Speaking Up in Seminars and Journal Clubs

Apr 10 2008 Published by under Careerism

I ran across a very interesting post and related discussion at A Lady Scientist, a nice blog written by a graduate student in biochemistry. The issue under discussion is whether there should be a principle of "solidarity" among trainees--grad students and post-docs--in public venues such as seminars and journal clubs, pursuant to which trainees do not challenge one another publicly, so as not to show each other up, or embarrass one another. The answer is a resounding, "Fuck no!"


Here's some of what A Lady Scientist had to say about this in relation to journal clubs:

Students don't tend to ask questions at these Journal Clubs. In fact, I think that the prevailing sentiment is that we're supposed to go easy on the students, because if we were up there wouldn't we want the same consideration? So, easy questions (eg. Can you define that negative control?) are ok, but the hard ones (eg. Those controls are very off. Can you still interpret the data?) are not. In other words, we, as grad students, should show some solidarity and help each other out in not looking stupid in front of the department. So, I feel like I've doubly hurt someone because not only did I ask a bothersome question, but it came from an unexpected source.

One of her commenters then elaborated this point beyond the context of journal club, and to a presentation of one's own data:

What I really think is breeching the graduate student code is asking them that kind of question about their own work in front of everyone else (a side conversation afterwards is considered more appropriate).

This kind of attitude is completely insane. The entire essence of science--what defines it as a profession--is that scientists ask all questions that present themselves, either of themselves or of others.
I gave a research seminar at another institution this week during which the audience absolutely hammered me with really good perceptive critical questions. I fucking loved it. It meant they were interested and engaged. What could be more boring than standing in front of a room blathering on in the face of polite indifference?
When you fail to ask a question, or raise a criticism, based on some misguided sense of "loyalty" or "solidarity", you are actively harming the scientist you think you are protecting. Because someone somewhere will eventually ask the question--a paper reviewer, a grant reviewer, a thesis committee member, a job search committee member, a job seminar audience member--and the sooner the issue gets raised, the sooner the scientist can address it.
Dr. Jekyll & Mrs. Hyde recently published a couple of awesome posts making this same point. Here are a few highlights:

Frankly, that's the most fun part of the seminar, for me, regardless of who asked the killer question. I know it sounds heartless, but the fact is that this back-and-forth is what makes science stronger, by letting everyone voice competing ideas in the marketplace (read: stuffy seminar room). It can clearly be unpleasant for the speaker. However, it's for the good of the science, assuming that everyone asks questions based on scientific evidence, rather than on personal vendettas.

For Chrissakes, ask questions in seminar, at least occasionally. I hate it when I talk to a friend post-seminar and she has a totally brilliant question that she left unasked, because she didn't want to pipe up. That's not just your loss--it's to the detriment of the whole audience, which loses your thoughtful perspective. Ask!!

Now there are limits to this kind of thing, and certain questioner behavior can simply be assholishness. Acmegirl recounted the following situation in which she had to deal with a persistent annoying fuckwit. Here's just a taste, but there's a lot more detail about the annoying persistent fuckwittery in her post:

All that was annoying, but not that unusual. People rush into discussions all the time, and often people misunderstand things when they are not as familiar with a field as they may think (you don't know what you don't know, and all that). But I nearly lost my composure in its entirety when this arrogant little prick told me that I should "really consider reading the literature to find out what other people were doing in the field". I took a deep breath, and, as calmly as possible, said that actually, I had done so. He asked me what I had read. I began to tell him about the theoretical work, both old and new, and that's as far as I got, because he cut me off, saying, "I don't think that new theory is worth reading at all." I quickly shot him down, by telling him what the work was focused on and how it was relevant to my work. He recanted, as if I had twisted his arm. I then mentioned that, since every system would likely display different behavior, there was no benefit to comparing measurements done on different systems. He kind of brushed that off. I mentioned a way that I plan to perturb my system to discover the function of one part, and he first made an ignorant comment that made clear that he did not know about the system at all, and how much research has been done on determining the role of that part, then told me that he didn't think that it would be interesting to study it in that way because it was not "natural". At this point, I'm starting to wonder if this guy has ever done an experiment in his life. I explain why it's necessary to perturb a system, sometimes drastically to figure out the function of all the parts. I also began to cross my arms and stare off into space whenever he spoke. Again, he grudgingly admitted that I may be right, but he just wouldn't leave.

Here's some advice about how to deal with this kind of socially inept persistent fuckwit questioner at any kind of presentation: poster or talk. The way to get rid of fucknozzles like this dude--either at a talk, poster, or group meeting--once a subtle approach is clearly not working is to simply say, "Ah, I see you are either unfamiliar with or misunderstanding some important background here. I'd be happy to help you with it if you contact me later, but this is not the appropriate context."
If he persists, you just keep repeating, "I'm sorry, but this is not an appropriate context for me to help you with that. Please feel free to contact me later."
By making use of your power as the presenter and characterizing it as you "helping" him with his "unfamiliarity" or "misunderstanding", you maintain the upper hand. And once the moment has passed, witnesses will almost certainly not remember the actual scientific content and who was correct; all they'll remember is that some douchehound was unfamiliar with or misunderstanding some important shit.

