Nonfiction comments to a Ph.D. student (and the science of my awkward responses)

My life as a Ph.D. student is in some ways similar to life on a small isolated country. I have (perhaps foolishly) moved there willingly, and I intimately know a number of the residents. I have come to share with the inhabitants their remarkably common lifestyles, similar viewpoints, and a love for bar trivia.

It is often believed that we natives of this isolated country are innately taciturn, with a breeding that renders us paralyzed in the face of normal social interaction. In reality, we are mainly trained to make our chaotic stew of scientific thought into something useful to the public. Any Ph.D. student who has defended a qualifying exam, a dissertation, or received harsh comments from publication reviewers has experienced those challenging, aggravating, and all around exciting moments as we dexterously communicate blips of our academic thinking.

It might be surprising, then, that once I leave my isolated country of academia, a few simple questions I get from friends, family, strangers, and foes can be difficult to answer. How can just a couple of words render me speechless when my isolated country fixates on the art of scholarly communication? The answer lies in the silent thought process.

Here is a list of the 3 most common things people say to me when they hear I’m an engineering Ph.D.

Wow, you must be really smart!

Figure 1: Charlotte is smart.

Figure 1: Charlotte is smart.

This seems to be a common remark I hear from people with good intentions. The only problem is, I don’t think I am particularly smart. As a matter of fact, my job as a Ph. D student is to bring my best attempt at being smart to supervisors who undoubtedly tell me why I am wrong, and why my attempt falls short. And often, my supervisors let me know that my attempt falls very very short. I am constantly learning about the existence of subjects that I don’t understand and can barely pronounce. After 4 years as a Ph. D student, the only thing I can confidently say I am qualified for is receiving criticism.
This makes the question a conversation killer. How do convey this honest rejection of the compliment without coming off as being coy (or worse, ungrateful)? I have dabbled at responding with, “Well, not particularly smart. I just went to school and kept on going,” but this response is taken as coy and ungrateful. So now I awkwardly mumble in a typically nerdy way, “Umm…I guess…” In the future, I’m just going to say, “You bet your ass.”

Wow, you must really be in debt!

Figure 2: Charlotte is weary.

Figure 2: Charlotte is weary.

Most often, this remark is made with delight. The observer is relishing in the fact that he/she was in truth the smart one, who is now sitting on their pile of money bags while I have condemned myself to an eternal life sleeping on an Ikea fold out bed and breakfasting on ramen noodles. In this case, the response is, “Actually, they pay me to get my Ph. D.” The observer then gives a haphazard snort of mindless contempt followed by an utter disinterest in me as a person.
Sometimes this remark is made with genuine concern. The observer may remember what it was like when he/she had crippling debt from college loans. Indeed, college debt is a crippling problem for many of the youths in America, with student loan debt amassing to $1 trillion. When I comment that I am getting paid for my Ph. D (although, admittedly, not making bank), the observer gives an exclamation of minor surprise, and the conversation tends to wander to American economics. American economics is a subject in which the entirety of my knowledge comes from a high school AP class and the movie Fun with Dick and Jane, making me ill-equipped to provide any worthy contribution.

What are you going to do with that?

Figure 3: Charlotte is in panic.

Figure 3: Charlotte is in panic.

In the beginning of my Ph. D degree, the problem with this question was it was too similar to the constant queries of my academic supervisors. The question therefore opened the door for me to get my geek on. For example, I might have said in auto-pilot, “Well, the utilization of metagenomics in subsurface microbial communities has implication for climate science and the energy industry.”
See how boring that was, it probably didn’t even make sense.
The observer has unknowingly asked a question that is the equivalent of, “What’s the weather like over there.” The answer is both fickle and is of no genuine interest to practically anyone. I often find the conversations are followed with the observers’ eyes slowly glazing over while he/she calmly and meditatively ponders what enticed this question.
However, as I come to the end of my Ph. D, I find this query to be unreasonably stressful. My first expression might be one of panic (and maybe despair), as the sirens blaze off in my head “What are you going to do with that? The only thing you’re qualified for is receiving criticism. That’s fine for your twenties, but it’s not a career.” In this case, the panic produces a stream of nonsense from my mouth, as I babble in indecipherable scientific language and then move on to ambiguous job titles like “consultant” and “researcher”. Altogether, I am best off with a taciturn shrug. Although, it might be interesting to describe the ultimate fear of my post graduation unemployment fate: “I plan to move in with my parents and catch up on some TV.”
So there you have is: silent thoughts for harmless questions that produce a socially awkward Ph. D. Please leave your comments (found at the top of the blog) about your harmless questions and awkward answers, as they may prove to be more interesting than this blog post.

About the model:

Name: Charlotte Mittenpaws
Age: 3
Hometown: Pittsburgh, PA
Discovered: Meowing on an abandoned porch in Squirrel Hill. Two agents picked me up on the spot.
Dream Job: Food taster for Purina One.
Guilty Pleasures: Cat Nip and Purina One Seafood Delight.
Health and Beauty Must: Daily cat baths and weekly fur-go-pet brushings.


5 thoughts on “Nonfiction comments to a Ph.D. student (and the science of my awkward responses)

  1. Great article! As a fellow PhD student, a few things I would like to add is:
    1. Trying to explain my research to people and watching their eyes glaze over when it gets too specific!
    2. Explaining to people that I don’t take classes – that classes don’t matter in a PhD!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. You hit the three worst questions dead on. I tend to feel more awkward answering the third question if it’s coming from someone in academia, since they always seem to have strong opinions about a) if life exists outside of universities (why would you ever consider leaving??) and b) dwindling job prospects for future professors (why would you ever consider staying??). No winning with that question.


  3. I typically play off the first question by pointing out that everyone has their own strengths (this helps if you have some background knowledge on what the other person does). Assuming that the “smart” comment typically comes from someone else who is in a non-engineering/STEM field, I point out my strength has been studying and learning more about the world, where as other person is usually a far more social person, and does an excellent job of connecting people, society, or etc. And also sometimes mention that at times I wish I could be more like them (which comes with attending awesome PCR events!)

    While for the second question, I simply state that I’m thankful for the support provided for US graduate students pursuing advance degrees in the STEM fields. Again, this deflects attention of from me, and focuses more whether the university and government providing enough support of higher education. Or also focuses whether advance degrees are worth it or not for the career options and possibilities after graduation for the given debt.

    And for the last question, I usually just provide an explanation of all possible job opportunities for PhD majors. From a non-academic, I think they genuinely do not comprehend the PhD career track tying back to “real” life. They are curious why someone might need to attend school for longer to do what they want. I might express slightly more interest into one than the other, but at the same time, by pointing out all the available options, it all the sudden looks more like I’m simply having a difficulty in picking, versus just being completely lost in life and not knowing what I’m planning to do with this PhD degree.

    But I wholeheartedly agree that when asked by a academic professor, it almost feels as it’s a hostile question, and answering wrong means you’re not part of the academic crowd…



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