Home for a holiday, or, talking to family about your PhD program and your job prospects

When grad students and postdocs go home to celebrate a holiday with their families, they sometimes hear questions and comments like these.

“Are[n’t] you done with that program [yet]?” is one of two questions Ph.D. candidates hate most.  It helps to remember that, especially for family members who don’t see you often, it’s a reasonable question.  And for families of Ph.D. students who are the first in their families to get an advanced degree or go to college, it’s often hard to make sense of the Ph.D. degree process, because it is so unfamiliar, with its own idiosyncratic, opaque language and timelines and expectations.  It helps to describe the progress in relatively jargon-free units: “I am done with the first part, coursework, and I finished the second part, exams, last April and now I am on the third part, writing my thesis. Near the end of the thesis is when I start looking for a job.”  Being able to say “I expect to finish in [month and year]” helps.

“Are you [still not] done with your thesis?” and the corollary “well, when will you be done?” is the other question Ph.D. candidates hate most, partly because it often makes people feel guilty that they aren’t done. Most projects in most other workplaces don’t take as long as a Ph.D., or even as the thesis, so you may also hear things like “wow, by that time, I’ll have worked on three new buildings!”  The best answer to someone who is trying to get under your skin with the question is to say, in a neutral tone, “yeah, it usually takes people in my field [N years] to finish.  I am expecting to finish around [date].”  (Don’t know when that is?  Build a thesis schedule to help you find out.)  The best answer to someone who is well-intentioned and anxious for you, or merely curious, is the same, perhaps minus the information about the usual length of the degree program.

“What’s your thesis about?” or the more general “what are you studying?” often bring out two equally problematic responses.  One is the overly long, overly detailed response that puts off all but the most dedicated specialist in the same field. That kind of answer comes from graduate students who have spent a long time working in on their topic and talking mostly to specialists, and they often don’t realize how they sound to non-specialists.  The other is “well, it’s pretty specialized, but [shorter summary].  Starting the answer with that disclaimer (or warning) comes from people who think, or fear, their listeners might not understand or like or respect the topic.  Sometimes the person saying that fears their listeners will wonder why they are working on anything so arcane, which they also often wonder. Either way, starting with the comment about it being specialized automatically puts the listener in a different world from the speaker.

When you answer this question, the most helpful thing is to consider your listeners as intelligent non-specialists, who are asking because they are interested, and will remain so for at least three not-too-long sentences: here’s the topic; here’s the problem; here’s why I find it important. The most unhelpful thing is to use the phrase “dumbed down,” as in “I’ll give you the dumbed-down version.”  (Developing a concise, interesting answer to this question well is excellent preparation for interviewing on the non-academic job market, should you want or need to.)

“Are you ever going to get a job in [field]?” or the more grating “will that ever get you a job in the real world?” is hard because it is almost certainly not only their question but one of yours.  You can say “I hope so, and I am certainly trying to do just that” or some similar response.  You can also say “I don’t know,” which is, by the way, true for nearly all job searches and for those of us who cannot foretell the future.

The “real world” part of the question, whether snide or sincerely meant, brings up all the anxieties that people taking a Ph.D. have somehow separated themselves from the real world of work, something academia’s representations in popular culture makes it easy to think.  You can answer along the lines of “working on [problem] seems pretty real,” depending on how likely your listener is to think of your research problem as “real.” You can also discuss the non-thesis work you are doing along the way: “teaching class / grading papers / working as a lab assistant seems pretty real.  It’s certainly real to [my students / my supervisor].”  It helps to understand the terms describing jobs in the for- and non-profit and public-sector, and how and where academic work is like that.

Whether you want to describe how skills gained through Ph.D. research helps a lot of people get other kinds of interesting jobs depends in part on whether you are comfortable with the inevitable follow-up question: “if you’re probably going to have to work outside that field, why’d you bother with a Ph.D. in it?” Before you are comfortable answering anyone else about this topic, you have to be comfortable with your answer.  If the answer is “because I value the chance to study [topic] for its own sake and make a contribution to that field” or something similar, remember that, however much you may value that chance, for many people study is for the purpose of getting a related job, or improving one’s chances of getting a job.  To those people, studying for its own sake may be a luxury they cannot afford, and your answer may sound like an assertion of your ability to do something they cannot, whether you mean it that way or not.  If you do leave academics, here’s some guidance about addressing the emotional aftermath of leaving as it pertains to family and friends.

The biggest thing you can do to make these conversations to well is to adopt the first rule of on-the-job interaction: assume good intentions.  Even if you believe that someone is asking you about your work and employment prospects just to get your goat, if you answer with good intentions and assume good intentions, you will go a long way toward a constructive conversation about a research and teaching world that many people find unfamiliar at best and alienating at worst.

If repeated interactions convince you that the person speaking to you doesn’t have good intentions, and is merely yanking your chain, the most helpful advice I’ve ever gotten has come from The No Asshole Rule, an excellent read for managing tough interactions not only in workplaces but in families.