51 responses so far

  • Becca says:

    PhysioProf you do students a severe disservice in posting this kind of nonsense. You are absolutely correct that questions are critical to scientific advancement. And you are absolutely correct that many in the scientific culture love the back-and-forths of a good analytical debate... as long as it does not consist of your trainee arguing with you, in front of other PIs.
    Look, if possible, I love debate even more than I love science. But scientific presentations are *not* a conducive environment for real discussion and debate... there's too much status-hunting and image-consciousness. It is great to pretend that it's all about the ideas and making them better. But it is really every bit as much about one-ups-manship, ego, currying favor, and all manner of human political bagage.
    I understand your endorsement of good discussions, but I think that vocal profs like you make a strong impression on students in the early phases of their careers, who get the (erronous) impression it is always a good idea to point out a flaw in someone's science. It is often a very bad idea, particularly in a public venue.

  • PhysioProf says:

    I understand your endorsement of good discussions, but I think that vocal profs like you make a strong impression on students in the early phases of their careers, who get the (erronous) impression it is always a good idea to point out a flaw in someone's science. It is often a very bad idea, particularly in a public venue.

    If you are correct, and can back yourself up with convincing argument, then it is always a good idea to point out flaws in other people's science, especially for grad students.

  • PalMD says:

    Wow. A much different world than medicine----when I was a trainee our meetings tended to be merciless.

  • whimple says:

    I'm totally with PP on this one. If the entire point of science isn't to get at the underlying physical truths, then what is the point? The "grad student solidarity" concept seems like a stunning paradigm of group anti-education. I'm really appalled to think that could be happening. Look at it this way: would you rather the issues be pointed out by friends early in the game, or when the paper is sent for review, the dissertation is being defended, or the grant is being scored? Catching any potential problems early is a HUGE bonus to you. You just can't buy this kind of valuable perspective.
    I agree also with the seminar advice. I recently had just such a "persistent fuckwit questioner" at a talk I gave. You have to be polite (even though I fantasized after the fact about telling him to get stuffed). If you're at a scientific meeting, another polite brush-off is to say something along the lines of, "that's actually a more complex issue than it might appear. I think we'll need to work it out together at the pub over beers tonight. Anyone else have any questions?"

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    There are a fair number of bright, capable people who do not do science in the sense of presenting their work in public, particularly in print. They do not do so because they do not wish to face criticism. I think the earlier these people discover that doing work and presenting it to the scientific community for criticism is the essence of science, the better. They could thus decide to do something else rather than continuing on to become unsuccessful scientists.

  • acmegirl says:

    Becca said, "there's too much status-hunting and image-consciousness. It is great to pretend that it's all about the ideas and making them better. But it is really every bit as much about one-ups-manship, ego, currying favor, and all manner of human political bagage."
    So who are you actually helping when you don't play those games? People remember someone who asked really good questions in seminars. Nobody remembers the people who sit there and say nothing. I'm gonna have to agree with PhysioProf on this one (thanks for the link love, PP). Besides, wouldn't seminars be boring as hell if rivalries and politics didn't occasionally get put on display? But though it's entertaining, sometimes it's informative. Gives us lowly students a lay of the land, so to speak.
    I'm also gonna have to agree that not all questions are good quetions. But the "toughness" of the question is not what determines its quality. Some questions are good ones because they help clarify a point for other listeners. For example, one of my favorite professors used to deliberately gloss over some deatil and wait until a student asked a question about it. I used to feel a great deal of pride if I asked the question that made him say, "I'm glad you asked that..." Other questions are good because they demonstrate where an argument is a little bit shaky. Maybe more data is needed, or maybe the interpretation is a bit off. This definitely moves the science forward, and moving forward is sometimes painful. But putting off the realization that you may not have everything just right does not benefit anyone.

  • acmegirl says:

    Okay, I just looked at the post at "A Lady Scientist" and realized she's talking about JOURNAL CLUB. Where you are not even presenting your own data. Really, people. If you can't handle a tough question in a situation where you can absolutely say, "Yeah, I thought that was half-assed, too." you need to just give it up.
    Instead of calling the people who ask questions jerks, maybe students need to learn to let go of the need to always be right. If there is one thing I've learned so far in grad school, it's that you cannot always be right. Not even half of the time. Damn, if you turn out to be right once in a while, have a party.

  • Becca says:

    acmegirl- my point is that *professors* should be aware of how the academic (real?) world works when they advise students to ask questions. Asking questions is great. But it is actually possible to enter grad school so 'naive' as to believe people ask questions because of 1) an instatible curiosity or 2) a desire to clarify a point or 3) to improve the science. People do (and should!) ask questions for all those reasons.
    People also ask questions to 4) show off how much they know (marginally annoying, but not typically offensive) and 5)to try to put the other person down (less valid). If you are a student asking a professor questions, and they get the idea you are doing 4) or 5)... it doesn't matter if you were really intending 1-3. It doesn't matter how *right* you are. It doesn't matter how much science would be improved. It matters that you have threatened the wrong ego. It sucks, but we should be upfront. Besides, what else can you expect with a system where all the power is in the hands of a (relatively) few old farts who don't themselves do benchwork anymore? Science-is-a-sacred-pursuit-of-knowledge is beautiful- but not a *sufficient* presentation of the situation.

  • acmegirl, thanks for catching that Amanda's post was about journal club discussions - indeed, this mindset is batshit crazy. If you can't be critical at journal club, you're in a whole heap of trouble. I cannot believe there aren't postdocs or professors there that would be setting the students straight.
    Regarding the larger question, better to be shredded on your home turf than elsewhere, perhaps in a postdoc/job interview, or before you invest too much time in an unsustainable project or flawed hypothesis. Asking questions of others also serves you in helping develop your critical thinking skills.
    There will be nowhere else in your career where you'll be able to hide from criticism so get used to it early or try something else.
    As far as PalMD's comment, I often think that grad students could benefit from rounding with med students and residents every once in awhile in their respective discipline. Learning to defend one's ideas is essential to becoming a professional of any sort, and not just in science and medicine.

