Friday, October 10, 2008

Intervention

Different graduate advisors react in different ways to the situation in which a student is asked a question during or after a talk or other presentation and the student can't answer the question or doesn't answer the question well or correctly. The situation of interest can be a research talk in the home department, a conference presentation, or any other moderately to very important setting in which the student has to answer questions on the spot.

Let's also assume that the student is not extremely inexperienced, is not being asked random questions about irrelevant topics, and is not being questioned in a hostile way; i.e. the student can reasonably be expected to know the answer to the question or at least to have some intelligent thoughts about it.

Once it is apparent that the student can't answer the question, some advisors will jump in and answer for the student, or will correct a wrong or incomplete answer.

Some advisors will sit quietly and let the student deal with the situation.

Of course the difference between intervening and not intervening relates in part to personality factors -- e.g. some advisors take questions very personally and cannot bear to let there be any doubt about the research. I find it annoying in department seminars (and even, in one case, an oral exam) when an advisor gets defensive about questions that seems to cast doubt on the validity of the research, even though the questioner is merely trying to see if the student can articulate the research motivation.

The decision to intervene or not to intervene can also of course vary with circumstance.

Even so, to the extent that some advisors have an Advising Philosophy about whether or not to intervene when a student can't answer a public question about a research project, the following may be considerations:

Intervening ensures that the question is answered. This can be important in some situations, especially if the reputation of the research and research group might be affected by a student's inability to answer questions about the work. Answering a question may also help the discussion move forward to other (possibly more interesting) topics. Intervening can be done in a friendly and constructive way.

Not intervening emphasizes that the student is a researcher and must take responsibility for the work they present. If the advisor intervenes, this may signal to everyone that the student may be carrying out a research project that he/she doesn't really understand, and that the advisor is the 'real' scientist -- the one who really understands the work. Not intervening might be a respectful thing to do in some circumstances.

There are positive and negative aspects of both, and of course ultimately the specific context of each situation guides the response. I am also not addressing in this discussion the reasons why a student might not be able to answer a (reasonable) question; the advisor and the student may both be partly responsible for a lack of preparation.

I suppose that some students would want their advisor to step in and answer the question, and others would be embarrassed by this, so it's not possible to give general advice about whether it's a good idea (from the student's point of view) to intervene or not.

There is no single answer to the question of whether to intervene or not when a student is flummoxed by a question, but perhaps we can all agree that it is not a good idea for an advisor to say to the student (in front of an audience) "Come on. You know the answer." Sighing loudly, rolling and/or closing the eyes, or gazing forlornly at the ceiling or floor are probably also not constructive.

Lately I have noticed that I have been moving from a slight tendency to intervene to a slight tendency not to intervene, though I don't yet know if this is a real trend (perhaps related to my age) or just an advising fad this year. What I do know is that whether or not I intervene, it is (almost) as painful for an advisor as for a student when the student stumbles during questioning during or after a talk.

24 comments:

jason said...

As a student myself I have occasionally hoped that my advisor would intervene during a question and answer session. His philosophy, which I've come to strongly appreciate, is that students need to learn to answer questions and formulate ideas on their own. If I make a mistake or have trouble answering a question, he'll correct me later - not in front of a large audience.

It is usually apparent to me when a speaker is a student. I take that into account when watching somebody struggle through an answer (I assume that most other people are similarly reasonable). I find it hard to believe that the reputation of a research group could be jeopardized by a student's incorrect response. Reputations are developed as a result of many years of hard work; one student couldn't ruin that by making one or two incorrect statements. If that is the case, maybe the student has been given too much responsibility too quickly.

On the other hand, I come from a research field that is like a small village: everybody knows each other and most people gets along wonderfully. Maybe science doesn't contain as many good, reasonable people as I'd like to believe.

Anonymous said...

