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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