  • BugDoc says:

    There may be the occasional questioner out there trying to make out like a smartass at journal club. However, most journal clubs I've participated in had a collegial and comfortable environment. I personally think that faculty members can set a good tone here by asking a lot of questions and encouraging discussion in journal club, including "clarification" type questions, so that students don't feel like their questions have to be brilliant to be articulated.
    I agree with previous posts that cultivating a thick skin is an important part of being successful in science. Even if someone appears to be asking a question or comments in an aggressive manner, it's important to train yourself not to feel defensive about it. When you respond, defend the science, not yourself.

  • acmegirl says:

    Becca,
    I find it hard to believe that a professor would incorrectly read a student's question as a put-down when it was not. And the annoying know-it-all just ends up with a dirty nose. Remember that those old farts have had quite a few years to build confidence, a thick skin, and come to understand their place in the world. Not many need feel unecessarily threatened by one of us young whippersnappers; their egos are not quite as fragile as you seem to think. I've been challenging my teachers since 5th grade, and I've never been blacklisted. What's your story?
    Why do you take such offense at the suggestion that asking questions is good? Why do you feel that it is somehow irresponsible to advise students to ask questions of professors? What does anyone gain by having students play dumb to avoid hurting anyone's feelings?

  • BugDoc says:

    Can someone define "old farts"? Is being an old fart purely determined by age (and what is the magic number), or does it also include being a crotchety douchebag (as PP would put it..)? Inquiring minds want to know. All responses will be welcomed purely in the instructive spirit in which they are offered.

  • csrster says:

    When I was a student (at a fairly elite institution) I became aware of a couple of conventions in our "informal lunchtime seminar" series
    i) Senior researchers scored points off each other by being tough on each others' students
    ii) If a student was really weak, struggling, confused etc. it was considered bad manners to attack them.
    The corollary of (ii) was that if you were being given a hard time it was a sign of respect.
    My best ever _response_ to a question (by a pretty senior lecturer) in that setting was "I answered that about six slides back, but I noticed you were asleep at the time". I think I'd had a few glasses of cider myself by that point 🙂
    [Incidentally I was at a literary conference a couple of years ago and remember becoming quite uncomfortable at the harsh treatment an obviously very weak student was being given over her rather poor paper. Since it was obvious to everyone in the room what a mess she was making I couldn't understand what purpose was being served by attacking her so aggressively. I don't think the same thing would happen at a science conference, at least not in my old field.]

  • PhysioProf says:

    Why someone asks a question doesn't mean jack shit. All that matters is whether the question makes sense or not.
    And yes, reasonable people stop asking questions once it becomes apparent that the presenter is hapless. This is not so much to be "nice" as it is to get the damn presentation to end as quickly as possible and get the fuck out of there.
    Funny story about an internal presentation that I once attended. Now personally, I am much more interested in hearing details about what a scientist did than what they think about what they did.
    So this post-doc is giving a presentation about his project, and it involves use of a somwehat complicated technique that many, but not all, people in the audience understood. I was one of the people who did not have the most complete understanding of the technique.
    So his talk starts: "I used this technqiue and these are the genes that 'popped out'. And here is my totally made up story about how all these genes that popped out are REALLy SUPER INTERESTING because many of the them fit together into a SUPER DUPER BIOLOGICAL PATHWAY that is SUPER DUPER INTERESTING and KOOL."
    So I say, "For the benefit of those of use who are not totally familiar with this technique, would you mind taking a step back and explaining to us, you know, like what fucking experiments you actually performed?" And this dude says, and I shit you not, "I don't want to spend time on that, because I really want to focus on the BIOLOGY."
    Can you believe that shit? Dude doesn't want to explain what fucking experiments he did, and wants us to just sit there and listen while he spins a fucking tale of SUPER DUPER BIOLOGICAL PATHWAYS he pulled out of his fucking ass, thinking that the former is just some kind of ticky-tacky detail for loozers, while the latter is "biology". What a fucking maroon!

  • Just as you guys supported writedit's call for suggestions on how not to get funded, perhaps you need to start a thread on "how not to progress in your training."

  • bsci says:

    One generally want to be polite when framing tough questions when someone is speaking about their own research, but definitely ask the question! As for journal clubs, if an article is anything less than criticized and ripped apart within and inch of its life, a journal club meeting was a failure. What the point of reading articles if you don't identify all the problems and how they relate to the need for future studies?
    As for becca's list of 5 reasons for talking (comment #8), most I've seen do fit in 1-3. I've rarely seen 4 and I'm not sure I've ever seen 5. For most journal clubs I've attended the main reason people don't speak is that they didn't read the article in advance.
    People seem to be talking about different worlds in this thread. I'm thinking that the problem here is more an issue of advisor and department than students. Perhaps the Physioprof lab and other labs here really encourage hard questioning (of personal and other's research) and the person being grilled is treated well for being willing to get pressured to test knowledge and understanding of a topic. If holes are found in ones own research, the advisor considers that a good thing and helps the student figure out how to improve research. Perhaps the labs Becca has been in treat these meetings more adversarially where the benefits of being ripped apart are less clear.

  • tom says:

    I did my PhD in a lab where rigorous questioning was standard, from post-docs, other grad students, even the PI. I do the same for the lab meetings at my post-doc. I have had to tone it down just a little, just because the lab I am in now is much more passive. Very frustrating, but so it goes.
    To me it comes down to this: every work has weaknesses, the sooner that somebody points this out, the sooner you can design experiments to address this weakness. In the very least you can at least mention said weaknesses to defuse potential questions.
    And there are always ways to ask tough questions in a polite fashion. In fact, when I am at a conference or some other non-home base setting, I often find myself asking questions a bit more politely than usual, but I still ask them.

