Friday, April 16, 2010

Talk Talk

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)

How much do you discuss research with other students?
All the time
Quite often
Now and then
Never free polls

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.


Enginerd said...

I'm lucky that I found a group of really neat undergrads where we can talk about sciencey and research things frequently. It's neat that even when we don't know a lot about each others' area of research we sometimes have good advice for each other. Our supervisor gives us more than a fair say in what direction we should take our research, which is really great.

Oddly we have to keep it under wraps around one of the grad students in the group, who tends to try to pass work off as his own that he has absolutely no involvement with. How messed up is that?

I am jealous as to how much of your science seems to take place in pubs :)

barbara said...

I stopped being a graduate student two decades ago, but I can still recall perfectly how useful interaction with my "twins and elder siblings" was in the following phases: as an undergraduate doing research; as a graduate student; as a very young, very inexperienced postdoc (due to complex reasons, I was only two years in grad school, and I would certainly have needed more).
And this despite having, while a student, an extremely friendly and supportive advisor.
In fact, the key turning point in my career happened because I started discussing about an interesting talk with a friend of a friend, at a conference - a natural extension of what I had been doing all through my scientific life.
There are just things that you're better off discussing with your fellow students or with young postdocs, if nothing else because they have much more energy for this than your advisor has.
In the moment, my main difficulty is to encourage my students to talk to each other.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

I don't know what your student commenters will say, but I remember that one of the reasons I went to grad school in the first place was that I missed talking about ideas in my field. So yeah: a lot.

mixlamalice said...

"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. "

Sure, but is also nice to have people at work who can talk of other things... you can be passionate about your job and still have other interests (arts, sports, gastronomy, cats, whatever).
I find it a little bit depressing when someone doesn't seem to be able to talk about anything but his job (whatever the job is)*.
And having someone to talk to about literature or cinema at work is as far as I am concerned very useful to keep my mind fresh: when I have a big day in the lab I don't really want to talk about research during my 15 minutes break...

And even when I don't mind talking about research it has to be either about the "big picture" or about a very specific experimental problem. When it is somewhere in the middle, eg when it is just a way for people to talk about themselves (omg I was so busy I did that and that and that and then Prof. X told me that), I just don't care.

* sometimes they can speak of the weather but that's also a bit depressing...

Anonymous said...

I'm a grad student. Many of the people I work with most closely prefer not to discuss work during lunch, coffee breaks, etc.... others like to talk about work during these times, but generally they discuss more technical issues rather than discussing ideas. In fact, some of them discourage talking about new or big ideas by instantly shooting down attempts to do so as naive -- particularly anything that is in any way speculative or ambitious (preferring to work on safe projects that make incremental progress and avoid everything else?).

Anyway, I felt frustrated about the lack of chances to talk about the big ideas in my field with other students and postdocs. One thing I did to address this was to initiate a journal club -- which is fairly informal, meets somewhat irregularly, and so far is only for grad students. Students volunteer to present a paper that they are interested in -- sometimes a recent publication, sometimes historical, sometimes high-profile, and sometimes not.

This has been a great way to learn about new topics, to think about and discuss scientific ideas, ways of approaching topics, etc. It is also good practice in giving scientific presentations, something I was not very confident about when I started grad school -- but I found it less intimidating to present other people's work than to present my own, so this was a good way for me gain confidence in presenting.

Pagan Topologist said...

When I was in grad school, in the mid 1960's, we talked about research a lot. I think we all benefitted from it. I also talked to my advisor quite a lot, but not everyone did so.

Alyssa said...

I suppose my resistance to wanting to talk about science outside of class/lab/etc. should have been a clue that research was not for me!

Anonymous said...

I had a similar experiences outside USA (Israel and Germany) while doing research. we used to go for lunch break, coffee break and of course evening outings together with fellow students and post-docs. This was very stimulating intellectually and topics varied a lot from science to anything general.

In only lab in USA where I have worked as a post-doc, the pressure is to do everyday something is so huge that my fellow students hardly can take a break and enjoy the conversation sometime. They are under constant pressure to produce data and results, so as a result lunches are eaten in front of computer and forget about coffee/snacks breaks. They don't have time to think and follow the order of adviser for their day to day work without even questioning. This may be good for grant or adviser but definitely not worth for graduate students and post-doc who will not develop their own ideas and test them.

In science there are active periods when you are doing experiments/calculations and basically working day and night, whereas there are passive period where you can think, talk and enjoy. This stimulation actually makes doing science overall much more enjoyable and end results are much more satisfying. I only dream about such situation here.

I think this autobiography of Nobel laureate, Prof. V. Ramakrishnan will be interesting to read for your readers (If you are not Indian, just skip first 2-3 pages)

- CK

Female Science Professor said...

When I was a student, a lot of these discussions took place in pubs, but now most of my outside-the-office science discussions take place in cafes.

ScientistMother said...

I never used to talk about science outside of the required seminars / meeting. Until I moved into New PhDlab. This place has re-ignited the passion for science that alot of bad supervisors/groups almost extinguished. I'm always thinking about my science now.

Ms.PhD said...

Most of my science conversations happen over breakfast with MrPhD.

I like that this post was sort of a tribute to the grad student who helped save your self-esteem and career.

Whatever happened to that person?

Eugenie said...