I have found my supervisors' intervention pleasant, as he goes with the openings of kind "Let's first think about the big picture here..." ad he first re-explains the basics in a couple of sentences and then answers the question. He gives the impression he merely helps both the person who asked the question (PWATQ) to understand the concept and the specfics, and he helps the student (S) to understand PWATQ's point of view and reasons for asking the question. So, he acts as an interpretator/mediator between S and PWATQ, and everyone is happy.

Anonymous said...

Another possibility is for the advisor to clarify the question a bit if it looks like the student just doesn't get it.

Anonymous said...

What about when a student finishes a talk (at a national conference) and has done a good job, but the ADVISOR asks a question and makes her back up a few slides to 'explain something better'. This happened to a friend in grad school and I was mortified for her and completely thought it made the advisor look like the idiot/micromanager she is.

In general, I feel that advisors and fellow lab members should not ask questions of the student in a public forum - it only points out the problems the student may have with explaining their data (much of which the average audience member won't have noticed). I guess the logic is that you want the audience to be getting a good presentation of the work, but ideally these kinds of pointers should come in practice talks...

The History Enthusiast said...

Interesting...it would be very bad etiquette for someone in my field (history) to interrupt the student who is attempting to answer the question. But, I assume that's probably because the nature of historical research is so different from scientific research; in history you never write anything jointly with your advisor, so it is up to you to defend your own work. And, in the humanities, I think professors like to let students flounder a bit, since usually there isn't even a correct answer to some of the questions that we are dealing with. There are multiple correct answers.

Ambitwistor said...

Introduce the students to this handy flowchart.

Shriram Krishnamurthi said...

As usual, you've looked deep into the psyche of the research university professor, and found the gummybears that lie beneath.

As a young prof, I tended to be quite interventionist. (Somewhere, probably, is an ex-student reading this and thinking, “By Jove, yes!”, except not quite in such polite words.) I was in a department that didn't really do research in my area, so I felt that much more than my student was “on stage”. With confidence in one's standing comes the confidence of letting the student stand for nothing more than herself or himself, and only intervening when everyone understands the score of the play and the only honorable thing to do is to get the student unstuck (or, much more rarely, avoid needless, total embarrassment).

Woman Chemist said...

This is an interesting post. I recently gave a departmental seminar and I felt like I had the questions under control, yet my advisor intervened. It was embarrassing, but I thought I was able to show that I understood by expanding on his comments. What I'm curious about are your thoughts on intervention in a private setting. Following my seminar there was a private Q&A with faculty members. My advisor had left the room briefly, and when he came back I was in the middle of answering a question. He hadn't heard the question, and intervened, speaking to a completely different aspect of the question. That's where I really felt undermined. Apparently the impression he gave wasn't that I didn't understand but rather that he was really excited that someone had finally gotten this particular experiment to work. Then again, the faculty member who expressed that to me may have just been looking out for my feelings (a female faculty member that I consider a mentor). Anyway, I'm curious what your feelings/ideas are on this.

Short Geologist said...

I think it really depends on the nature of the question. Sometimes it's just nerves, and we can all wait patiently for the student to articulate something close to an answer (such as when someone asks for a student's opinion about a particular aspect of the work).

But sometimes an audience member will ask a sort of aggressive and off-base question. Intervention in this case is a kindness. For example, if you're a student giving a presentation for the funding agency and some bean-counter asks you to put a dollar amount on the benefit of your research. And he's not kidding around - he wants hard numbers. A graceful answer is "I will find out for you later" but that's not what the terrified student is going to think of on the spot.

Anonymous said...

After one of my first talks - a grad student seminar series - my advisor intervened when I paused, and then kept on answering questions before I even had a chance. I was his first grad student, and I think it was a learning experience for both of us.

To his credit, he realized the effect it had on me (standing at a podium wordlessly while others carry on the conversation is not.a.good.thing. for one's confidence), apologized, and switched his strategy.

Michelle said...