  • Chris says:

    I'm in agreement with Becca on this. At least in my field of research, and at the institutions I have worked at, almost all questions asked in research seminars are primarily being asked to make the questioner appear smarter/more important than the presenter.
    tom rightly says: "there are always ways to ask tough questions in a polite fashion". I'd say that most scientists really need some practice at this.
    And I think this applies to journal club presentations too.
    Being asked tough questions is good. Being respectful about it would be even better.

  • Randy says:

    Physioprof says

    So I say, "For the benefit of those of use who are not totally familiar with this technique, would you mind taking a step back and explaining to us, you know, like what fucking experiments you actually performed?" And this dude says, and I shit you not, "I don't want to spend time on that, because I really want to focus on the BIOLOGY."

    I hate when idiots do that, unfortunately it has gotten so common at meetings I attend, only usually not by the postdocs or grad students, but the old guard who just want to present a bad "here's what I did on my summer vacation" slide show of data, no context, no BIOLOGY. My undergraduates give better presentations.
    (I have seen postdocs do this as well, I think in their case it is more of "hire me, look how much data I can generate).

  • CC says:

    And yes, reasonable people stop asking questions once it becomes apparent that the presenter is hapless. This is not so much to be "nice" as it is to get the damn presentation to end as quickly as possible and get the fuck out of there.
    I'm completely with csrster. There's no reason to be teeing off on a first-year grad student, on a non-native English speaker struggling through a conference talk, on anyone who has temporarily lost it due to stage fright, jet lag or whatever.
    This OMG TEH SCIENCE!!! stuff is just a smokescreen. Even if your question about possible artifacts from the magnesium concentration were so important to science that crushing someone's confidence is a worthwhile price, what useful answer are you going to get from some terrified Korean postdoc trying to remember how you say "chelate" in English?
    Journal clubs are a whole other matter, and that's precisely where you develop the composure to handle some loser trying to score points at your expense at a conference. Intra-departmental talks fall somewhere in between.

  • fortuyn says:

    Becca said: "vocal profs like you make a strong impression on students in the early phases of their careers"
    Yes! This is precisely why we desperately need GOOD role models of how to discuss, debate, and argue without shaming or making enemies!
    If PhysioProf asks his questions--even in attack mode--students can learn the essential skill of critical thinking on the fly. If PhysioProf asks his questions *thoughtfully*, and handles discussion well, then he's demonstrating critical thinking AND a whole host of other skills that we all need to learn as scientists and adults.
    Just because debate doesn't always go well doesn't mean don't debate. It means work on doing it better.

  • watson says:

    Every place I've been, if you did't get tough questions,it meant you screwed up - you didn't present clearly enough that the audience could analyze what you're saying, or you bored everyone to death, or you were completely, hopelessly off base so no one was willing to ask a question.
    Back when I was a grad student, when the real killer PIs followed up a tough question with another one, all the students in my class would exchange triumphant glances with the student presenting, "yeah, you *nailed* that talk", otherwise Killer PI wouldn't have bothered.
    I always thought people were supopsed to ask questions during journal club and seminars; otherwise what was the point?

  • Becca says:

    acmegirl-
    You may have been challenging teachers since 5th grade, but have you been *arguing* with them since you were first able to talk? Have you ever said "fuck you" to a professor?
    I wasn't 'taking offense' in any event. To understand my story, all you have to do is look at your own (defensive?) reaction to my criticism. PsyioProf put forth, in fairly dogmatic (typical PP) style, that it is a horrible idea to not ask questions. I put forth my opinion that encouraging asking questions could function as absolutely horrible advice to offer to a student ignorant of certain political realities.
    For the record, I think PP generally offers good advice; if I didn't think that, I would assume people would just write off everything PP says and thus there would be no need to make the message better. I think this post could cause people to develop an inappropriate idea about 'the' culture of science. PP's post may be completely in line with *one* sub-culture of science, but it is not the only one.
    As to what you might have to gain by *not* hurting people's feelings (professors included)- even if that requires playing dumb- I can tell you that (in my experience) you can gain an opportunity to do a PhD (or at least, if you *do* hurt people's feelings by refusing to play dumb, you may loose such an opportunity).
    More to the point, what the other party gains (by not having hurt feelings) should be obvious. The advancement of science matters. So do the people who do science, and their personal feelings (if for no other reason than those feelings will affect how they approach science). Being a scientist is not an unrestricted license to be maximally cruel for a minimal advancement of science.
    BugDoc- IMO, "old fart" is definitely determined by both attitude and age. An older individual overly set in their ways gets the honor of being an old fart- while a similarly close-minded young person is simply an idiot or a jerk. The magic number for being given benefit of the doubt? The standard answer (old age is always 10 years older than I am...)
    bsci- Thank you for making the point about different worlds.
    Something I've wondered is why my undergrad institution- which really is more like what many "pro-debate" commenters here seem to be familiar with- is so different from the institution I'm at now.
    (Of course, an alternative hypothesis is that it just seemed different to me, since as a mostly annonymous undergrad, I simply wasn't capable of making my professors feel threatened.)
    fortuyn- I agree that modeling good analytical behavior is essential to be a good scientific role model. And I think PhysioProf probably is a good scientific role model... but I seriously (frequently) feel like PP is coming from a different world than I am. As an example- the amount of swearing PP uses is rather suprising to me now. I know multiple professors who consider it completely unacceptable. Scientists aren't dockworkers (my Mom works at a trucking company- if you think *sailors* swear...)
    Chris- Thank you for posting-it reminded me I wasn't paranoid.
    There are a variety of motivations for asking questions. And whatever your motivation- asking whatever question you want may not be wise, and asking it however you want can be immensely disrespectful.
    To all- we speak about communication (including questioning in seminars and journal club presentations) as though whatever is intended is what is actually understood by the listeners. My point is that different attitudes about questions don't tend to come from people who think 1) science should be closed to criticism or 2)they have the right to be jerks... most everyone is trying to make the science better, and doesn't see themselves as a jerk... but that doesn't mean they will all be percieved thusly.

