So, what did you discover during your PhD?

As I am about to leave for much needed holidays with my family in France, I find myself faced with the usual anxiety. No, I am not talking about having to spend more than a couple of days living with one’s parents. I mean the dreaded conversation that is sure to happen with family and friends you don’t see often: the “what do you do” conversation.

Obviously the fact that I am a research scientist is already known, so what they really want to understand is what I do on a day-to-day basis. Unfortunately replying “science, duh” and “mind your own business” isn’t an option because, well, it’s rude, and scientists are supposed to love communicating what they do to the lay person. In fact I think that not wanting to or not being able to do so is very much frowned upon.

I am sure that some ecologist find answering that question really easy. For example, “I study the behaviour of gibbons” is a great answer that most non-scientists will find clear, interesting and engaging. When you are a modeller, however, and you daily work involves writing (amazing and complex) models or doing (super cool) stats, so it’s hard to (1) explain what it is you actually do and (2) easily convey how cool your job is when you can’t use jargon.

The truth is that I stay at my computer and stare at a screen all day. Yes my work involves data from real species and ultimately will matter for species management and conservation (that’s the idea at least) but somehow making it sound awesome and glamorous is tough. So I am left with two choices, either being very vague, using no jargon and not conveying what I do at all, or try to explain in more accurate terms but lose people’s interest pretty quickly.

if you are wondering about what my title is about, yes this was a question that someone actually asked me. Just after submitting my PhD I went back to France and one of my relatives posed this evil question. I let you imagine the fish-out-of-the-water look I sported for a few seconds… Then bravely, I decided to point out what cool things I had done without too much jargon (but using words like math and computer, everyone like those, don’t they?) but still being accurate. It didn’t take long for my audience’s attention to slip away, I could tell by the glazed look in their eyes. That and the fact they didn’t let me finish. Afterwards, my husband scolded me for wanting to tell the ‘truth’! Of course, he was right in a sense because should have been able to tell the story better.

Any tip on how you deal with talking about your job to people who have zero idea of what it’s really like?


About Alienor Chauvenet

Follow me on twitter @AChauvenet View all posts by Alienor Chauvenet

6 responses to “So, what did you discover during your PhD?

  • Simon Leather

    One of the questions I always ask at vivas is to imagine you are in a pub and someone wants to know why they as a tax-payer should have supported your research – in other words how does what you have done benefit the general public – a very valid question as when applying for grants we always have to say how our proposed research will benefit the UK

  • myscientificlife

    I have no suggestions, but empathy.My undergrad research involved modeling fish behavior. I specifically remember one day when my bf’s dad was asking about my research and at one point he asked “so do people use fish for these fish?” I said no, and he said “so, they are used for bait then?”. I said no again. Then he was completely confused as to why I would bother studying this fish, and I had no satisfying answer for him (other than they are interesting, which he didn’t like).

  • My elevator pitch | Dynamic Ecology

    […] answer the question “What have you discovered?” Ecologist Alienor Chauvenet has a post discussing the challenge of answering the latter question briefly and honestly, especially if […]

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