PhD derision

Some years ago, while I was still studying, I took Thesis Whisperer Jnr’s to a party for one of his little school friends. While watching our youngsters get sugared up, I took part in the inevitable “so what do you do?” conversation, which, for middle class parents at least, is the equivalent of talking politely about the weather.

This was going fine until I told one of the mothers what I was studying for my PhD and she laughed in my face. Not kindly interested laughter either – out right derision. She paused after this and said “Why the hell would you bother doing that!” To add insult to injury, she went on to tell me she had a really difficult job – as a make up artist (seriously – I am not making this up). Taken aback by her breath taking rudeness, I just stood there with my mouth hanging open. To this day I regret not coming back with a snappy reply. Not that I have anything against make up artists, but I think doing a PhD must be at least as difficult as getting up early to put make up on cranky morning television hosts.

I was reminded of this incident during twitter conversations which followed Ehsan’s post:  “what to say when someone says – should I do a PhD?” (which also was ‘Fresh Pressed’ by WordPress – an honour!). In response to the post @fashademic remarked:

“Now we just need an answer for when people blankly ask, “what’s the point of that research?… my favourite was when someone asked, voice dripping sarcasm ‘how are you going to write 100 000 words on FASHION?’ (!!)”

It seems @fasademic isn’t the only one to suffer through these awkward social moments;  @airminded tweeted back:

“A friend’s 10yo son, when shown my bound thesis, was told I took 3 years to write it. His response: “What a waste of time!”.

It struck me that a list of ready answers, prepared in advance, about the value of PhD study would be helpful, so I asked people on Twitter how you might defend the choice to do a PhD and got an interesting range of responses.  I decided to break them down into ‘moods’ so you can pick the kind of response you fancy depending on the circumstance :-)

1) The smart arse response

@boredpostdoc, whose research is actually sponsored by industry told me how sick she was of people questioning the point of her research. She suggested the sarcastic approach:

“Oh, you know, I want to research something pointless and waste taxpayers money”.

As a scholarship holder I too had to deal with people who thought there were better ways to spend money. My reply would be a flippant: “I am your tax dollars at work”. This always felt satisfying, if a little snarky.

2) The annoyed response

I don’t judge people for being make up artists – so why should they judge me for doing a PhD? @tassie_girl suggested the line:

“Because without people like me, people like you can’t advance your intelligence”.

Another good ‘annoyed’ response came from  @DrBekMarketing: “Only 0.01% of Australians have a PhD, do you want to be part of that group or the other 99.99%?”. Neither of these would have made me popular at the party, but I think I would have enjoyed myself more :-)

Others on twitter pointed out that it’s too easy to get angry, so the next three responses are for when you are feeling more charitable.

3) The “saving the world one PhD at a time” response

Some people are studying how to cure cancer or how to make solar power more efficient – I think these people must have an easier time at parties than @fasademic or myself. But even my topic could be said, in some small way, to be saving the world. In one of my three minute thesis workshop I spend a lot of time helping people connect their research with bigger issues. Climate change is a great one because it touches on so many aspects of contemporary life.

For instance, my PhD looked at how architects gesture while they were doing design work. This had some implications for how you might help architects work and teach in online spaces. If you can help people work online, you don’t have to fly professionals around the world. Better online communication means we can have the best people working on our buildings – no matter where they happen to live.

Ok, it’s a bit of a stretch, but no one can argue that helping to tackle climate change, even in a small way, is a pointless way to spend your time.

4)The ‘let me make it interesting to you’ response

@bfwriter pointed out that part of the reason people tend to be dismissive of PhD study is that they don’t understand it. It’s a good idea to try to find the common ground hidden within your topic, as @saraktrigger remarked:

“I usually mention the lack of research and drop in a few interesting stories. Most people can relate to WW2 so that helps!”

Conveniently for me, everyone gestures when they talk (try not doing it and you will see what I mean), so potentially everyone could relate some of what I told them about gesture to their everyday experience. However, not everyone’s topic is that easy to translate.

One technique I teach in my Three Minute Thesis workshop is to look for the surprising or counter intuitive facts and ideas lurking in your topic and turn them into a ‘bit’. The concept of a ‘bit’ – or individual routine on a certain topic – comes from stand up comedy. Add many ‘bits’ with a similar theme together and you get a comedic monologue.  Here’s my gesture is really strange, here’s why bit:

It’s tempting to think that gesture exists to help us communicate, but that idea is troubled by the fact that even blind people gesture – and they gesture when they talk on the phone – to other blind people! Children who gesture in certain ways while trying to work out maths problems are better at it than those who don’t. In some mysterious way we don’t yet understand, gesture helps us to make speech in the first place – it might even help us to think.