  • windy says:

    As to what you might have to gain by *not* hurting people's feelings (professors included)- even if that requires playing dumb- I can tell you that (in my experience) you can gain an opportunity to do a PhD

    And then you get to work for several years under a PI who gets offended if undergrads ask questions? Now, that's a recipe for destruction.
    And as for career advice, do you really think on the average an "anonymous undergrad" has the best chance of getting a PhD position?

  • PhysioProf says:

    I'm not sure where people are getting the idea that anyone is suggesting that it is good to act like a fucking asshole when asking questions. You can ask good, tough, critical questions without being a jerk, and you should. In fact, the last part of my blog post was exactly how to deal with a questioner who is being a fucking asshole.
    What is important to realize is that if the choice is between keeping silent in order not to make a presenter "feel bad", or raising what you think to be a relevant question, choosing the former is harming the presenter, while choosing the latter is helping them.
    And, yeah, don't act like a fucking asshole when you ask questions. I thought that would be obvious.

  • acmegirl says:

    Becca,
    I take exception to your suggestion that it's a good idea to be really nice and never make anyone uncomfortable because THAT is bad advice. It's what was shoved down my throat since I was a little girl, and it is NOT helpful for a female who wants to "play with the big boys". The nice girl does not win at that game.
    Yes, Becca, I am not a nice girl. I never have been, though I spent too much of my life trying to pretend to be. But I know when and to whom to say, "fuck you", and I know that there is a great deal of distance between asking someone, even a professor, a challenging question and getting all ghetto on someone's ass. It gets really tiresome to hear people for whom that distance has been shortened suggest that the two are one in the same. Students should ask questions, even "tough" ones. Students should speak with respect to those who outrank them (unless those higher ups are being abusive, themselves). Those two rules can easily be followed simultaneously.
    What I don't buy, AT ALL, is the idea that just because someone is a fellow student or close colleague that you have some responsibility to treat them with kid gloves. People need to be challenged in order to grow. If I ever thought my classmates and labmates were hesitating to ask me tough questions because it might hurt my feelings, I'd be livid! As others have said, it is so much better to be asked those questions on friendly soil than to go and continue to sink time into an asinine project, only to submit a paper and have it returned in shreds. Yes, you must have a backbone to survive in academia. And no, they don't hand those out along with your diploma. Students need to take every opportunity you can to build one if they weren't born with it.

  • Becca says:

    For the record, PhysioProf, I'm not under the impression you are encouraging people to be what *you* would consider fucking assholes. What I'm saying is that the way *you* act would get *me* labeled a fucking asshole by many scientists I know.
    acmegirl- I sincerely hope (for both our sakes) I'm wrong about this, by it is my distinct impression that playing *like* the big boys isn't usually the best strategy for women. Your presense will change their games, whether you are aware of it or not, and whether that change is welcome or not.
    As far as your other points, I'm inclined to think you're now into the realm of strawman... I never said you should *never* make anyone uncomfortable! I never said that we should treat fellow students with kid gloves! I said professors who encourage students to ask questions should open their eyes and see how severe the consequences can be for asking questions in a non-approved manner (and by "non-approved" I am not referring to the obvious case of being a total asshole).
    windy- it was not a loss of the opportunity to work with a professor who gets offended if undergrads ask questions, but the loss of an opportunity to work with a professor who gets offended if a grad student asks a question *which clearly makes him look wrong* in front of another faculty member (even if the question is offered with respectful words and in a constructive spirit). Granted, you are still right that I'm 'better off without the loser' so to speak.
    😉
    That said, I'm not totally dumb- the trouble was that this professor *sounded* somewhat like PhysioProf when it came to advocating questioning. It was a hard lesson to learn that a prof who tended toward vocal support of debate and collegiality was actually extrodinarily easily threatened and didn't always want what he claimed to.

  • PhysioProf says:

    I said professors who encourage students to ask questions should open their eyes and see how severe the consequences can be for asking questions in a non-approved manner (and by "non-approved" I am not referring to the obvious case of being a total asshole).

    Then what exactly do you mean by "non-approved"? This should help focus the discussion.

  • Becca--If this prof's response when you corrected him in front of others was to take offense, rather than take it on the chin, you are SO better off not being in his lab. Aren't you glad to have found that out now, rather than after joining and discovering that debate was stifled? I would be. Dodged a bullet!

  • bayman says:

    Becca,
    I hear what you're saying, but political posturing will always be an important part of science. Get used to it if you want to survive. The trick is to uphold the ideals of scientific discussion within the midst of the political shitstorm swirling around you. It is possible. Although if you're a grad student stuck in a really bad situation you might need to get the hell out of there first.

  • bayman says:

    BTW, One of my favorite events is when an experienced lab head in my department and close faculty friends try to tear s/he apart. You can tell both parties are enjoying themselves - it's a game of oneupmanship - the questioner delivers a crushing blow, VeteranPresenter one ups Questioner, dodges and strikes back with a blow of his/her own.
    My point is that experienced scientists who are worth their salt don't allow themselves to get publicly embarrassed, even by the most seasoned audience opponents.
    A scientist (discussing his/her own work, no less!) who can be embarrassed by a student in the manner you describe should not be running a lab or mentoring students. Sorry to be so blunt.

