Author’s note: this blog is aimed at junior research scientists, although it can apply to anyone in any type of seminar, class or lecture.
Tense, nervous headache at the end of a seminar? Are you afraid to ask a question? Do you think it may make you look silly? You are not alone. But fear not.
Firstly, speakers want questions; it makes their talk or journey worthwhile and questions help them hone their talk for next time and may even inspire a new research direction. You will also be given ‘stored credit’ by your supervisor/Group leader/Department Head for asking a question; it will shown that you can think and engage – two qualities that will be recognised as essential for a career in research. Kudos in a competitive market will give you the edge.
So, what kind of question can you ask? Well, first let’s build up to that moment. For a visiting speaker, find out a little bit about their work beforehand. Read the talk abstract or their web site blurb. This is how the professionals do it and it’s not rocket science (unless the talk is on rocket science).
Secondly, take notes during the talk. It crystallizes what the speaker has said and it’s a natural way to form questions. Write questions down as you think of them. I usually start a line of notes with a ‘Q’ to make it easier to find at the end of the talk. During the talk, rewrite the question if necessary and rehearse it in your mind and don’t be afraid to read it from your notes. Tweeting instead of note-taking is also a way to formulate questions. If others are tweeting at the same talk, then you can even run a potential question past them.
Still no idea for a question? Once you consider the variety of possible questions below, you will never lack a question again.
The honest question. Maybe the speaker didn’t explain themselves properly (consider yourself a typical audience member). Maybe they forgot something or had their facts mixed up? Ask the question you want to know the answer to.
The knowledgeable question. A variation of the ‘honest question.’ If this is your field, you are starting at an advantage; you will be excited with the topic being presented and questions are much more likely to come to you.
The technical question. Ever been frustrated by not enough information? ‘What did the error bars on that graph signify?”, “What were the units on the X axis?
The staple question. This is the best category as this type of question requires no knowledge of the speaker’s field, and doesn’t matter if you haven’t been paying attention. Typical questions are:
“What are the strengths/limitations of the method you used?“
“Could this technique be applied to the study of….?”
“How do your findings compare with others in the field”
“So far, what kind of reception has your work had in the field/by scientific community in general/by the general public?”
“I’d be glad to know about the evolution of your thinking on this topic. Who do you see as the people/papers that inspired you in the first place?”
“Do you have any unanswered research questions you still want to address?”
“Would your method be suitable for another application/organism”?
The “please explain” question. Did the speaker say that they chose not to go down a particular avenue or did they say that a certain technique/topic was too difficult? If so, ask why. A speaker may say that they don’t have time to cover a particular aspect of their work. In this case, they often have some secretly-prepared slides after the end of the talk that they would be most delighted to share with the audience, thanks to you.
Finally, the elephant in the room: the “silly question”. Well, it may sound clichéd, but there is no such thing as a silly question. If you really think your question is silly, frame it in one of the following ways:
1. “I may have missed something but…?”
2. “This may sound like a naïve question but…?”
3. “Can you please clarify what you mean by…?”
4. “Can you explain a little on what you said about…”?
5. “I am thinking on the run here, but…?”
6. “I am not familiar with this area, but…?”
Some final tips: do be polite to the speaker (“that was a great talk…”); don’t ask a question that simply demonstrates your superior knowledge, don’t confront your speaker, don’t make a statement instead of asking a question (although a comment together with a question is sometimes acceptable).
Armed with this toolkit, there will be no stopping you. Good luck!
• Personal experience
• “How can I ask better questions in seminars?” from MetaFilter
• Ask questions like a pro: questions you can ask at any scientific seminar
• “Guidelines for the Preparation of Scientific Presentations”