How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Q&A Sessions!

The evidence suggests that women ask fewer questions than men at conferences. It’s possible – indeed likely – that some of this effect can be accounted for by women being called on less often by the chair. But at least part of the problem is lacking the confidence to ask questions in front of an audience, and this seems to affect women more than men.

The gender gap in asking questions is problematic because doing so is good for your career. If you ask questions in departmental seminars, you will be noticed as an engaged scientist and good departmental citizen. This will be mentioned to your potential future employers and collaborators. When going up for internal awards, your engagement – or lack of it – will be noted and does influence your chance of success. In the context of your wider field, standing up and asking a question at a conference is a great way to get yourself “out there” without having been invited to give a talk. This might sound scary, but it’s less scary (and less work) than giving a talk yourself.

And yet, for many scientists – not just women – it’s difficult to find the courage to put a hand up and ask that question. It’s something I’ve struggled with myself. But when I became a group leader, I decided I really had to start asking questions in seminars: it wouldn’t be very group leader-ish not to. And recently I’ve noticed it getting easier. Not only am I asking more questions, but my heart is no longer pounding when I put my hand up. So how did I get from there to here?

7 tips for overcoming your nerves and getting involved in the Q&A session

  1. Listen to the talk and make notes. Making notes not only keeps you focused, but will also give you confidence that your question wasn’t already answered in the talk.
  2. Make a note of any questions that occur to you. When I started this project, I wrote down my questions, but I didn’t ask them. I began to notice that some of “my” questions would be asked by other people. And if Professor X thought the question was worth asking, then why didn’t I ask it myself?
  3. If you are embarking on this project with a friend, you can review each other’s written questions. Just having one other person who thinks that your question is sensible can give you the confidence to ask it.
  4. Take the opportunity to talk to the speaker after the seminar. In an internal seminar, you’re likely to chat to the speaker in the lab afterwards anyway. For external seminars, if there is a lunch or drinks with the speaker, go along. What question did you ask when the eyes of the department weren’t on you? If it prompted a genuine discussion with the speaker about their research, then it would have worked equally well in the Q&A after the seminar.
  5. Let go of the idea that you have to ask “clever” questions. The most successful questions are usually the genuine ones. You’re a scientist who was paying attention to the talk and wants to know the answer to a particular question. If you think it’s worth asking, others will too.
  6. If you’re still struggling, take a moment to think of questions in advance. This is a strategy I borrowed from physicist and science fiction author Gregory Benford. From his classic time travel story, “Timescape”:

“He would look up the speaker\’s papers, with special attention to the Conclusions section, where authors usually speculated a bit, threw out \”blue sky\” ideas, and occasionally took indirect slams at their competitors. Then he would read the competitors\’ papers as well. This always generated several good questions.”

  1. Like anything else, asking questions in seminars gets easier the more you do it. So if you’ve taken the confidence boosting steps above and you’re still not sure if you can do it, just take the plunge. If you persist, you’ll quickly find your nerves disappear.

“But what if I ask a stupid question?”

Everyone does, occasionally, and it’s really not that bad. In fact, even a “stupid” question can start a worthwhile discussion. I recently attended a talk on the immune response to a certain parasite. I’m an immunologist, but the last time I had much to do with parasites was during my undergraduate degree. I asked my question and the speaker explained, very politely, that actually I was thinking of a different parasite. It was embarrassing for a second, but the discussion quickly moved on. During the coffee break, the speaker approached me.

“You know,” he said, “that question of yours got me thinking…”