  • bayman says:

    "when an experienced lab head in my department"
    should read "when an experienced lab head in my department PRESENTS"

  • CC says:

    What is important to realize is that if the choice is between keeping silent in order not to make a presenter "feel bad", or raising what you think to be a relevant question, choosing the former is harming the presenter, while choosing the latter is helping them.
    I don't agree, at least as far as the across-the-board phrasing of this is concerned, and my notion of what constitutes "being a jerk" follows accordingly.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    It strikes me that one thing that is being left unsaid is that this may be yet another area where the "pick it up by osmosis" training "strategy" is failing us. One of the things trainees should be picking up from listening to questions posed by the audience in various scientific presentations is....what is a good/legitimate/assholic question?
    Obviously there will be some degree of subjectivity. And it may be difficult for trainees in their post-seminar discussions to get past "what a jerk that guy was!" or "I hope I never get hammered like THAT!". Still, it is of value to the field in which one operate for trainees to be able to distinguish a comment/question that is a legitimate contribution, one that stems from an acceptable level of unfamiliarity with the subfield, etc, from those that are axe-grinding or constitutive pathology...

  • Becca says:

    PhysioProf- in the example I described, the professor and I later had a (heated) discussion about exactly what happened in the lab meeting. I asked what what I should have done differently and the professor told me "tell me in private"... it turned out it was very much about status. Not necessarily me making him look dumb- but me making him look like he wasn't the one in control. He was concerned about having other people think I didn't respect him (even though *we* both knew I did)... now, granted, when I came to grad school- and this event fairly early on for me- I had enormous ground to cover when it came to being perceived as communicating respectfully. But this particular case is also somewhat explained by the fact I was simply confused that his public and private expectations were so different- he said he would have had no trouble with what I said, *had it been mentioned privately*.
    In other words, in this instance, the "approved" method would have been *privately*.
    Dr. Jekyll & Mrs. Hyde- yes, this is how I try to look at it (successfully, on my more confident days).
    bayman- part of my point is that, although it is (usually) possible to uphold the ideals of scientific disscussion, talking about it without reference to political posturing is, well, overly idealistic (and I don't use that term lightly, since it is usually me that it is aimed at).
    DrugMonkey- I have had professors who were (I think) trying to teach me appropriate scientific discourse... the trouble is, if you don't warn someone you how and why you are trying to train them, it can seem almost sneaky to the trainee. Not so much "ZOMG why are they being mean to me!?! Wah!" but "what are they looking for from me???" (and there is far too much of that in grad school). I think making the training explicit might alleviate some of that tension.

  • PalMD says:

    Something Abel said up higher is critical---learning to defend an intellectual position is key to any graduate or post-graduate work, and better to do it early than on a job interview later. It also serves to self-regulate...if your thinking is muddled, your colleagues and senior faculty can help sort things out. Perhaps this is too rosy a view of grad school---i've never had the pleasure.
    A few examples from medicine though (and we often have pharmacology docs rounding with us).
    --Morbidity and mortality (M&M): this has traditionally been an ass-reaming or sorts, but serves a very useful purpose if done non-abusively. Cases that have gone wrong are analyzed in private by a group of doctors. Dissent is pretty much mandatory, and when it is done right, the case is torn down to each individual decision until the errors are identified. Often enough, no one is "at fault", but still the process is useful.
    --Teaching rounds, which occur daily, often involve socratic method, and almost always involve putting individuals on the spot, and no bullshitting is allowed.

  • PhysioProf says:

    I asked what what I should have done differently and the professor told me "tell me in private"... it turned out it was very much about status. Not necessarily me making him look dumb- but me making him look like he wasn't the one in control. He was concerned about having other people think I didn't respect him (even though *we* both knew I did).

    This dude sounds like a lameass weak-kneed dipshit.
    To summarize this whole discussion, if you want to be a scientist, you need to sack the fuck up. People act like being "wrong" or "not in control" in public is like some kind of fucking personal disaster.
    Who gives a flying fuck if you're "wrong"? Of all the possible ways a scientist can fuck up, saying something "wrong" in public is really far down the list in importance.

  • neurowoman says:

    Well, I have to agree with all the pro-question comments; but I can see how Becca's specific experience runs counter to the idea that it's ok (preferred even) for students to ask public questions of a presenter. However, I think her professor was out of line (unless Becca's question was somehow over the top provocative, or led to a long back & forth argument that is disruptive to the whole presentation, e.g., jerk behavior). Regardless, he should have been able to handle it, even if annoyed. Suggests maybe he was schooled in an environment like Becca advocates, which sounds like it did him a disservice.
    That said, there ARE some scientific sub-fields where questioning of superiors is not tolerated (thinking of some German hierarchy where one daren't cross Herr Professor) and others where questioning a speaker is blood sport (Russian physicists, it seems).
    In my experience, however, asking and being able to answer questions in a talk is absolutely fundamental to the discourse, and you HAVE to be able to do both to be a leader. Constructive phrasing is a learned skill, though, and I often have to think through how I'm going to ask something so that it comes across as polite and not assholeish. One of my favorite models comes from a senior professor, who always phrased his questions beginning with something like "perhaps i missed something, but.." or the like, but always followed with an insightful question. A good question can make the presenter look even smarter when they respond with a good answer!
    As an aside, I doubt PhysioProf asks a speaker questions with the same gutter mouth he uses on this blog =). ("Can you explain those fucking axes?")

