Sharing your science this the holiday season: How to answer the inevitable ‘So, how’s work?’ question at holiday gatherings
Christmas season seems to be more or less completely upon us. In the midst of everyone’s rush to get things done before the end of the year, our schedules are full of holiday parties, gift shopping, and festive occasions for overeating. With the holiday season also comes ample opportunities to meet new people and to reconnect to family and friends. Whether you’ve been working or studying far from home or have just been busy stuck in the lab, you likely have a lot of catching up to do with the wider world.
I did my PhD 1300 miles from my home town, so every Christmas was full of family dinners and catching up with friends. As most social interactions go, the most dreaded interaction for me would always begin with the following question: “So, how’s work/your PhD project/overall career ambitions that I don’t understand because no one in our family/group of friends has done graduate research before?” Unfortunately, I have a bad habit of not liking to talk about my work in social settings and often replied with the unexplanatory ‘Good, thanks!’ While it was certainly an easy way to change the topic, I realize now that I’ve had numerous missed opportunities to talk about own research in a broader context, and also to better explain what being in graduate school and working as a researcher actually looks like.
Why do I do this, apart from not wanting to talk to my uncle about what ‘PCR’ is? One thing is that I don’t enjoy talking about myself and would rather listen to people’s stories instead of sharing my own. When I did get into the situation where a family member or friend asked me a follow-up question to my ‘good, thanks’ reply, I was never quite sure how to respond. I tended to give the same 15-20 second description that I would at a conference, soon realizing that phrases like ‘non-model organisms’ and ‘narcosis’ might not convey an accurate and clear view of what I was doing. I wasn’t prepared for what to say and then was left feeling uncomfortable with how I described what I do. I also thought the things I was working on were too nebulous to be interesting, and didn’t want to ramble for minutes about adverse outcome pathways and secondary sexual characteristic formation. I didn’t want to be seen by my friends and family as the Sheldon Cooper of the group, with my fancy PhD and spouting off facts and big words that no one else knew (Bazinga!). Another tricky part of these exchanges is that I wanted a break, without even a thought about research, reading papers, or studying. In my pursuit of avoiding thinking about research (focused instead on more important endeavours such as watching Muppets Christmas Carol while eating mom’s home-made biscotti). Instead, I was more inclined to give a quick and banal overview of my past year in research, rather than engaging in fruitful conversation about science, especially my own.
Why should we elaborate?
While some of us are not great and avid self-promoters, these small conversations are opportunities to learn how to better talk about a nebulous topic to someone that doesn’t work in your lab. Even though many of us want a break from science and don’t want to talk about ourselves or our own strange, nerdy interests, the holidays are a chance for us to synthesize our work in an understandable and concise way and to better share with our friends and family what our lives look like. In terms of the science side, part of learning how to be a career scientist is learning how to explain complex concepts in a clear way. At some point you will have to give a talk to a diverse audience (not just people in your field), will be interviewed by a journalist, or will have to explain in detail the entire Krebs cycle to a room full of freshmen. Practicing effective science communication now will make it easier in those hit-or-miss moments where you have to communicate well or risk having your message ignored, misinterpreted, or not understood at all.
You’ve likely heard of the need for developing an elevator speech about your research. The concept is simple: explain to someone, in the time it takes to ride an elevator, what you’re doing and why it’s important. Think of yourself in some situation where you run into a potential employer or grant reviewer and they ask you to tell them about yourself-you’ve got a little under 30 seconds to say who you are and why what you do is important, impactful, and novel. Clarity and brevity are crucial here, but only practice will make it perfect. What better audience to try your elevator speech to than when someone asks you ‘So, what do you do, exactly?’ It puts you on the spot, but if you’ve practiced and thought about your take-home message and where your work fits in to the wider view of the universe, you can leave them with something they’ll remember.
At the same time that talking with family and friends can make you a better science communicator, you can also use this opportunity to become an ambassador for science. While science outreach as a whole seeks to make science more engaging and appealing to non-scientists, many types of outreach opportunities often focus on children. There is a large disconnect between scientific experts and lay people as adults, and we are still lagging behind other countries in the strength of STEM education programs. There is also a lot that we as scientists can do to make science more embracive, and to show people that science is for everyone and not just intelligent elite. Being upfront about what you do and answering questions shows that what you’re research isn’t confined to the ivory tower but is something that can be grasped by anyone.
