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?