Campus Life the secret lives of researchers

Don’t be afraid to ask

Questions are an important part of research

The Internet is littered with quotes about how it’s the great questions and not the great answers that are important and shape history, science, and the universe as a whole. It’s not as if I had never thought about it; really, I had. I had just assumed this was talking about my research questions, the big important questions I could spend a lot of time crafting. I assumed those were the questions I was being judged on.

Then, last week, a good friend and fellow graduate student here noted mentioned that it’s always the really brilliant scientists who ask great questions in seminars. Flippantly, I told him I had noticed this, but once we got down to talking about how impressive it is that these scientists can watch a talk, absorb it, and then ask questions that propel research forward and really make you think, I realized I had not taken enough notice.

After a brief existential panic in which I convinced myself that I had never asked a good question and never will, I decided to practice and to pay more attention. I want to share what I’ve learned from this.

1) The impressive, big-wig scientists aren’t afraid to ask clarifying questions, even if they seem simple. I noticed that the scientists that I admire will ask during seminars or meetings very specific questions about what is going on to make sure they are following correctly. Trying this same tactic this week taught me two things. First, asking questions when you’re wondering about them helps clarify talks immensely and also saves the brainpower that you would have let fester wondering about that point for the rest of the talk. I realized this is sort of counter to how I approach questions in class, because I know I can go read a textbook or try homework problems later. This has helped me a lot while listening to lab talks and seminars. Second, sometimes those simple clarifying questions can be more interesting than you originally realize. If something seems confusing, it might also be because there is something complicated going on. And what complicated thing isn’t interesting?

2) Practicing asking questions isn’t as scary as it seems. I asked my very first question during our weekly departmental seminar this week. During the talk, one slide struck me as really interesting, so I decided to tuck it in the back of my head to ask about later. After making that decision, I spent about a quarter of my energy analyzing every later slide to make sure it didn’t invalidate or answer my question, but after all that, I still managed to raise my hand and ask it. And what do you know, I got an answer. It was a good answer and it was interesting. It gave me the courage to ask questions about the interesting things I found in another talk later in the week. Nothing catastrophic happened, except that I learned some new things and now have even more research ideas I don’t have time for than I did before.

3) Asking questions leads to interesting conversations. This may seem obvious, but after asking questions, in every case, I ended up having a great conversation later with the scientist who was speaking. I could wax poetic about science being about communication and questions being the gateway, or academia being about seeking knowledge, or I could be cynical about how scientists all want to talk about our work, but I don’t really know why those conversations happened or why they were so good (or if they were just a fluke!). The moral of the story is that as far as I’ve experienced in my short-lived experiment, asking questions produces some great results and I plan to keep trying to ask more questions! Practice makes perfect, right?

1 Comment
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Anonymous almost 5 years ago

I've enjoyed being questioned by the type of scientist described in the article.

Another type of scientist asking questions (that is interesting to observe and nerve rattling when you are the speaker) is the "Important Scientist"; you will see two types:

1) Asks questions preceded by long introductions. You will find that the question is mostly an excuse for them to show off their experience or knowledge.

2) Asks questions designed to embarrass the speaker by pointing out a flaw, omission, or different approach that could have been taken for the project. By proving the speaker wrong or ignorant, they boost their own ego.

After I experienced the latter type of "important scientist" while giving a presentation as a graduate student, a professor that I consider a "brilliant scientist" took me aside and said that he considered the questioner to be an embarrassment to the department. [Thank you Prof. R. - that act of kindness meant a lot to me and helped me get through a difficult time.]