During workshops people have told me amazing things they know as a result of doing their research, like that eating silver will turn your skin blue and that more males are prostitutes than females. In my experience developing a ‘bit’ around these kinds of facts is well worth the effort; I had many fabulous and illuminating conversations with complete strangers at parties after telling them my little gesture is really strange, here is why bit.

5) The philosophical response

Finally, some things are worth doing just because they stretch the boundaries of human knowledge and satisfy our curiosity. As @jazzlinguist put it, so poetically:

“Until space travel is viable, a PhD is how we explore strange new worlds and boldly go where no one has gone before” (then she added: “The problematic Question I get is more often “what job will you get at the end of it” so maybe I’ll start saying starship capt”)

I’m definitely applying for star ship captain if the job ever comes up! Now I’m wondering how wide spread this phenomenon of PhD derision  is -  have you had to defend your right to do a PhD? What did you say?

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64 thoughts on “PhD derision

  1. Inger – I love this (and the previous) post! I keep getting asked ‘So when do you finish?’… considering I’m a part-time student it’s going to take a looonnnnggggg time! Say no more :)

      • PLEASE do. I’ve been asked, “So, when will you finish?” more times than I can count. I’ve begun answering with a self-deprecating smile and shrug, and, “Well, we’ll see how it goes!” As far as the, “So, what’s your thesis about?” question, I’ve realized that it’s just a polite question, similar to “How are you?” I keep it as short as possible: “Utopian science fiction.” If they get that “WTH?!?” look and say, “. . . Oh?”, then I add, “I’m building a new model of utopian literature,” and leave it at that. People either don’t care at all or want to argue that there is no such thing as a utopia.

      • I’ll do it if you want. “When will you finish?” has a really simple reply: “when I’m done.” If they ask when you will be done, just smile and say, “I don’t know, ask my data.”

  2. Very interesting post! My father got his PhD in microbiology in the sixties, when it was even rarer to have one. Many people, including family members, made fun of him for this because they didn’t see the point. Some of them were marginally more impressed when he began working with Nobel prize winners, but not much. On the whole, Australians are not impressed with intellectual achievement. They prefer it if you earn a lot, or you are good at sport. Personally, I don’t tell people I have a PhD unless I know them quite well. My brother and sister also have PhDs and they are similarly circumspect. I’ve often wondered if this is an Australian phenomenon. Maybe I’ll move to France, I’ve heard that intellectuals are cool there!

      • In countries like the US, a PhD can help you get promoted to senior positions (not just in management), particularly jobs requiring the analytical skills of a PhD graduate. In Australia, someone in the private sector with a PhD earns less, on average, than a person without.

      • In the Soviet Union (I’m from Russia) scientists, and therefore people with PhDs, were highly regarded. It mostly concerned the sciences and maths, not the social sciences or humanities. The scientists even got bonuses and other perks for their work. Their work was valued. I guess, because the latter were dominated by Marxist-Leninist ideology (can’t imagine proper social science in such circumstances). After the collapse people din’t have time to care about science and everything – the research institutions had no money, money people were out of their jobs, had to survive etc. My father lost his position at a research institute and never got back to science. In today’s Russia sciences (both natural and social) hold a very low position in society. People don’t respect it that much – part of the reason being many over the past 20 years have got fake or plagiarised PhDs that have devalued science as a result. So, not many undertsand why you would go do a PhD when everyone knows – you included – that you will never earn a lot. By a lot I mean it’s nowhere near as much as in the UK or US. It’s very little. Not to mention the fact that people doing natural sciences always lack the necessary equipmets, labs etc. – and it’s very expensive. And science remains highly underfunded.

    • Hi Inger & Dr Bec,
      This post & the replies I’ve read so far are great. I’m actually yet to start my PhD (2 weeks today) and I’ve been very reticent about telling people. My initial thought was that I could do the whole PhD without telling anyone at all but my partner pointed out that I’d have to explain why I wasn’t working sooner or later! I’ve told the people close to me now but I still kind of wish it was a secret…
      Thanks for the response ideas.
      Cheers,
      Deb

  3. Mine is easy to justify: trying to find ways for elderly people to eat better in hospital. Easy to relate back to personal experiences of their old granny starving in hospital.

