On why graduate students need to ask questions during seminars.

One of my pet peeves as a professor is seeing that it is largely just us professors asking questions after a seminar. It isn’t that the graduate students don’t have questions: it’s just that they are not inclined to ask. Here I’d like to address why I think it is important that grad students speak up for the betterment of their own maturation as an academic and also for the good of science in general.

As a young student at the University of Michigan we were regaled with tales of the “good old days” when the systematics world was being turned on its head by the faculty (e.g., Arnold Kluge, Bill Fink) and especially the graduate students (e.g., Steve Farris). There was an atmosphere of scholarship and clear thinking because of the competitive environment among the young scholars there at the time. I’ve heard from people who gave talks at Michigan in those days about how scary it was to give a seminar there back then. If you had any insecurities the question period would really bring it out. As a graduate student I saw the reputation being upheld and I was proud to be part of it. Students and faculty asked difficult probing questions to get to the heart of an issue or problem. You might be picturing an angry audience full of people frothing at the mouth waiting to ask a “gotcha question” that makes the speaker look like a fool. To the contrary most questions were basically variations on “why did you do it like this, and not this other way?” or “what is the basic thing you are trying to discover?”
The result of a department’s reputation for asking tough questions is usually hearing lots of good talks. People who gave seminars were better prepared to answer questions and explain the fundamentals of their research. The American Museum of Natural History is another place where I also see the audience’s reputation for asking probing questions change the nature of the style of talks being presented. Seminar speakers are more nervous before their talk but those that come prepared generally do well. This environment may not be the best place to present preliminary work and that is certainly a drawback. Can audience members sometimes go too far and ask questions that are sometimes aimed more to embarrass the speaker, unfortunately that too can be the case. (That only serves to make the person asking the question look like a jerk.) However, in my opinion it is more respectful to ask a speaker a difficult but fair question than to ask no question at all. I think it is terribly embarrassing not to be asked a question during a seminar, both for the speaker and the audience. The speaker is thinking, “geez, I guess they didn’t get it or they didn’t care” and the audience might be thinking “damn it, why doesn’t somebody think of something to ask so we don’t look dumb.” It is the kind of palpable awkward silence you usually only get during a bad blind date. In my life as an academic I think I’ve learned more during the question periods of talks than I have during the talks themselves. That is because the questions and answers can bring out the fundamentals of what was being said over the entirety of the talk, and they sometimes reveal what was missing during the prepared speech. A question can give the speaker a chance to say, “what I meant was….”

So why does a graduate student need to ask questions during seminars? For one thing it is practice for public speaking. Even though you may be seated seemingly safely among your peers, everyone is listening to you. You may only say one sentence, but you are being judged on the quality of that sentence. (By the way the adage, “There are no stupid questions” may be true, but there are certainly 'stupidly worded questions.') A good question that reveals something new to the audience and speaker will highlight your intellect or at least knowledge of a subject, just as a badly worded question will leave people wondering what was the last grade of elementary school you completed. Because of the consequences of asking a good or bad question, it is only natural to get nervous before asking one. Everyone asks both good and bad questions in their life but the people who generally ask the best questions have asked the most. I know I’ve gotten a few collaborations out of projects that were born out of a question I asked or heard someone ask at a seminar.

Graduate students also need to ask questions because they need practice thinking on their feet. You don’t generally have much time to think about how you will be articulating your brief question. The quickest thinkers often ask the best questions, and thinking quickly comes with practice. People who ask good questions often give good seminars; they also typically give good answers to questions. These folks can anticipate the kinds of questions they may be asked. In a graduate school qualifying exam you will be asked many rapid-fire questions by faculty members with a lot more experience than you. If you can’t think on your feet, or anticipate what's coming, you will be in big trouble.

So what if you are just too shy to ask a question. That’s okay - lots of people are shy and many of those people are now not as shy because they forced themselves to be a little bit more outgoing. They did so perhaps by asking a short simple question during seminars until they got more comfortable with public speaking. I personally broke my shyness by taking notes during seminars. I write interesting things that I have heard and to try to formulate a good question to ask. I don’t always ask my question but I always try to write at least one. These notes and questions generally help me think about my own research more clearly. It certainly helps me articulate a good question and synthesize what I’ve learned or didn’t understand.

I’ve heard lots of excuses from graduate students about why they don’t ask questions: “I don’t want to show-up the speaker,” “I don’t know enough about the topic,” etc. I never hear “I couldn’t think of anything.” Usually I hear a great deal of talk about the presentation in little conversations away from the speaker. “I wonder why she ran that analysis?,” or “that was great, but I didn’t understand the part about…..”, or “that was awful, doesn’t he know about statistics?” If you think of a question or didn’t understand something a speaker says it is disrespectful not to ask something. Private conversations behind the speaker’s back don’t help anybody. Talking to the speaker privately after a seminar is fine too, although you do lose the practice of public speaking and thinking on your feet.

So grad students, go forth and ask some friggin’ question, for your sake and for the sake of promoting good science.