Going in for the Kill

Nov 09 2011 Published by under academic etiquette

A reader wonders (original e-mail shortened/edited):

I am interested on your take on the etiquette of Q&A sessions during talks: who, if anyone, should ask critical questions? By critical I mean any question with a clear orientation of "I don't buy your results much, if at all, and I'm going to ask about a deficiency in your work to see if you will give in and agree with me."

I've seen undergrads ask these types of questions (direct quote: "I don't understand the overall point of your research") and it be considered a major gaffe, in part because the critique was unsophisticated; I've seen post docs hone in on a methodological weakness and be perceived as too aggressive and outspoken for doing so in a direct manner; and I've seen senior, tenured faculty really go in for the jugular and everyone just thinks they are being mean like always but no one really tries to call them on it or rein them in.

At a talk yesterday, there was a potentially major flaw to the results presented. The speaker did not come across as credible, and at the end of the talk a senior faculty member went right in for the kill.

The thing is, I agreed with him, but as a 2nd year Ph.D. student I don't feel like I could phrase a question so directly. This made me wonder how I COULD phrase it if I wanted to politely but directly inquire. My question is, how would you phrase this type of pointed, critical question and do you think it's appropriate for a graduate student to do so (considering they have more on the line than tenured faculty).

As a spectator at a talk, I enjoy a well-posed killer question, no matter who delivers it, but I think that everyone, from first-year students to ancient professors, can be most effective at asking these questions if the questions are simple and polite. These questions are most satisfying if delivered to a worthy recipient -- that is, someone who enjoys questions, who isn't vulnerable (e.g., an interviewee), and who might be able to provide an interesting response.

It's not so great seeing someone destroyed in an aggressive way by piranhas in the audience.

I want to mention here that I think it is great when students and postdocs ask questions after a talk (or during, if that is the culture of a department), so the question is not whether early-career academic people should ask questions, it's specifically about how to ask killer questions.

Although I don't think I have an inflated view of the awesome brilliance and cosmic knowledge of professors relative to students, I think the person who wrote the letter is right to wonder whether it is somehow different for students than for others to ask these questions.

I admit that I am bothered if a student asks an apparently rude or aggressive question that seems to be based on the assumption that the student has the necessary knowledge to tell someone their work is pointless or flawed. Maybe they do (in which case, I am less bothered), but if they clearly don't, they come off as jerks.

Of course, faculty can be jerks as well, particularly if the faculty member doesn't know much (or anything) about the research they are attacking. I am not so bothered if someone (professor, student, postdoc, anyone) with relevant expertise is a bit aggressive and asks a really good, probing question. The best questions of this sort, though, are politely and simply expressed.

You don't have to bend over backwards to be polite. I also find it annoying when someone has a really long, self-deprecating preface to try to soften the blow of what might be a killer question. You can briefly say "Maybe I missed your explanation of this, but..", but then go for it. Or just ask your question, but focus on the material, not your opinion of it.

I understand that, even though some visitors to departments are told that they will be speaking to a general audience that includes students and people from a variety of sub-fields, some speakers make no effort to provide the necessary information for most people in the audience to understand the talk. It's fine to call them on this, and students should ask what questions they want to ask (politely).

If, however, a student's intent is to be aggressive and tear down someone's work, rather than their presentation style, they should be quite sure that they know what they are talking about.

Is there a polite way for anyone to say "I don't understand the overall point of your research"? Perhaps. First of all, it might be better to phrase it as a question (but not "What is the point of your research?"). What did the student mean by that statement? That they were confused or that they thought the research was pointless? It's not clear.

For example, if the student was trying to say that the speaker did a lousy job of explaining the context of the research and wants to know why the research was done, it's perfectly reasonable to ask "Could you take a step back and explain the overall motivation for this work?" (or ask for specific questions being addressed, or ask if this work has anything to do with [something you think is relevant and more interesting, without saying that]).

If, however, the purpose of the question was to say "I think your research is not worth doing", then, as I said, the asker of that question should be quite sure that they know what they are talking about.

If one of my advisees asked what I thought was a rude question, I would talk to them to see if they knew how their question sounded. Some apparently rude questions are asked without any intention of being rude, and it's just a matter of some friendly, constructive advice to fix the problem.

Does this post have a point? Maybe, maybe not, but I hope others will leave comments and weigh in on the topic.

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