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.
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Global warming from a chilly scientist

A chilly scientist in Pittsburgh

“Global warming, my gluteus maximus,” Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin blasted on Facebook, alongside a picture of a snowy landscape taken in May, 2013. Although I am a scientist who understands and accepts the occurrence of global warming, the wearied look of my beaten down coat and the regularity of my water pipes freezing in April leaves such skepticism as no surprise. In five words, the politician captured a common perception of the much-discussed phenomenon of global warming.

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