    I too dread the question “when will you finish?”, cloesly followed by “how’s everything with your PhD?”. I usually reply with something vague like “I’ve been really productive this week, thanks for asking”, but sometimes really wish I could say “Really fun. I spent today typing out every word that was said in interviews I did 3 years ago”. That’d really make people excited about enrolling in a PhD, wouldn’t it?

  4. Nice post! I have actually faced the “waste of taxpayers’ money” objection A LOT (well, I’m a humanities researcher) and one thing I *love* to do is offer the individual taxpayer his or her money back. A $20,000/year APA scholarship works out — very roughly — to one tenth of one cent in funding from each of Australia’s 20,000,000 taxpayers. I like to offer a five cent piece and then ask for four cents and nine-tenths of a cent in change… I’d say about half the complainers think I’m crazy and the other half admit they’re being petty — and understand, for the first time, that life on an APA ain’t a life of luxury!

  5. Love this post!
    I have an idea…maybe someone can invent an app to automatically give you the reply. Just a tap on your smartphone which question (why are you doing it; when will you finish; what will you do when you finish) followed by another tap for tone (smart; sarcastic; genuine; warm; cutting; icy) and “Voilà!” instant perfect reply.

    chuckle, chuckle, snigger…

  6. LOL I loved this post. I’ve faced this on many occasions. From family, what are you doing, doing that at your age (late 30′s – who’d have thought I was too old to learn anything new?). From the public – what a waste of money. I tell people I’m researching sex – it generally ends any complaints, either because its a conversation starter or a conversation killer lol.

  7. I’ve gotten this comment about my undergrad degree! I just tell them someone’s got to do it. I have just about as much interest in being a make-up artist and she probably has in a humanities degree (I don’t even wear make-up).

    When (if) I get to PhD level, I imagine I’ll take the snarky response. It sounds like something I’d say ;)

  8. I answer “Everybody’s goal in life should be to make what they do for work something they are really want to do all day, every day. I’ve managed to get there! It’s fantastic! How are you going?”

  9. So nice to read this post and responses as they make me feel less of an alien. I made the mistake of saying I was a PhD candidate when my eldest started kindy. She is at the end of year 1 and I am still a pariah amongst the parent community. Thank you all profoundly!!!

  10. Unfortunately, for many (stubborn) people doing a PhD equals to being in a laboratory conducting experiments. I’m doing a PhD in linguistics and very often I find it hard to support my own research because those people do not seem willing to accept that a linguist can offer something new to science :(
    As a result, if I see such attitudes, I avoid being involved in a dialogue. I know my tactic is wrong but every time I try to explain what I do, I feel that I waste my time…

  11. My best snarky response has been alone the lines of – well I don’t really play well with others,and I am bit of an academic over achieve,r so its probably better for all concerned if I get to surf the net and write long winded papers. You could have to if you studied harder.

  12. Most of the people in my life are very supportive, but there are a couple of people – a family member and a neighbour – who both have PhDs themselves and are very dismissive of my signing up to do one. One of them wants to be rich and the other wants respect (to the point of genuflection), and both are disappointed that their PhD hasn’t delivered these things. They each assume that I have the same motivation as they do and that my doing a PhD is pointless because it won’t produce the goods. As I did my undergraduate degree 20 years ago and have since worked mainly, and very happily, in the public sector for modest pay and no recognition at all, these are clearly *not* my motivations – but it is clear that as an individual I am invisible to these people. They see only themselves and their own frustrations in my situation. So no retort is really needed, I reckon. I just smile and say, “well, there you go”.

  13. Given I completed my PhD in musicology, the most memorable annoying remark levelled at my years of work that I took rather seriously (surprise, surprise) was “How’s your Bachelor of Drumming?” I still wish I had the presence of mind to fire back a smart arse/annoyed response along the lines of “About as good as your Master of Nothing” (ah the joys of hindsight). But alas, I was simply dumbfounded by my accuser’s ignorance that I just gave the guy the old cold shoulder – my wife tells me I do this a little too well.
    Either way, I don’t regret doing a PhD one little bit. It led me to my wife and a career in various research positions. Now all I need to work on is a quicker wit.

  14. I really like this post! It resonates so much with my own experience!!! My research is about grandfather identities and while I can justify the need for the study academically through theoretical arguments, talking to friends and family I often struggled (and sometimes still do) with explaining why it is important. Trying to avoid technical language and explain the potential impacts of my research is very tricky without dropping words like ‘masculinity’, ‘identity’ and ‘policy’. I am trying to remedy this now by helping organising an event at Lancaster University called the #NewIdeasFestival. It encourages researchers and PhD students to try to communicate their ideas to lay audiences. We have school visits, poster sessions and a PKN night planned. I really hope that I can communicate it well. I love the ‘let me make it interesting for you’ idea! I am going to get people to think about family and identity and how it relates to them…making it relatable is important and will hopefully build confidence when you are asked those kinds of questions!!!

