise/ polite way of approaching things? What response do people generally expect?" – astronat Jul 14 '17 at 14:30
  • @astronaut Feel free to ask any questions you like. These are your new colleagues, so you might also ask about courses, professors, the institution, favorite colors... Just be cognizant and respectful of the other parties time constraints (ie. are they literally walking out the elevator door?, are other students waiting for office hours?) – user45501 Jul 14 '17 at 20:17
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what questions are best to ask them to keep the conversation going after they have given this spiel when I am a novice in the field?

You're overthinking this. Pretend it's a conversation between human beings: do you have a question about what they said? Ask it. Don't you have any question or you find their research topic utterly boring? Change topic of conversation. Exactly as you would do with anyone else.

Summer schools frequently have students with different backgrounds and from different countries; you will be all in the same situation, and for most of you it will be a new place: there will certainly be things around you that can be subject of conversation.

As for your last question:

I don't feel that I know my own topic well enough yet to explain it properly in return- so what could I say instead?

Tell the truth: That you're going to start your PhD on topic X, that you like it for reason Y, but you still don't know much about it because you just started and that you will be super-happy if you can meet someone there working on the same topic.

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    As I suspected: there is no magic answer book containing all the correct ways of communicating with other people... someone should really get around to writing one of those! – astronat Jul 13 '17 at 21:40
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    Pretend it's a conversation between human beings ... Massimo is right; this is one of those rare instances where researchers can (for all intents and purposes) be treated as... humans. – NauticalMile Jul 13 '17 at 21:41
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    @astronat Having guidelines or magic answers for everything makes life boring: enjoy the uncertainty! – Massimo Ortolano Jul 13 '17 at 21:48
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    "Pretend it's a conversation between human beings"... this shouldn't require pretending lol – Mehrdad Jul 13 '17 at 23:21
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    @Mehrdad it seems that the Venn diagram of physicists and humans doesn't always overlap ;) – astronat Jul 14 '17 at 7:22
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The "best" response I ever heard was:

I understand. By the way, what do you think about [my great research topic]?"

Substitute [my great research topic] with you subfield of cosmology.

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