If you are a graduate student (or an undergraduate student involved in research):
How much do you discuss research or other academic topics with your fellow students outside of classes and seminars?; e.g., at lunch or other social opportunities? A lot? Occasionally? Never? (you can also answer according to the situation when you were a student, if your students days are over)
As I described in a recent post, when I was a student, my fellow students and I talked about Science a lot. Some of venues for talking/socializing were faculty-free (some of the grad office space, late night pub excursions), and others involved faculty (late afternoon pub excursions).
It was good to have some informal discussions with faculty, but we also valued our faculty-free times and spaces. In fact, I think these student-only Science discussions were particularly important for me.
As I have surely described at some point in the past, it was after a particularly brutal one-sided "discussion" with one of my committee members that I started the collaboration that resulted in my first paper with another graduate student. This professor had savagely belittled my research and ideas, told me I was stupid and ignorant (in those exact words), and expressed great pessimism that I would ever get a graduate degree of any sort, in part because he was going to vote "fail" at my defense. I staggered back to the grad office area and sat, stunned, on a couch in the common area.
A senior grad student, whom I didn't know well because he was in a somewhat different subfield of research, saw me and asked why I seemed so down. I told him that Professor Z hated my ideas and thought I was an idiot. He said "That is actually a good indication that you might be right. Tell me your ideas." So I did. He was quiet for a few minutes, and then said "I think you are on to something. Let me tell you about some of my work that relates to what you're thinking." So he did, and this started a series of discussions over the course of months. We developed our complementary ideas, tested them, wrote things, sketched things, and eventually published a paper in a journal I thought would be out of my reach as a graduate student.
I credit this grad student with saving my career. I don't know if I would have quit grad school, but I was seriously considering it.
Most conversations among students are not life-changing like that one, but they are nevertheless important ways to develop your ideas and your communication skills. When I started grad school, I had never really had an intellectual debate about Science before. I didn't really know how to argue -- not in the sense of having a hostile disagreement, but in the sense of organizing arguments (evidence) to support an idea or to figure out how to test an idea.
I also had to learn that arguments were not (necessarily) person. You could lose a scientific argument, but still enjoy the debate, emerge with your self-esteem intact, and learn something important.
Although some of my fellow grad students were quite aggressive and skilled at these discussions, I definitely was not, but I learned a lot by having discussions and debates. I do not think I ever would have learned this from my professors, in part because it wasn't until I was a senior grad student that I started to feel comfortable expressing my opinions in anything approaching an assertive and confident way.
If you are a student in an intellectually stimulating, interactive department: that's great. You are lucky and you will learn many important things. Don't worry if you start out not having much to say, but listen and learn and participate as much as you can. Eventually you will be one of the confident senior grad students or postdocs, but the transformation won't happen by magic. Start talking now!
If you are a student in an environment that for some strange reason does not involve academic discussions outside of the classroom and you want to change that: Find at least one other person who feels the same way you do. Maybe more will join in. Don't let the we-don't-talk-about-work people make all the rules about acceptable topics of conversation. Don't worry if they frown at you. It's fine if there are some times and places when people want a break from intense discussions about work, but this should not be an all-encompassing rule that excludes all such conversations from lunch time, coffee breaks, and other opportunities like that.
In any academic unit, it should be possible to find people who are passionate about their research and studies and who want to talk about what they are working on and learn what others are doing.
9 years ago