Monday, March 4, 2013

How to Ask Good Questions 003

One of the qualities, which I feel truly sets me apart from my peers, is my inability to keep my mouth shut.

Now that opening statement is not what it seems to be. What I am talking about is asking questions.

We've all heard the old adage "No question is a stupid question." and for the most part I have to agree. At the very worst, a question may reveal you're failure to pay attention or your lack of knowledge on the topic. In both of these scenarios, you will still be rewarded with the information you are missing.

I once bravely put my hand up to ask, "What do you mean by ESCs?" an acronym which the presenter had been using without definition, assuming it was common knowledge. Now I don't work with cell lines, I had no idea he meant 'Embryonic Stem Cells.' Sure I felt a little stupid having to ask the question, but I would have felt a whole lot worse to have sat through the whole 20 minute talk not knowing it.

Each week I attend a number of talks, from journal clubs, to work in progresses, to departmental seminars. Typically, when the presenter is finished, and asks if their are any questions, a couple of profs and maybe a post-doc or two put their hands up. It is the rare grad student in my experience who is able to consistently contribute to the discussion with questions.

I however am someone who cannot keep my mouth shut, I am forever curious, and always throw my hand up to ask a question or two. Lately I've been rewarded by comments from other faculty in our department that the questions were 'good ones.' It's good to know that faculty other than your own supervisor are taking note of you.

Some advice for asking 'good' questions:
  • Pay attention to the talk, yes they are often mandatory, often unrelated to your work, often incredibly boring. I get over that by taking notes, no matter what.
  • Jot down any questions you think of during the talk so you remember them at the end.
  • Put your hand up right away. There's nothing worse than thinking of a great question only to have someone else ask it first.
  • If something was unclear during the talk ask for clarification, not only does it benefit you and the other students unwilling to ask, it also provides constructive feedback to the presenter.
  • If you disagree with some conclusion, ask about it, but avoid being argumentative.
  • Remember, the purpose of these presentations is often primarily for trainee development, and learning how to ask effective, informed and critical questions is a skill you should be developing here. Take advantage of the opportunity to do so in a familiar environment.
Finally, for me personally, the best way to learn is to actively participate in the discussion.  If I take the time to ask questions on a topic, I am more likely to retain that information in the long run. As a grad student, my time is precious, and weekly journal clubs and work in progresses cut into that time. I am determined, however, to not have it be time wasted. By asking questions, partaking in the conversation and leaving a good impression of myself, I am able to take full advantage of the opportunity presented each week.

So whatever point you are in your education, don't be afraid to ask questions, like any other skill asking effective questions is one you can and should develop.

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