Do your parents seem confused as to why writing a paper can take months or years? “You should be able to finish this paper by Friday, right?” … Or, do your grandparents have no idea why you can’t just “graduate next semester”? When you get to travel for conferences and research stays, does your family think you are on some form of a permanent vacation? Do friends or family members seem to have no idea what you do all day?
Even after 3 years, I still find it a bit of a challenge to explain to my family and friends – in the simplest of terms, my research, the importance of my work, and the ever-changing timeline of my research plan. My research plan sounds solid one week and then completely falls apart the next week. I feel like I am starting over more than finishing any one project. But these movements, even when they seem like a step in the wrong direction, are all progress towards finishing my PhD. Explaining these setbacks as progress and not failures is key to keeping my family off my back about “Why you are still in school?”, “Will you ever graduate?” (which, trust me, happens more often than I’d like to admit).
I once spoke with a family member about my long day at my university, and her response was that she thought I “answered phones” at my university. “What else could you do there?” This was hilarious and slightly offensive at the same time. If you have family members that are totally oblivious and have literally no clue about what you do all day long, I’d say the easiest way to make them understand is to simply show them. Don’t bother with fancy plots and data points. But show them cruise photos, or photos of you in a lab coat in the lab. Or, better yet, give them a tour of your lab / office in person. They will then understand, at least a little bit, more about what you do all day and why you choose to spend your days working on your projects. Showing them what you do or where you work may inspire them to ask questions, like “What does this instrument do?”, “What are you measuring?”, “How do you get sediment samples off the seafloor without diving down there?”, and “Do you really get paid to play with mud everyday?”. I will never forget that time during my undergraduate degree when I told my aunt that I measure the size of sand grains…and that, yes, I was paid to do this work! Her mind was sufficiently blown, and our discussion prompted several follow up questions about the importance of measuring grain size variability in marine sediments, and the associated implications for current flow, etc.
Some of the questions about your work that you get from your non-academic family and friends might sound ridiculous, but it is awesome that they are curious about what you do, and their questions present an excellent opportunity to practice talking about your research in a public setting. If you talk to your non-academic family and friends about your research in simple terms, you will receive less “Don’t you answer phones?” and instead you’ll get more “Cool project!”, “You get to work on a ship!” and “Wow, you get to wear a lab coat!”. This might even inspire them to learn more about science in general, and to keep up-to-date with you and your research (and yes, even those papers that can “take years” to finish).
Here are some photos that can help me explain my research and/or pique the scientific interest of my family and friends: