Catechism (A short guide to asking questions in seminars)

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Discussion is the lifeblood of scientific research, but it’s often an unnerving experience to raise your hand and ask a question in a scientific seminar. The following is intended as a short self-help guide to overcome that pesky psychological hurdle…

Common misconceptions:

  • There is no such thing as a dumb question. If you have not understood something clearly, that is not your problem – it is the speaker’s problem. It shows that they have not explained things clearly enough for the audience (calibrating your presentation to your audience is a key skill that not everybody learns). Unfortunately it’s usually only very senior people who have the confidence in their own knowledge base to ask “dumb” questions.
  • Speakers LOVE questions. The worst thing you can have as a speaker is to receive no questions at all after a presentation (it strongly suggests that you have lost your audience). In fact, getting a “dumb” question is the best present a speaker can receive as these are the easiest to answer.
  • Asking questions is never a waste of time. It’s an important mental exercise that assists your own scientific development. Being able to ask a question means paying attention to the presentation, analysing it, and identifying gaps/points of interest…all in real time.

 

Before/early in the talk:

  • Ask yourself what kind of presentation it is. Is it primarily about a technique, a biological process, or an organism?
  • e. are we learning about a new way of doing things, getting a new insight into a pathway or structure, or understanding something new about an organism? This will help determine what is the most penetrating question you can ask. (E.g., if a presentation is primarily about a technique, then asking a question about the organism used will be of only tangential significance)

 

Before asking the question:

  • It’s very easy for presenters (especially inexperienced ones) to get defensive when they’re asked tough questions, or have it pointed out that they’ve overlooked something important.
  • As such, it’s always worth prefacing the question with a disclaimer – preferably something that publicises your own ignorance – to reduce the aggression and make it clear you’re not being personal.
  • This also gives you a get-out clause if you are asking a question on a technique/topic/organism outside your own comfort zone – e.g. if you ask about something that’s already widely known in the field of specialisation.

Some examples are:

  • “I might have missed it, but…” (I.e. I’m pretty sure you left this out and I think it’s relevant, but maybe I did miss it because you were going too fast)
  • “I’m not really familiar with this field, but is it the case…” (I.e. showing a big sign that says “I’m not a specialist”)
  • “This might be a dumb question, but…” (Again, a big disclaimer sign being displayed)

…and finally:

  • “I’m sorry, this is going to be a bit of a harsh question, but…” (If you’re going to go for the jugular, make it clear that you’re going after the science, not the person)

 

Types of question:

The types of questions that can be asked after a scientific presentation generally fall into the following classes.

No. 1: The technical point – Ask for more detail on a protocol (“How did you fix the cells?”) or how particular data was obtained. Useful if a surprising result has been obtained, or if important controls seem to be missing (“How much of the protein was pulled down relative to the input sample?”). Probably of most use for internal presentations and group meetings, but can often be relevant in “proper” seminars.

No. 2: The clarification – Very simple. Asking someone to restate something they’ve said (“I didn’t quite get your point about X – can you run over it again?”). This is the “throw me a bone” question for a speaker who is drowning in silence after a talk. Also useful if you can’t think of anything else to ask. However, can also be really important if a key conclusion in the presentation rests on the interpretation of a single experiment. Never be embarrassed about asking a clarification question, because if you haven’t understood something, you definitely won’t be the only one.

No. 3: The alternative approach – Probably the simplest and commonest type of question, the workhorse of a discussion. Try and think of an alternative technique that would confirm something that’s already been shown (“Have you tried showing the interaction using ITC as well as pulldowns?”). These questions are a great way to practise as they force you to think of other methods. Try if possible to think of an alternative approach that would give at least the same level of resolution as what’s been shown – if someone has measured an interaction by ITC and obtained a Kd, then doing a two-hybrid assay is not going to tell them something they don’t already know.

No. 4: The extrapolation – A fun question, especially if a model has been provided, as it forces you to think creatively about what’s shown. If what they’ve shown is true, then does it follow that… (“Going from your model, am I right in thinking that it would then be the case that…”) If possible, propose a future experiment that would test your idea. Speakers love these kind of questions as they’re basically a free hit; it’s also fun for the questioner if you manage to anticipate where the research is going next.

No 5: The alternative interpretation – Otherwise known as the “What have we actually learned?” question. Can you think of an alternative interpretation of their data that cannot be excluded on the basis of the evidence provided? Very important, as this is the way that real science is done – by debating how sure we can be of our models. This is the best, and the toughest, question that you can ask.

 

Timings:

  • For seminars with external speakers, questions should almost always come at the end of the presentation.
  • For group meetings and internal seminars, it’s more common to interrupt the speaker to ask a question.
  • “Interrupt” questions should always be either technical points or clarifications. These are the only questions that have direct relevance to what is done next. The other questions can come once the presentation is over – asking alternatives/extrapolations early on can cause the presenter to lose their rhythm and won’t affect the content of the presentation.
  • External speakers are invited guests and therefore shouldn’t be treated too roughly. Give them the benefit of the doubt unless they start going heavily into jargon or vagueness. At this point it’s acceptable to interrupt.
  • If you can think of an alternative interpretation question, then leave it until the end. The reason is that if you are right, you may well undermine the entire presentation – and this is a very mean thing to do in the middle of a seminar. Wait until the presenter is finished before you attempt to blow them out of the water.

 

And finally:

  • Never be embarrassed. If you feel awkward and uncomfortable, that’s good – it shows that you are putting yourself outside your comfort zone, which can only be of benefit.
  • A student who asks a question will always increase their own visibility – no bad thing if you bump into the speaker at a conference in the future!

 

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6 thoughts on “Catechism (A short guide to asking questions in seminars)

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