Have you ever had the chance to meet with a professor, colleague, writer, or even an older family member and did not know what to say or ask? A person with so much knowledge, and you resort to talking about the weather.
Over the years I have met many professors over lunch. Tired of banal small talk, I began collecting and creating questions to ask. The main goal of these questions is to get a thoughtful conservation going (as such yes/no questions do not work well here). In these conversations, I hope to learn something new (a fact, concept, or perspective), gain advice and tips, and get an idea about the person’s personality. Other questions are just out of sheer curiosity.
Some of the questions are written for scientists, but can easily be altered to fit almost any interviewee. A word of caution: I think the best questions are genuine, so if you are not feeling it, don’t ask it.
So how do you segue from an introduction into asking such questions? I usually just say “Well, if you don’t mind, I have some questions for you.” This has always worked for me.
- What does your daily routine look like? Do you set aside certain parts of the day for writing or thinking?
- What do you think is the main way you acquire new information—reading and/or reviewing papers, conferences, seminars, or discussing science with colleagues?
- Do you have an informal mentor? Who do you go to when you want comments on a grant or manuscript, or to run an idea by?
- Being productive is easy when you are motivated—what motivates you?
- Do you think science research should be hypothesis-driven or discovery-based (exploratory)?
- What is your favorite paper you have published, and why?
- What do you think the goal of a Ph.D. in the sciences is?
- If you could go back in time and tell your grad-student self some piece of advice, what would it be?
- If you could go into a whole new field of science what would it be?
- What are some big or important sacrifices you’ve made to achieve success? What are your feelings or attitudes toward those choices/sacrifices?
- What is the last book you read?
- Where do you get your news?
- What is one idea you have that your friends or colleagues think is crazy? For instance, near the end of his career, the Nobel laureate Linus Pauling thought vitamin C could cure cancer, which recently has regained interest.1
- What concept/theory in science (or life) do you think is the most profound?
- Who tells you when you’re wrong?
- What was a very productive mistake that you’ve made?
- What do you wish you had more time to do?/ What don’t you spend enough time doing?
- If you had 24 hours left to live, who would you be with within 23 hours?
- What is your next great adventure?
- What is one of the kindest things someone has ever done for you?
- What makes you feel really alive?
- What is the best compliment you have ever received?
- When was the last time you felt most creative?
- What do you fight for?
- Describe a perfect day?
- Do you want your children (if you have any) to be like you?
- What do you think you spend too much time doing?
- When is the last time you felt like you authentically expressed yourself?
- If you could meet any famous person (dead or alive) who would it be?
- What do you think the top goals of a scientist should be?
This is a running list that will be updated periodically.
Questions 17-29 were graciously provided by Kip.