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  16. I’m just applying for PhD programs, and I get weird comments already. I’m applying to research business strategy in North America. My boss’s boss’s boss commented that I would make way less money than I’m making now (unless the industry changes, that will likely only be true while I’m a student, though I would be willing to make less – I already tell my boss’s that money is not my motivator in my current role). I was riding a bus between New York and Boston the other day, and the person next to me kept commenting that I “could probably do a lot of consulting” with a PhD, even though I could probably do the same without. Eventually I just went along with it. Interestingly she wasn’t using gestures at all – she was fake sleeping, except that she kept asking me questions with her eyes closed.

  17. Nice Post Inger. I should confess I have used the first strategy a couple of times :) But generally I said we have been using the knowledge produced by others for a long time, now it is our turn and I am paying back.

  18. I was lucky – mostly, people understood my thesis subject and could see why I thought it would be useful in a work context. But what they DIDN’T understand was that having a doctorate would make no difference to salary. The honest “but I still just wanted to do it” sometimes mystified people.

  19. My problem is that I do not have the retort for those comments because I sort of believe them. Derogatory comments about research just feed my own self loathing. My PhD feels completely pointless and I hate it. But my pride is stopping me from dropping out so close to completion. Aaaaahhhhhhhhhh!!!!!!!!

  20. I studied pure maths, which is difficult even for some applied maths people to see the point of. I’d usually go anlong the lines of :
    “I’m studying the theory behind infomration protection systems. Which is what keeps your money safe in the bank, even though you use the eftpos machine at a supermarket.”

  21. Which of those responses do you wish you had given, Inger? I would theoretically pick the “Let me make it interesting to you” response but in reality might go for “Smart arse” instead.

    It sort of depends on what you perceive the attitude of the original response to be. Someone’s first reaction might be, “Oh lord that sounds pointless,” but they might apologise or attempt to understand more about what you’re doing, in which case I find the forgiving road is the better one taken. They are just sheep after all. ;)

    But in your make-up artist’s case, I would have ideally come back with, “What makes you think caking make-up on peoples’ faces and taking shit crap them all the time is how I want to spend my life? At least I’m doing something worthwhile.”

    This is NOT because I think being a make-up artist is a pointless career – someone has to do it, and a lot of talent and practice does go into the role. It just requires different interests and skills from that of someone doing a PhD, and I am willing to respect that as long as they reciprocate. But when they continue to put you down, I recommend you apply your talents towards showing them exactly how small and pointless their existence is; or, walk away so you don’t waste your time. Because at least the work that you’re doing will add to a body of knowledge and in some way last forever.

    Personally, I think PhDs give themselves the short end of the stick all on their own, without anyone else’s help. Why is that?

    (Apologies for the long comment,)

    • I love long comments! I usually tried approach 4 – explaining it to other people helped me get it straight in my own head anyway. But i never told people unless they asked me. There’s always ‘parent talk’ to fall back on anyway :-)

      I have encountered the rude make up artist repeatedly in the schoolyard and will admit to pretending i don’t remember her name and making her intoduce herself everytime. Sometimes being petty is so satisfying :-)

  22. It seems to stem from the myths of anti-intellectualism, which are especially strong in america. Of course the posture of much of academia (and the art world) as a reacion toso that tends to entrench or even legitimize it to some extent. I’ve thought about this a lot but am on my phone so you’re spared the rant. ;)

    • It’s funny, because it’s common to hear that australia is an anti intellectual country… Perhaps there are just many people who think that physical work is the only kind of work which is real?

      • I don’t think most people think physical labor is the only kind of work. I think most people think that work that provides immediate financial compensation is the only kind of work.

      • * (that is ‘real’)

        e.g. when someone says “get a real job.” or “what are you going to DO with that degree?” or etc is all just comes down to $. only value in society, apparently. i mean forget if the way you make money poisons the water supply for a hundred villages or if you’re churning out useless widgets that benefit no one and wind up in a landfill. if it makes money, it’s valuable. similarly to justify the expenditure in some sort of scientific research, say, the question everyone wants to know is how will it make money. the question of if it will increase human understanding or knowledge never even comes up for most people.

