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NeuroBatman

Put on the spot

7 posts in this topic

First year grad student here: So . . . let me preface this post by stating unequivocally that I understand that grad school is a time to improve my ability to think on my feet.  That being said, my advisor often puts me on the spot at lab meetings, asking me questions/makes inquiries that are often ambiguous and unrelated to what I'm currently researching.  For instance, the other day he asked me to discuss the connection between two disparate projects, one of which was run before I was even in the lab and therefore, something I'm not overly familiar with.  Needless to say, I was at a loss for words and came across as a blathering fool to my lab mates.

My concern is that my lab mates are going to think I'm a dumbass, who is ill prepared.  Let me add, I was fully prepared (and took the time to be fully prepared) to discuss the methodological question he had asked me to be prepared for a few days ago.  Of course, he covered this information himself and asked me the question about something we have never discussed before.  

Has anyone had similar experiences?  If so, how did you resolve them?  I've been feeling more and more like my colleagues think that I don't belong here.  

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Both of these things are, imo, normal parts of grad school (getting asked random questions with no preparation, as well as feeling like other people think you don't belong), as well as the rest of academic life.

You can only prepare so much, especially depending on what your background is. That said, what you should focus on being able to do is, as you say, think on your feet. You can preface it (I'm not that familiar with past project X, but...) and then give what you feel is a reasonable answer. 

One of the most important things to be able to do, really for the rest of your career, is give reasonable off the cuff answers without having it stress you out. I get this type of random question in campus interviews, I get it when I'm giving seminars at a new school, and I even get it from colleagues. I also get it an awful lot from students, who seem to be able to (with no malice) find the one tangential area to a lecture that I didn't read too deeply into, and asking probing and insightful questions that I have no idea how to answer. 

For the second part, I think a lot of what you're feeling is what's called "imposter syndrome". It's the feeling like you don't belong, like everyone else is smarter, and they think you don't belong either. It's really common among academics, and I encourage you to read some of the great resources here, on the Chronicle of Higher Education forums, and other academic sites about how to deal with it. A lot of times knowing it's normal and common is one of the crucial first steps. 

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Posted (edited)

@EigenDo you have any suggestions for getting better at answering difficult questions or is it just something that happens naturally over the years?  During undergrad I was very good at seeing divergent points of view and thinking about things in many different ways.  In grad school (at least in my program), it seems like everyone wants to one-up everyone else and make the room as uncomfortable as possible--it doesn't help that my advisor smirks at us after asking questions (I doubt he does this on purpose, but it is intimidating).

Edited by NeuroBatman

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51 minutes ago, NeuroBatman said:

@EigenDo you have any suggestions for getting better at answering difficult questions or is it just something that happens naturally over the years?  

This is will improve with time and practice.  The more you do it, the easier it will get. 

52 minutes ago, NeuroBatman said:

In grad school (at least in my program), it seems like everyone wants to one-up everyone else and make the room as uncomfortable as possible--it doesn't help that my advisor smirks at us after asking questions (I doubt he does this on purpose, but it is intimidating).

For what it's worth that sounds like an unhealthy work environment and it's too bad that your advisor encourages it, but at the end of the day this kind of behavior is usually a front for insecurities on the part of the one-uppers.  It's an immature way of dealing with the fear of being found out, or in other words, the result of impostor syndrome.  Best not to engage, if possible.  As for the advisor's part in this, I'd try not to assume anything about his smirking; give him the benefit of the doubt that he isn't trying to intimidate you, and do your best to answer the question.  You'll do better with time. 

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I am also a person that does very poorly "on the spot" but I can manage to get by when necessary. In some discussion groups, I really dislike it when there is no moderation of who speaks, so it's basically whoever can talk over others, or whoever can say something first gets credit for the idea or credit for "participating". It is really tough on students like me who take time to think more deeply about the topic and need a bit of time to craft a response. 

I really prefer discussion groups where the question is posed and everyone is asked to spend 1-2 minutes thinking about it before asking for contributions. It's even better when there is a moderator to ensure a small group of extroverted or less-shy students do not dominate the conversation. Good science and thought should not be about who can speak the quickest or the loudest or with the most confidence!

Unfortunately, it's not really practical to expect a student can change how an advisor runs their group. This is the type of thing I would classify under "advisor fit". Depending on how well you get along with your advisor otherwise, you could consider telling him that you are not able to perform optimally when put on the spot like this. But if he is not a person that different people might have different needs/abilities, then it might not be helpful to you. 

The good news is that as Eigen and fuzzy both said, with time, you will get better. It took me more than half of my time in grad school to be able to think of questions on the spot and actually ask them at things like seminars or to be actually able to participate in group discussions when it's no moderation (whoever speaks first).

I still struggle with being asked questions on the spot though. One strategy I find that works well for me is that when I am asked a question I'm not even sure what they are getting at, is to ask for clarification. It's okay to ask a question back. Later, when you are more experienced, you can also answer a similar question instead of their question. For example if they ask a bad, unclear (or an unfair) question, you can redirect the topic to something you do know (again with more time, you will know more things). You can say something like, "I'm not certain what you are asking exactly, but if you mean [[rephrase the question into something you know the answer to]] then I think.... " ; usually if it was just a poorly thought-out/bad question, you won't get a followup. If it was a question they actually want an answer to, the followup will clarify more things. In any case, this allows you to actually show that you know things and lets you demonstrate your knowledge / avoid having to blather when you don't even know what the other person is getting at.

Another tip: Listen to how politicians and school officials deflect bad questions or questions meant to trip them up. Obviously, you can't employ all of the strategies and I would be careful to avoid doing this for sincere questions. But I think that if people like your advisor or other students are just asking questions to "posture", then it's fair game to use some of these tricks back at them.

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Thanks everyone!  All of your responses have been really helpful and make me feel much less alone.  It is hard being an introvert in a lab dominated by extroverts, but just knowing that it's normal to be caught off guard when one is in the early stages of his or her graduate tenure is extremely encouraging.  

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There's a good book by Susan Cain, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, which you might enjoy and find helpful if you haven't already read it. I also often recommend Marc Kuchner's Marketing for Scientists: How to Shine in Tough Times. This book is written by an astrophysicist who is also a country music songwriter and wrote a book applying what he learned from the music/marketing world to science. Not everyone necessarily agrees with everything in that book, but there are some really good chapters discussing how one crafts their "brand" as a scientist that is really enlightening and helpful. The chapters on telling an engaging story in your writing or oral presentation are also very nice.

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