Learning to field questions after a talk is clearly a key part of one's education, so I would say it seems like a good idea to let the student fend for him or herself as much as possible. But wouldn't it be possible to agree on a plan before the talk? Obviously if I'm giving a talk my adviser would know about it, and we could agree in advance that if I felt stuck on question after attempting it that I could ask him to weigh in.

Susan B. Anthony said...

One possible solution is for the advisor and student to agree beforehand that the student can punt the question to the advisor if he/she feels unable to answer it. In most situations where I gave talks as a student, the environment was sufficiently collegial that it was perfectly appropriate for the speaker to say to someone in the audience, "Dr. X, what do you think about this issue?" (I have seen it happen even with established researchers who want to consult a colleague specializing in some other subfield.)

My advisor only had to intervene about twice (and he did it nicely); after that I knew most of the answers or had a better idea of how to gracefully defer the question.

Comrade Physioprof said...

Regardless of how well my trainees perform, watching them ggive presentations is physically painful. However, I never intervene, as I consider it disrespectful to the trainee.

Another situation that sometimes arises is that members of the audience will direct a question or comment to the PI who is sitting in the audience, rather than to the trainee giving the talk. When this occurs, I politely suggest to the audience member that the question/comment should be directed at the trainee giving the presentation.

PostDoc said...

I recently completed my PhD, under and advisor who liked to answer questions asked of me. This is particularly irritating because he came to be my advisor as a consequence of shared interests, despite wildly differing methods. Such that we are both interested in the Lesser Purple-Spotted Zebra. He is a field biologist and has spent his career observing the Lesser Purple Spotted Zebra in the wild, making fantastic and interesting observations about its behavior. I, however, study the biochemical pathways by which the components of the red gummy bears it eats end up producing the purple spots. My advisor never even stepped foot in the lab I worked in, although he was intrumental in helping me procure samples of both the red gummy bears, and the purple spots. When I am giving a talk, however, he likes to interupt me when I am four words into an answer, to answer (frequently inaccurately) technical questions about the nature of the bench work. Highly irritating. I find it most irritating because it gives the impression that my advisor has no faith in me to answer a question. Further, when he answers incorrectly, it gives the impression that neither he nor I know what the hell we're talking about.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, FSP - Excellent post! I also appreciate comments by jason and comrade physiporof.

My first PhD student graduated quite recently, and I have a few current students. I've been rather dogmatic about not intervening, and I've seen my students improve in their fielding-questions-abilities as the number of talks adds up. Also, the situation comrade physiprof talks about is all too common - my student gives a talk, and a listener asks ME the question. I do bounce it back.

Of course, intervention is good if the questioning is unduly aggressive, and so on; fortunately we haven't had much of that, and my students have been able to confidently say "we'll take it off-line, shall we?".

I remember one occasion where the student answered a tricky question, and then asked me right there, "would you agree with that?". I did agree, and I aslo felt that the student asking me
in public showed tremendous poise.

But until this post, I hadn't realised other subtler reasons when intervention may be good. I have excellent rapport with my students - maybe I should ask them how often they wished I'd intervened!

MM.

Anonymous said...

In general I tend not to intervene.

However, it is important to balance the learning needs of the presenter with those of the audience. If a question is stopping fellow students in the audience from learning I'll jump in.

Another exception is if the student is being abused beyond what is acceptable.

Also for honest open-ended questions our seminars often break into discussion mode and the answer might come from any one in the room.

yolio said...

One of the seminar situations I most dread is the "advisor who takes over his student's talk" seminar. This usually involves a female student, and always, in my experience, a male professor.

The seminar is likely in a fairly interactive setting, with lots of questions coming from the audience. The student may be quite capable of answering the questions, but doesn't really get much of a chance. Perhaps she doesn't handle the first question in exactly the manner her advisor would have, so from then on he just sort of takes over. If the student is advanced, i.e. close to a PhD, I consider it part of her scientific training to be able to shut down her advisor in these situations. But when she is younger, like a recent master's defense I attended, it is just so frustrating to watch! The most annoying part is he is clearly having a ball.