You also don’t just have to focus on explaining just your research; you can also use these opportunities to better explain what graduate school looks like. I used to get frustrated during the holidays when family would ask me how classes were going and how much longer I had to graduate, but I then remembered that the milestones in graduate school are very different than what everyone does in an undergraduate setting, and you don’t always have a clear idea of when you’ll finish. I then explained that graduate school involved a different set of milestones such as oral exams and writing papers, and while it wasn’t full-time course work, as a grad student I had to deliver and demonstrate my knowledge in other ways. If someone isn’t as interested in your research, you can talk about what your graduate committee meetings are like, how you go about writing a manuscript, or what a big scientific conference is like. Glimpses into the day-to-day life of a scientist while showing the parallels to other vocations can help make science seem more down-to-earth than it is sometimes portrayed.
Talking about your research is also a chance to explain the process of science and the scientific method [blog post link]. This is the most basic part of science and as such is an easier concept to convey. You can talk about how what we consider knowledge that’s taught in books and in college courses comes from asking good questions and doing good research that seeks to answer those questions, and how your work and your field is seeking to continue to test those truths and broaden what we know about them. You can also use the chance to share this great infographicto called 'The Illustrated Guide to a PhD', showing what a PhD accounts for within the circle of human knowledge. I love this infographic because it shows the relevance of a PhD in the grand scheme of the knowledge of the universe (no matter how small of a blip it is!) and how that differs from knowledge gained as part of a bachelors or Masters degree.
How to become a better science communicator with friends and family
- Go into details after giving the big picture. Start with talking about your project in a bigger picture sense, because these are the things that people will remember and are likely more interested in. If you start with a detailed-oriented glimpse into your project and its role in a smaller part of the overall field of science, it may be harder for people to see how it relates to something on a wider scale which they can understand more easily.
- Don’t overly dumb things down, but stay away from jargon. Some parts of science are complicated, but other things are simple and we just have complicated, rarely used words to describe them. Whoever you end up talking to in your circle of friends or extended will likely be an adult with some level of higher education, so don’t talk to them in a condescending way assuming they don’t know anything. At the same time, remember that commonly-used acronyms and words that don’t appear in the daily newspaper likely won’t ring a bell or be readily understandable without a more detailed explanation.
- Use analogies, but only when needed. You might be able to perfectly explain how the Krebs cycle works without having to compare it to a car engine, but for some complicated topics you’ll need an example to provide some foundation of understanding. Use analogies as need be to provide some context of how the pieces are working together, but also try approaches and ways to convey your message independently before you compare it to another system. You may find that even people without heavy scientific backgrounds can still follow your line of thought as long as you stay away from jargon. In a pinch, you can always use a well-crafted analogy as a back-up in case something isn’t understood.
- Don’t be afraid to talk for longer than 30 seconds. Have your introduction ready for the question of ‘So, what do you do?’ without resorting to your scientific conference mini-speech. Also be ready to keep the conversation going in case someone is actually interested in what you’re doing. Maybe they’ve heard something on the news recently that is related to what you’re doing, or maybe they just have a knack for getting to know people. Either way, be ready to go in for the long-haul discussion as need be, with explanations of what you’re doing and its relevance translated from science speech into regular speech at the ready.
- Be ready to offer follow-up scientific opinions. Regardless of your background, once someone hears that you’re a scientist or that you have/are working towards a PhD, there will likely be a few follow-up questions for you. These will probably be completely unrelated to your research but will be focused on the news-worthy, frequently talked about ‘hot topics’ in science. Be ready to have a sound and clear scientific opinion on things like GMO foods, global warming, autism and vaccines, honeybee die-offs, etc. Whether or not you know a lot about the topic, you likely know enough and have read enough to have formed a scientific opinion on the matter. Use this opportunity as a way to explain key concepts and issues on matters such as these and to talk openly and frankly with someone who will more likely than not see you as an authority on this topic, whether you are one or not, because of your background in science. This is a chance not only to ward off any potential misunderstandings or misconceptions but also to explain key scientific concepts related to a hot topic, which is likely to stick in someone’s mind more than some buzz words about your thesis.
The key to finding a balance between all the tips mentioned previously, between simplicity but clarity, between understandability and complexity, is to try a few approaches and practice them. Send an email to a friend with some bullet points and see if the words you’ve used or the analogies you chose make sense. Write a 20-second elevator speech and message it to your aunt while on the bus to work. Ask a colleague in a different field if you can meet for coffee and talk to them about your research, and ask them about theirs as well.
Whether you look forward to the holiday season with glee or are a self-proclaimed Scrooge, you can’t deny that Christmas is a perfect time for making connections, enjoying the company of friends and family, and eating a Christmas cookie (or seven). Just as Christmas is a season for spreading hear and sharing gifts, science is also something that can be shared with and experienced by everyone. It may difficult to go against our introverted natures to share our science with family and friends, the holidays present a perfect chance for us to learn about how to talk about our research and to share with others what science really is about and what our lives as career researchers actually look like.