  • Cherish says:

    Journal club is a great place to ask questions. It's departmental seminars that suck. There were two professors in our department who used to just rip students to shreds if there was even the slightest thing wrong. (Most of the time, these were proposals that the student was giving...not a defense.) None of the profs ever stopped it, either, including the students' advisors. (One of them has since passed away.)
    So I'm all about discourse, as long as it doesn't become just a session for humiliating the speaker. Unfortunately, I think I've seen that more of that than constructive criticism.

  • Schlupp says:

    neurowoman, that made me smile: Now, think of a Russian physicist asking questions at a talk in Germany.

  • Dan says:

    When I find myself getting roped into going to seminars that I'm not interested in, I try to focus a good deal of the form- how the speaker gives the talk, the arc of their argument, how they prepare their slides, ect... At question time, it seems that where speakers get themselves into the most trouble is that they react to the smallest question as though it 1) is a personal attack, and 2) requires a five minute answer. Frequently the five minute answer comes because the question was ill-formed or poorly thought out.
    Now, when I get questions at the end of my talks, I try to listen to the whole thing, and just answer what was asked. I almost always try to ask for clarification or confirmation that I understood the questioners intent before answering. Not only does this help me to avoid accidentally evading a question, but I've found that it tends to make the tone a little bit more friendly.

  • create14all says:

    Treating people in an unfair way (a way in which you would not want to be treated if you were they) is not scientific license. It is simply indicative of a greedy act where ever it occurs. It is wasteful and serves the purpose of making the one appear better than another when done in the manner debated here. The exchange of information does not have to be done in an unfair way, regardless of where or what the forum. If one's goal is to appear intelligent, a well phrased respectful question will place them closer to their goal. This goal is also served responding to someone else preforming a disrespectful act.
    Professional ridicule is simply the tool of someone attempting to be better or smarter than another.

  • anonymous says:

    I think there are some questions that should not be asked publicly, such as "why are you doing this, it has already been done?" to someone you have to work with.

  • Facetious Student says:

    To introduce myself and provide the proper context of this comment, I'm an undergraduate with 3 years of research, but I�m not an infant (several posters, published abstracts, a couple of internships, conferences, and countless meetings where my work was ripped apart). For one, I enjoy this conversation, it lets the youngsters know you all care about us and not just appreciate the "dish" washing.
    I'm lucky enough to be involved in a laboratory where the PI I work under is well respected by her colleagues, post-docs, grads, and others of the similar. She is granted this status because of her work and the fact that she is a hard-ass (just following PP's lead). She questions and seeks ideas, but her inquires are elaborated in a respectful tone to others. When debates get heated, she repeatedly makes sure (at least from her end) that they are about the subject at hand, and not for some silly ego or any other insignificant gain. I know I don't know all of the politics behind closed doors, but regardless, even an undergraduate can point out the "winners" who are formulating questions for a weak, advantageous motive. I believe the audience should be given more credit at such journal clubs, research seminars, or conferences. It's rather apparent when an individual is not providing respectful questions. I guess that my point, in this paragraph, is that people can see what's in front of them and accurately (for the most part) perceive if the question is good or doesn't fit the context of the discussion.
    Intellectual jerks will forever skip around the research realm. It is up to you guys to help students like myself to professionally mature. I would see it as an irresponsibility if I didn't ask questions at research gathering. I find it worrisome that any individual, no matter their position on the research hierarchy, would ask one not to ask a question. I would perceive such a request as a lack of confidence in one's own work. Furthermore it would really stump my growth as a young scientist if I were told to censor such scholarly curiosity. It's up to you guys to ask the questions respectfully in order to lead us in such a manner. When I see intellectual debates that are hardcore, I think to myself "omg, I want to be that when I grow up." I see such conversations as a demonstration of passion for science, a necessity to push the field forward by asking such tough, well-formulated questions, and furthermore unveils professionalism that young researcher must themselves develop by such interactions.
    A central theme in my studies and research pursuits has been to strive for excellence in a challenging environment to improve my academic attributes. As a young scientist, I have grown considerably, however I do realize that my research qualities can improve and that I need to expose myself to high pursuits, so that the difficult scenarios I face can help me prepare for a career as a medical scientist. These "high pursuits" include the difficult questions. Yes, an individual of my level of education doesn't compare to what a PI or even a grad student has, in a way I am David and in a meeting there are about 10 Goliaths. Without the difficult questions, given and received, professionally I could not possibly hope to aspire to my potential. I need to know the flaws in my work because that�s the only way I'll be able to improve my craft even if its in front of the entire lab or others because understanding and correcting the mistakes then will surely help me at an academic conference when there are about a couple 1,000 Goliaths.
    My PI in my lab pushes me pretty hard and I love it. I enjoy the abuse because I know, the pressure she is putting upon me, the expectations to ask questions to others and defend my own work, will ultimately lead me to take further strides to becoming a successful scientist. The questions I ask are said in the most respectful tones and I know I would be taken aside and "disciplined" if they lacked such a characteristic.
    Professor or not, I think the consequences are pretty obvious to ask a question in a non-approved manner (the asshole method). I believe such a situation isn't limited to the academic world, but into the fundamentals of individual interaction. It's the way one formulates a question that matters, the delivery, not the fact the question is being presented. Cruelty, hurt feelings, ands similar emotions can be avoided (at least partly) by the proper method of inquiry. However, I do feel it's important to get some exposure to the intellectual jerks, it provides a toughness needed to survive the endless criticisms in such a field.
    Out of this whole conversation I believe individuals need to realize it's not all about them. It goes along the same theme of PP, it's about the science. It is however, human to get upset about certain comments or questions, but I feel that researchers need to remind themselves not to allow their ego to intersect into such debate. When such occurrences arise, I take a step back, breathe, and tell myself it's for the betterment of my work and that it's not personal. I find it counterproductive not to do so.
    Lastly, undergrad or PI there is always room for improvement. No one is perfect and that pertains to his or her work as well.
    (Sorry about the novel.)
    PP: I appreciate the swearing. Maybe you should throw in "wanker" while you are at it. Regardless I enjoy the use of such curse words because it allows such conversations as these to be more informal, which is a nice deviation from the seriousness often seen in the lab. However I know where to draw the line and I would never surrender into the sailor talk in meetings, my PI would beat me.

