It’s that time of year that we love- full of tasty food, delicious goodies, presents, carol singing, and of course, awkward family parties. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, consider yourself lucky. Along with family gatherings comes that question that we’re always dreading – even during undergrad – “What do you do and what does that mean?” or “What are you going to do with THAT degree?” Unless you come from a family of academics, explaining your position in graduate school is bound to be a little tough. If your family members have heard anything about grad school, it’s probably from a joke, and therefore probably not all that informational or correct. Here are a couple strategies I’ve come up with in order to handle the questions.
1. Answer quickly, and change the subject. Yeah, this isn’t really a solution, but it’s an approach. Face it, sometimes our family members don’t actually want you to answer that question. They asked you out of formality and are just trying to get through the night while making small talk. Aren’t sure if they care or not? Look for the signs: Nodding with a blank stare, A bland “OK….” when you’ve finished, or eyes that are desperately looking for a different conversation to join. If however, they are engaged and ask a follow up question, they may actually be genuinely interested in your life. If so, try the next approach.
2. Educate them! This is part of our job right? Well, also consider yourself a spokesperson for graduate school. Explain to them what graduate school is like for you- not all that much school, but much more about hands on learning, and developing as person and a scientist. Talk about what motivates you to pursue a graduate degree- your passion for learning, your desire to make changes in the world, etc. And also, the importance of graduate school (this might be more about breaking stereotypes). Scientists aren’t, for some reason, always seen in the best light. Consider this your opportunity to talk about the great thing science has to offer… advances in health, technology, etc.
3. Lie to them. OK, this one you might be too late to do – but if you haven’t told your family you’re in grad school yet – lie to them! I’m not talking a dramatic lie, like you’re an accountant or something- but if that’s your strategy that might be OK too! No I’m saying, just tell them you took a research position at the university and you’re doing lab work – somehow this seems easier to swallow than bringing up “Grad School”. Then after 5-7 years, start signing your Holiday Cards with “, Ph.D.” and request to be called Dr. So-and-So when asked to pass the salt at the table. I’m joking, of course.
How about you? How do you talk to your family about your position?
Happy Holidays! Here’s to surviving those awkward family parties!
PS – After reading through this draft, it sounds a little arrogant, like our family members aren’t able to comprehend what we do. That’s not at all what I meant. Instead, our jobs are much less publicized and hardly ever represented in the main stream. We’re usually the butt of jokes and labeled as what poor life decisions look like: (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XViCOAu6UC0; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4M98x-FLp7E). I genuinely hope your family is interested in what you do, and that you are able to start a dialogue about what grad school is really like. Obviously, that’s kind of the point of this blog.