PhD tips – How to ask a question after a seminar

PhD tips – How to ask a question after a seminar

“PhD tips” is an ongoing series of blog posts written by postdocs and aimed at graduate students at the University of Oxford (Department of Biology). I wrote this in July 2021.

Hi everyone!

I hope you are all doing well. This week I want to talk about asking questions after scientific seminars. We have probably all been there – someone is done with their presentation, the host is asking for questions, and your mind goes “Should I ask something? But WHAT? I got nothing.”, or “I have this one question … but it’s probably dumb, I’ll just look it up later so that I don’t embarrass myself.”

This is very normal, especially if you’re just starting out in science, but even at later stages it can happen quite regularly, especially when you’re unfamiliar with the speaker’s field of research. On the flip side, asking a (good) question can be a) a great learning experience – you will take away way more from the talk than if you just listened; b) a gift for the speaker – they will remember you fondly, and the audience will too, so it’s a nice way for people in your circle (group/department/field) to get to know you a little better; and c) sometimes a gateway to a collaboration and/or a new friend – if the speaker and you really click and the conversation continues after the presentation.

So, how do you come up with questions, how do you phrase them, and how do you muster up the courage to ask them?

How to come up with questions

  • Consider taking notes during the talk. It might help your brain keep track of things, so you can link e.g. their main question from slide 2 to their results on slide 27. This is particularly relevant for keynotes and other long presentations that switch between projects and topics.
  • Think about stuff during the presentation, to activate your brain:
    • Is this result what I expected or was I surprised (+why)?
    • Does this remind me of anything else (another talk/project/topic)?
    • Can I think of alternative methods/explanations/interpretations?
    • Am I following their logic of reasoning, or is something tripping me up?
    • Write this stuff down. These can be “proto-questions” that turn into a full question by the end of the talk.
  • Potential questions to ask can often be broken down into broad categories, here are a few to get you started, but there are many more!
    • Clarification. This is an easy one. You didn’t get something? Ask the speaker to elaborate, or explain again, or clarify a link between two results.
    • Technical stuff. Ask about their methods, how exactly does this work, what are the pros and cons of this compared to other methods, etc.
    • The Link. Can you think of an area their findings could be relevant for, but they didn’t mention? Does this relate to your own work in some way, can you contribute your own findings? Can their findings be extrapolated to other systems?
    • The Alternative. Can you think of different ways of interpreting a graph they showed, or a different way of measuring something, or a different angle of approaching their main question?
    • The Future. Can you think of something they could try next? Are you wondering where they’re going with this? Can this be applied in some other field?
  • Get inspired by a template. As I said above, a lot of seminar questions follow a rather typical pattern, so I started compiling a list for myself to consult next time I’m struggling to think of a question. It’s worked really well! Here’s a link [LINK] to my current list, I will keep adding to this in the future.
  • Take note when someone asks a question you thought was really interesting. Why did you think it was good? Can you learn from the way they asked the question? Can you try to ask a similar or related question at a different seminar?

How to phrase your question

  • Make sure your question is short and clear. Writing it down can help.
  • Only ask one question at a time, it’s really difficult for speakers to remember >1 question.
  • Might seem obvious, but make sure you ask an actual question that would have a “?” at the end if you wrote it down. Don’t use the infamous “This is more of a comment than a question.”
  • If you want to add a modifier regarding your knowledge before your question (e.g. “I am not familiar with concept X, …), that’s fine and can help the speaker to put your question into context and provide an answer with appropriate levels of detail. But it’s not strictly necessary, even if you ARE familiar with the subject, it’s ok to not know things or to seek clarification.
  • Take into account how senior the speaker is. Consider restricting the really challenging and critical questions to more senior speakers.

How to muster up the courage to ask a question

  • Realize that it’s completely normal to be nervous when asking questions, and even very senior people get nervous, especially at big conferences when the whole auditorium is listening. By practising in smaller seminars or group meetings, you can slowly desensitize your brain to the experience.
  • If you’re thinking “this question is probably dumb, it’s very basic, I should know this”, you’re extremely likely to have simply picked up on something that a) the speaker hasn’t explained well; or b) not everyone in the audience is familiar with. In both cases, a large part of the audience will have the same question, and you can be their hero! Trust me, everyone loves it when someone asks the question that is on everyone’s mind, but no one dares to ask because it “feels” basic. Set an example!
  • Making notes during the talk, or even writing down the whole question and reading it out, can be a great way to get over the first hurdle of “Oh God I don’t know what I want to ask exactly” or “Aaaah I forgot my question!”. I always write down at least a half sentence before asking a question, so that I don’t forget when I’m being called on and the adrenaline hits.

To conclude – conversations about science are integral to being a scientist, and asking a question that sparks a nice discussion feels nothing short of amazing, so it’s worth investing in this skill. I hope you will find some of what I wrote useful, and next time you’re in a seminar maybe try and challenge yourself to ask a question. I am going to finish by saying that, as a 4th year postdoc at the time of writing this, I still very much struggle with asking questions, but I also know that I am doing way better now than I did as a PhD student, and every time I ask a question I get like 1% better at it, so there’s hope for all of us!