  • Chris Jeans says:

    Physio Prof said: "Who gives a flying fuck if you're "wrong"? Of all the possible ways a scientist can fuck up, saying something "wrong" in public is really far down the list in importance."
    Maybe I've just been unlucky, but I have never witnessed a scientist above the undergraduate level admit they were wrong after saying something plainly incorrect.
    Dan said : "...they react to the smallest question as though it 1) is a personal attack..."
    Bingo. Ask yourself why someone would respond in that way. Answer: all they've seen is other, usually far senior scientists, asking questions with an attitude barely, if at all, removed from personal attack and ego-boosting. It's pretty much natural to then assume that questions aimed at you are going to be personal attacks.

  • bayman says:

    Becca,
    The point was alluded to above perhaps, but my reaction upon reading your further comment was that you may need to figure out, in such a situation, whether the PI was offended because he thought your approach was rude or disrespectful (ie the way you spoke), or just because it was a valid scientific point that s/he thought made him/her look bad. The first reason may be acceptable, the second is certainly not.

  • Amanda says:

    I'm a bit slow about commenting here (I've been catching up on my blog reading-- so thanks for the link). I agree, mostly, with what PP said. Journal Club should be a place where questioning the speaker should be open and welcome, but, I think, if you talk to a lot of grad students that isn't the case. Perhaps you are only harming the student in the long run, but how do you change a culture where those who speak up are admonished by their peer group? I'm all well and fine with saying that it's wrong not to engage in a scientific debate during a presentation. I'm also fine with being told that I should question data, etc. However, the bigger problem is how do I make it acceptable to do so?
    I know that no one here has the answers per se. I'm mostly just ranting because I'm tired of the problems within my program and my inability to change anything.

  • PhysioProf says:

    Perhaps you are only harming the student in the long run, but how do you change a culture where those who speak up are admonished by their peer group?

    You need faculty to make it clear that engaged and critical participation in journal clubs and seminars is an essential element of training and a requirement of the program. And you need faculty to lead by example, being politely, but unceasingly, critical of one another.
    Frankly, that is a really destructive culture that it sounds like you have in your department, and if your faculty are apathetic about it, then they should be ashamed of themselves.

  • Mad Hatter says:

    Amanda--It's hard to change the culture of a department or an institution, and given that the friendship and support of fellow grad students makes grad school so much more enjoyable, I can certainly understand your reluctance to go against the culture. But I agree with PhysioProf and the other commenters who feel that this kind of culture stifles the development of students as scientists, as well as the intellectual discourse which is a fundamental aspect of science.
    Your original post seemed to indicate that there are some in your department (including your advisor and some of your grad student friends) who do not completely buy into this culture, or at least are not militant about it. If this is true, I'd suggest three things:
    1. Encourage your friends to start asking questions too. They don't have to be rude or hostile...one thoughtful question from each person at every journal club would make a huge difference.
    2. Ask your advisor to bring this issue up with the other faculty in the department. He can also help change the culture by asking questions himself or encouraging other students to do so.
    3. Ask your friends to talk to their advisors about this. PhysioProf is right--the faculty need provide leadership on this, and you and your friends might be able to nudge them into doing so.

  • TeaHag says:

    I am intrigued by this entire discussion having invested a whole year of my life in our formal (graded) departmental journal club.
    The extreme passivity and the tedious silence of previous years made me want to tear my hair out. I attributed the apparent inability of our graduate students to ask intelligent, insightful, cogent questions at seminars (particularly those presented by outside speakers where the material was relatively unfamiliar) to a complete lack of experience and insufficient familiarity with data analysis "on the fly".
    So, I crossed my fingers, picked the papers for the entire year myself (after all, if I had to be at every single one) then I was darned if I was going to be bored, and started from there. I had preplanned to the extent that they lead (albeit via roundabout routes) from one to the next. My students did a good job but basically they were practicing their presentation skills.
    So... I took it up a notch.... divided them into groups and made one group "the authors" and an opposing group "the reviewers"... and I made the reviewers turn in a written review in advance of the class. Harsh? Maybe so, but if you are going to get a grade it really ought to be earned IMO. So, the authors presented, then the reviewers commented, and then the authors had a chance to defend their approach... or speak "outside of their role" if they agreed with the reviewers. At last, at least 50% of the room had read the paper and practiced their interpretive skills before we started. The remaining 50% were as silent as ever... but their turn came the following week!
    All this is simply to demonstrate how much effort faculty who care about teaching this stuff are willing to put in to make sure that graduate students learn to critique and think about research as it is presented to them. I don't know if the students in my course appreciated my efforts... I've moved on to another institution, but I thought that they made quite spectacular progress over the course of two semesters. I firmly believe that this is a learned skill just like anything else. It's also a great opportunity to discuss the ethics etc. of data analysis and presentation.

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