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I'm unsure about #5. Among friends, at least, questions like this are a chance to either celebrate or commiserate. That's just what friends do; we take joy in each others' successes and comfort those in need of solace. With mere acquaintances, this can be a little more delicate, but even then, I appreciate the gesture. At its best, it communicates care and a sense that we're all in this together.

That said, I'm sure I've asked questions like this before (intended to be in a spirit of camaraderie) and communicated something quite different, and I will try to be more careful about that.

And in this employment climate, there's absolutely no shame in having few or no interviews.

Dan Dennis

Thanks for another interesting post, Marcus.

I would add to 2 ‘If you think you have an objection, try to put it in the form of a question – and be aware that you may be mistaken in thinking the objection successful’. Thus instead of saying, ‘You account fails because X’ you say ‘Is X a problem for your account?’ or 'Couldn't someone claim that X?' or some such. In asking a question you are less hostile, recognising your falibility and giving the person the chance to think of a solution – and you look less dumb if it turns out X is not such a problem for the speaker's account. In asking a quesiton you are entering into dialogue, rather than trying to close someone down...


I'd like to express some reservations about #2. I don't think it's a good idea to preface comments with "I really enjoyed your paper" unless you genuinely mean them. Nor do I think "if you can't think of anything nice or helpful to say, don't say anything" is a good adage for philosophy.

Part of the reason I present papers at conferences is that I want to know (1) whether people like what I'm doing, and (2) whether there are serious, devastating objections to it. I want these things, in part, because when I'm presenting a paper I am usually thinking about my future anonymous reviewers whose job, after all, is not to make me feel good, but to decide whether or not to publish my paper--and why.

If everyone tells me that they enjoyed my paper only to be nice, that doesn't make me feel good--because I don't know if they were *just* being nice or actually meant it--and it doesn't help me figure out how publishable my paper is. And if people with devastating objections were to stop raising them because they couldn't, spur of the moment, also think of a way I could fix those ideas, or offer something honest and positive to say, then I'd miss out on knowing what the devastating objections are. And sure, you can talk to the person after their talk. But with conference schedules, that isn't always easy or possible. If you're not certain you can hang out afterwards, and the only thing you can think of to say is a criticism--if you're at one of my talks, at least, please raise it!

In other words: please don't be nice at the expense of being genuinely helpful. I think Dan's suggestion is good--I agree that it's important to be nice, very important not to try to humiliate people, and great to pose objections as questions rather than straightforward assaults. Still, I want the devastating objections on my papers, and if people sit through my paper and think it was a waste of time, I want to know their reasons.


I like 7, and wish more referees would heed this advice. My adviser taught me to write careful, charitable referee reports, and I always make an effort to follow her advice, even when I think the paper I'm reading is utter crap.

And it's really disheartening, especially as a grad student, to get careless, poorly argued or written (sometimes to the point of unintelligibility), and often useless referee reports from (likely) more senior members of the profession.

elisa freschi

Re. 2, I tend to agree with Roman (I WANT to know whether my argument is sound) but I see your point. Thus, my usual strategy is: I only criticise a paper in a way that makes its author learn something (e.g., instead of saying "it is crap", I suggest reading X or Z or considering the counterevidence Y).

Re. 3, I try to tell my friends at conferences that they do not have to come to my talk. I know too many people who literally run from one hall to the other to listen to their friends and in this way miss many papers they would be much more interested in. This being said, I would go to the talk of a shy friend if I think she might need some support.


I agree with Roman about #2. I find it generally unhelpful when every person asking a question starts with "I really enjoyed your paper." It just seems like an empty phrase at this point. It's nice to get a more specific positive comment, though, such as "I think part X of your argument is really convincing..."
Generally, I would like my interlocutors to simply state what they have in mind. Q&A situations are generally difficult, because the speaker has to try to immediately figure out what is being asked, and what to answer. Masking objections as questions is just unhelpful to the speaker and to the other listeners. It is very common for people to say things like "I have a question, I think I am confused here, because [insert something that can easily be stated as a serious objection.]"
It just makes the discussion harder to follow, and I don't think it's nicer than just saying: "I have an objection that I think might be pretty serious, here it is..."
However, if a speaker seems like they wouldn't be able to handle a serious blow to their view (for whatever reason), it's also great to send an email with the objection later.
One of the most polite things people can do in Q&A is to ask their questions in a concise way, so that the speaker can hear lots of feedback from different people.

Marcus Arvan

Thanks for the comments everyone! Looks like I should strike (or at least substantially revise) #2, since there seems to be so much agreement against it.

Does anyone have any tips not on the list for being a good member of the profession?

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