  23. I definitely get this! People seem to think that because it’s not a ‘job’ and they think student life is easy then they have the right to be rude and treat your past four years’ work as meaningless! But these strategies definitely help…

    What I’ve realised is that when people ask me what my PhD is about I find myself making a snap judgement about what kind of person they are before responding. So should I do my ‘bit’ which is of general interest and quite fun but – let’s face it – not why I’m doing my PhD, or do I think they’d like to engage with the theoretical ideas I find so interesting? Or are they just asking to be polite and should I just say ‘history’? I don’t like myself when I make these judgements but I can’t really see any way around it!

    I do think it’s really important to resist the urge to stress how much hard work it is, though. I fully appreciate that having a funded PhD is AMAZING and I think everyone should be jealous of the opportunity! Everyone thinks they work hard, so people who think all students are lazy will just think you’re out of touch if you try and convince them otherwise.

    Thanks for the post and comments!

    • It would be helpful if many people thought of a PhD as a research apprenticeship. Like an trade apprenticeship, the apprentice is poorly paid and works under the supervision of a much more experienced researcher. On completion, the apprentice earns their stripes and can undertake research jobs that pay quite a bit better than the apprenticeship.

      The one thing I find interesting is how many people think that PhD research is entirely a private benefit and “further education”. By definition, it can’t be, otherwise you have contributed nothing to human knowledge and you will fail. :-)

    • It would be helpful if many people thought of a PhD as a research apprenticeship. Like a trade apprenticeship, the apprentice is poorly paid and works under the supervision of a much more experienced researcher. On completion, the apprentice earns their stripes and can undertake research jobs that pay quite a bit better than the apprenticeship.

      The one thing I find interesting is how many people think that PhD research is entirely a private benefit and “further education”. By definition, it can’t be, otherwise you have contributed nothing to human knowledge and you will fail. :-)

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  25. I got the “they PAY you to do that?” one from a policeman at my best friend’s party. The same policeman who would go through red lights and across double white lines because he was “above the law”. I felt kinda bad for detesting him so much when he died suddenly a few weeks ago.

    • I’m sorry Holly, I know you wrote this comment months ago, but I’m just going through old posts and comments – your comment ended so unexpectedly! I laughed because it was such a shock, and then felt bad as well even though I didn’t even know him.

      As for people’s reactions – I rarely (but still sometimes) get the ‘Oh, wow!’ which is much nicer than the blank stares when I tell them my topic. Masculinity? Television and film? Post-structuralism? Not many people want to hear about that. I’ve never gotten anything so openly rude though; if I did, as much as I would love to respond with a snarky, sarcastic comment, I’m far too shy and observant of other people’s opinions. Short explanations, or a simple ‘I find it really interesting’, seem to do the trick so far. (However I am only eight months in so we’ll see how long that lasts as I travel further and further down the rabbit hole…)

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  27. What about something really simple: what if we explained that beind everything people use, eat, walk on, wear, type, send, receive or sit on, there is a PhD student, or rather, an army of them. There is almost nothing in existence today that people use that PhD students and other researchers haven’t helped to design, build or manage. Since that is true, we all can say,
    “Why am I doing a PhD? To make everyone’s life just a little bit better. Sure, it might not show much now but I am part of this huge army that creates innovation, increases efficiency, reduces waste, makes it easier for people to communicate, creates business opportunities, builds systems and invents new crops, gadgets, products and processes for you and everyone around you. Sure, the hours are sometimes long and the pay isn’t always great but you know what, I do this because part of me is just that little bit selfless enough to put my life on the line for three (or four, or five or six) years, laying down my time, my earning power and my freedom to make your world more pleasant to live in.”
    It’s way too long but it’s true.

  28. Maybe I’ve been lucky – usually when people discover that I’m doing a PhD they seem impressed (which leaves me feeling a little uncomfortable, given that I’m no brighter at that moment than five minutes earlier when they thought I was ‘just a social worker’.) If they ask me ‘why?’ (I don’t need it for my career, and it’s certainly not going to result in vast riches and glory in case that’s what they’re wondering) I usually reply with words to the effect of: ‘because I reckon the world is a really fascinating place and I love learning about it. And this way, what I learn might go a little way towards shaping policies that make a difference to someone else’s life. Isn’t that a great opportunity?’ People are usually happy to move on to other topics then, which is a possibly a good thing for all of us. Although if they want to talk about policy I’m up for it.

  29. I usually go with “Cos i’m a nerd and I love science”. This tends to get people to admit that they are “closet nerds” and we can just talk about science and everyday life with a nerdy spin on it.

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