AsstFemaleProf said...

If the questioner is using his/her position to take advantage/intimidate the student into "not knowing" something (I've seen otherwise intelligent people blank on things I know they knew), then it is crucial for the advisor to intervene. Otherwise (and again, depending on the situation), at little squirming can do everyone some good. As long as it doesn't become a habit. I know the first time I went to a conference and was asked a question I didn't know the answer to (that I should have), was the last time it happened. (I have definitely been asked harder/more irrelevant questions since then - but not easy ones).

But, if the student refuses to admit they don't know the answer (and this gets to a post you had earlier), and they guess (incorrectly), then the advisor definitely needs to step in. At this point, the student is teaching an audience incorrectly, which reflects poorly on everyone in the advisor's research group.

Danielle in Iowa said...

My advisor occasionally intervenes when I am stumbling with a question, but usually he intervenes by rephrasing the question so I understand the question better (since sometimes that is the only issue) or by asking a leading a question to get me to the answer. This works well for our style of interaction, but of course, everyone is different. Occasionally he will add comments at the end of my answer, but I think that is less because he thinks I didn't answer well enough and more because he gets excited about it. Personally it makes me feel good to know my advisor is excited about my work!

studyzone said...

I had a good relationship with my advisor, but he had a habit of jumping in with an answer even before I had a chance to answer a question. This happened at committee meetings, and even at my oral qualifying exam. At first I assumed he thought I was incompetent (because I was feeling incompetent), but when I finally noticed he was doing it with nearly everyone else in the lab, too, I realized it wasn't (completely) personal. I actually discussed it with him after my orals, reminding him that I needed the experience in answering questions. After that, he made a conscious effort to intervene only when he felt I really needed it (or when I asked him directly). Now, as a postdoc, I'm mentoring an undergraduate. When she was asked what I thought was a challenging question at a poster session, it was everything I could do to keep my mouth shut. She handled the question well - it was a good experience for both of us.

Neuropharma said...

Just like studyzone, I was once giving a presentation and during the questioning session my supervisor would jump right in and answer without giving me a chance to open my mouth. I didn't like it because I felt that it seemed like he was trying to hide my "stupidity" or something (like he would say something before I would say anything stupid). After he finished answering one of the questions that I was supposed to answer, I couldn't help but saying, "I was going to say just that!" and everybody laughed.

Anonymous said...

My feeling is that it depends on whether I am a coauthor (I work in a field in which students sometimes publish jointly with their advisors but frequently publish alone). If I'm not an coauthor, then answering the questions is 100% up to the student, and I won't say anything unless the student specifically asks me to. If I'm a coauthor, then I try to treat the student the same way I'd treat a colleague. In other words, I try not to make the student look bad, but I occasionally chime in if I have something useful to contribute.

Anonymous said...

My advisor will jump in and expand for quite a while on answers I've given during LAB MEETINGS which I find incredibly irritating. He also did this recently during my first committee meeting. I haven't said anything to him about this yet because he's young and I'm his first grad student so I think that's part of it, and we have a great working relationship besides this. And I appreciate that he's so supportive of my research . . . so now I am hoping he will stop on his own but also trying to decide at what point I should say something to him . . .

Art said...

Very often, students stumble because they don't get the question, because they are already nervous and get flustered. In such cases (and when the student doesn't appear to know), I have found it possible to re-state the question in a way that I think the student can get. Or in a way that sort of leads the student to the original answer. This keeps the discussion moving, and very often (not always) nudges the student towards the answer being sought in the first place.

This is a very important tactic to learn, as it is not rare for a professor to ask a totally off-the-wall question that misses the boat, and flies by the student at warp speed. The best way to rescue such a situation is to frame things so the student has a chance to answer a reasonable question.