Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Explaining Grad School to Your Parents. A New VidShizzle From "Ask Adam."


  1. Now that Thanksgiving is nearly upon us, it’s good to think about explaining to non-academic relatives what we do. Ever notice how, after your second year of grad school, they start asking, “Are you STILL in grad school?”

    Even then, most relatives will think it takes only four years after your bachelors to get a Ph.D. That’s what they read in their 1968 World Book Encyclopedia, after all, and it’s still on the shelf. They will wonder, often aloud, what’s wrong with you if it takes longer.

    They may not wonder this as much if your work takes you around the world. During my grad student and postdoc years my relatives invariably said, “Oooo!” whenever I did field work in Chile and Australia. They also said, “Oooo!” when I went to conferences in Venice and Oxford. The more remote and exotic the locales for field work, the better. Hawai’i is perfect. The more civilized and sophisticated the locales for conferences, the better. Schenectady does not cut it.

    Going to Washington, DC will make them wonder whether you’ll be advising the White House or Congress. They’ll like that, no matter who’s occupying them. Telling them that you’re going to NASA or NSF headquarters will be just as good. Don’t point out how badly funded they are. Don’t point out how squalid DC is. The more colorful your stories about the Atacama Desert or the Outback, the better, however.

    Don't tell them how bad the academic job market is, and how rare permanent jobs have become. It won't gain you sympathy, since the new economy has made “real” jobs of all kinds rare, inside and outside of academia. Never use the word “grant.” In their minds, that’s for entitled freeloaders.

    Never say, “postdoc.” Relatives don’t know what that is, and don’t respond well to it. They think that once you finish your Ph.D. you’ll immediately become a professor. That’s the way it did work, before 1969. Tell them you’re a research scientist: that sounds like a real job to them. Never grumble about the lousy funding situation. If you do, they’ll remind you that they pay enough tax dollars already.

    Never say, “Visiting Assistant Professor.” Tell them you’re teaching. Surprisingly often, whenever relatives ask what you’re doing, they will regard your just saying, “Teaching,” as a satisfactory answer. That is a real job, isn’t it? If you have any K-12 teachers in the family, it will make them very happy. It helps if at least one of your courses is something practical, such as physics to engineers so bridges won’t fall down.

    Once you have your Ph.D., relatives will volunteer you to pop over to their kids’ schools to give talks. I’ve learned a lot from this. This Thanksgiving, though, I will diplomatically try to avoid it, since during the day after a California-to-New York overnight flight, I’m not looking or feeling my best.

    You gain a lot of credibility if, as an academic, you can still do something practical, such as fix a relative’s computer or car. NOTHING beats bringing home a charming, intelligent significant other. I told everyone she was the finest mathematician I’d ever seen, because it was true. It was suggested that she help the kids with their arithmetic homework, but mercifully the kids were having none of it. If Mom tries to convert her to Christianity, change the subject.

    1. I put up with similar things over the years.

      My B. Sc. is in mechanical engineering. When I mention that, guess what people said I could fix for them?

      When I went back for grad studies, one of my relatives frequently referred to me as a deadbeat. This relative, by the way, dropped out of university and, later, technical college.

      While I was teaching, and working on my Ph. D. part-time, the department secretary told me: "You've been working on your thesis for a few months. Aren't you done with it yet?" (She wasn't exactly Mensa material.)

      After I got my degree, some of my students figured I should be working for NASA, inventing all sorts of new technologies. Many years before, I worked in the business and, no, it was nowhere as exciting or glamorous as portrayed by the media or, for that matter, NASA itself. Besides, places where I might have worked had I been born 20 years earlier, such as Bell Labs, don't exist any more.

      Now, when people ask me, I mention I have a Ph. D. and leave it at that. They likely wouldn't understand my thesis research, though, when I say "renewable energy", they're usually satisfied with that.

      Of course, that sometimes leads to the question that, with all my education, how come I'm not a prof or, better yet, rich. Most people don't understand that academe is often a dirty and nasty political game and that luck and connections often determine whether one can participate in the system. As for my financial circumstances, I tell them that I'm semi-retired and can afford to not work for someone else.

  2. I know professional actors when I see them!!

  3. Funny video. Such great parents!

    Ditto about the appeal to relatives of anything associated with Washington, DC. I had a chapter in an edited volume published by the Smithsonian, and my folks bragged about that for years. Never mind that the press was in a shambles and took years to publish the book, and that the book didn't sell. At all.

    Ditto also about fieldwork (the scruffier and more isolated, the better) and conferences in fancy hotels in Important Cities. Never mind the soul-sucking job searches and hierarchical display behaviors at the latter, or the amount of alcohol consumed at both.

    Conversational miscues? I know an archaeologist whose relatives keep recommending TV shows about dinosaurs (wrong discipline). And to start a really passionate exchange, mention that you teach evolution.