The major difference between two of my summer research opportunities was the community- one (A) had very little collaboration and fellow undergrads were less interested in talking science after hours and the other (B) was the most supportive environment- total submersion in science, everywhere. Its no wonder how my memories favor B over A....

I definitly grew and matured at a student more at B too (and picked up some arguing skills).

Anonymous said...

Most of the time I discuss my research during lunch, times I run into people in the hall, etc.

Usually when I go out with my labmates to the pubs, we talk about things other than research, although sometimes our discussions will take us back to lab research and grad life in general.

Although I enjoy talking about my research, I'm not a point where I have a lot to say about it yet. I'm still working on the techniques.

Anonymous said...

The only time I shy away from sharing ideas is when I know that the other person will claim it as their own or the knowledge gap were just too great, in which case I can't be bothered to do all the talking....

Female Science Professor said...

The grad student in the anecdote got his PhD at a time when there were few/no faculty positions in his field. He would have made a phenomenal professor but he has had a very successful career in industry.

Post-doc said...

My lab mates and I in grad school had the most productive planning meetings when my advisor was "on sabbatical" and canceled lab meetings for the semester. It was the ONLY time the three of us brainstormed and worked out problems were were having with our experiments. There was also a small group of us who would pick a theme and present papers once a week without any faculty involvement.

Sarah said...

As a senior at an all-undergrad + 3 postdocs SLAC, I've found that we have a good mix of both. We have a very strong undergrad research program--many opportunities to work with people--but we also have a lot of fun talking about science and non-science. We actually had a "no science" party after a particularly stressful week...two hours of Apples to Apples but no science talk allowed. It actually added a very comic element to the evening. We had to discard any cards with concepts such as gravity and save all science stories for after midnight (and we *did* tell the stories after the game had ended). It was wonderful to have a break where no well-meaning but unaware people asked how our work was going.

Anonymous said...

When i was a grad student, we used to have wide ranging discussions on technical issues, big ideas (even if not about science) and everything in between. These discussions managed to be the bases of at least two papers and the final bits of Ph.D. theses. When I was a postdoc, the faculty chipped in to pay for beer and pizza so that the students/postdocs could have an evening every week discussing big and small ideas. Out of these came (at least for me and a grad student, who remains a close friend and colleague) a Nat. Neuroscience, a PNAS and a J. Neurosci paper. Not bad for a few pizzas and beers. Now that I am on the faculty, I try very hard to encourage students to have these discussions and come up with ideas that they can claim as their own.

biochemist_on_the_run said...

I'm finishing up undergrad at a PUI, and I can say that I've been really lucky to find a group of friends that are willing to discuss research with me. To be completely honest, the more interesting conversations I have are with people who are completely outside of my research area, and I have been able to learn a lot from them.

I hope grad school will be similar where I can find a great community of friends from all areas of research!

Unbalanced Reaction said...

What a great post! I have gotten so frustrated with Undergrads here at PermaU-- they never talk about their research! When I bring this up, they act like it never occurred to them to ask one another about what they do in lab. Why are they not curious?

Anonymous said...

FSP, what happened to the senior grad student whom you said 'saved' your career after your thesis committee member shot you down? do you still collaborate?

what about your heartless committee member who called you stupid and ignorant, does he know how successful you've become? Does he accept you as a peer and colleague now, and feel embarrassed at his gross misjudgment of you?? I would hope so.

Female Science Professor said...

I answered the first question in an earlier comment.

The evil professor died long ago. At an event held in his honor in the Science Department, his widow said to me "Don't worry, dear, I didn't believe all those things he said about you."

Anonymous said...

somehow in our lab the culture seems to be that discussing research matters outside of formal meetings or formal work situations is "not cool." It's more cool to talk about your non-work activities like your weekend sports exploits or your rock band's latest gigs or the party you went to last night. we seem to only discuss research or technical matters if it is really necessary, like if someone needs help from someone else. Otherwise, our non-urgent converstaions are usually not about research or technical matters.

Anonymous said...

I found myself in the exact position of a committee member informing me how stupid and incapable of research that I am (although my work is good enough to steal and publish under his students). Add the additional level of complexity that he is my adviser's husband and you get the picture. How did you ultimately get your PhD? Did you remove that committee member? I admire you're ability to navigate through, I was shocked to read a similar story to mine in such a successful person's blog (you give me hope!).

Anonymous said...

I'm a postdoc at MegaLandGrant(TM) University, and I was a grad student at Huge LandGrant(TM) University.

At both places, I've observed so many barriers to interaction - disciplinary / departmental / age-based - and that's without getting to the less savory ones (nationality, race etc.) it's amazing.

I'm more convinced than ever that PIs / faculty need to promote and stimulate intra-group interaction aggressively. Left to themselves, students invariably self-segregate into their respective comfort zones based on whatever criteria.

Ms.PhD said...

This discussion has taken an interesting turn.

Where I went to the school, ALL the interactions were initiated by students, not by faculty or postdocs. In many cases, the faculty talked idly of collaborating, but collaborations only happened when the students got together and made it happen.

As a postdoc, I went out of my way to continue to collaborate extensively. That was what the science demanded; I found people who were doing the things the project needed, and got them to help me.

Yet, this discussion explains why, when I applied for faculty positions, I think my collaborative tendencies were assumed to belong to the PIs on my papers? Like it was impossible to imagine I initiated this all myself (me, a mere postdoc)?

Or else it was just held against me- you know how they love to tell women we're "unfocused" and "overambitious".