This post by Dr Anaise Irvine first appeared on Thesislink in July 2017. We chose it for Throwback Thursday to help anyone who may be facing a lot of curious family members over the upcoming holidays!
Postgraduate research is so, so specific.
Your research might be about the physics of the movement of bees’ wings in flight. Or security protocols for cloud storage providers. Or the particular bacterial properties of fermented cabbage.
Your research area will be a subfield of a subfield, and your particular research questions will direct you towards a subfield of that. It’s not easy to talk about such niche work with people who aren’t directly involved with it.
So when you run into Uncle Norbert at a family function, and he asks the dreaded question – “What is your research about?” – you might hear it, as I do, in horror movie slow motion.
Whaaaaaat… oh no, he’s going to ask me…
iiiiiiiiissssss… yes, he’s gonna do it…
yoooooouuuuurrrr… quick, think of a snappy response…
reeeeeeeesearrrrrrch… argh, come on brain, give me a one-liner to sum it up!…
aboooooooouuuuuutttt? Curse you, brain. You have failed me.
Sorry, Uncle Norbert.
I’m often tempted to waffle a little until Uncle Norbert loses interest (“my research is about the phlematitude of wokawokaism, with a focus on antifloomination…”) But perfecting a real and helpful answer to this question is an art, and can be legitimately beneficial to your career.
Think of it this way: Uncle Norbert is a layperson. He has no background in your field, and he probably has no background in academia. He is the perfect person on whom to test out your non-jargony research pitch. If you can frame your research in one or two sentences that Uncle Norbert can readily comprehend, then you can pitch your research to anyone.
This skill is so useful if you plan to apply for jobs outside of academia (or outside your discipline), or if you want to talk to the media, or give public lectures, or talk to research funders. There are so many circumstances in which researchers have to talk to non-specialists, and your Uncle Norbert response can act as the prototype for your layperson spiel. You can refine it over the years (and the family reunions) until it is a perfectly comprehensible and exciting encapsulation of your work.
So, Uncle Norbert, prepare to be enthralled. I’m ready for you. And Aunty Nora too.