As a PhD student, one of the things you will find out quickly is that you repeatedly have to tell people what you are doing, what you are “looking” at. In formal and informal gatherings, at workshops, seminars, conferences and other types of training, university and non-university encounters; either as part of the introduction or in conversations over coffee, a pint or at dinner. It doesn’t matter if you are one day or 4 years into the programme, the FAQs of a PhD student’s life remain the same: What are you looking at? How is it going? What is your topic? What is your theoretical framework? How are you going to collect data? When are you going to be finished? etc., etc. Some think it’s glamourous. “Oh the student life!” they exclaim. “You get to sleep late and work when you want.” If only they knew! IT will become your identity.
Your response to these questions invariably begins with, “I am looking at…”
It is beneficial to speak about one’s research. Verbalization is good for formulating thoughts, to try out your ideas on others, to find persons of similar interest, to discover if you are making progress with your understanding of what you are doing, to get assistance, to get assurance, to practice for the times when you cannot avoid talking about IT and many more. Talking about your work is also good training for public speaking, in being concise, in breaking down complex ideas and for the Viva!
A tactic that I have found useful is to ask myself these same questions and write short responses to them or think up responses on the spot. I also practice varying my responses so that I don’t bore myself with my own replay. Recall that different persons are asking you so it will sound fresh and new to them, but not to you. I would recommend attending the 3-minute thesis competition, or even entering, if you are so inclined as it will allow you to develop the skill of being succinct yet thorough, while learning to put your work in a language that non-experts may understand.
Don’t forget however, depending on the situation, you can politely ask for a reprieve from talking about IT, and it is OK. The PhD life is like new parents whom everyone asks about the baby and forgets the parents, sometimes to their dismay. “What about me?” Is the silent lamentation. “I need some attention too!” At some point you feel like screaming. “Hey, I’m not my PhD, I have a life, an identity outside of my PhD. I am multi-dimensional!” Particularly if you are at a frustrating phase, just had a not-so-good supervision and you just want to forget the PhD, even for the two hours you are in a pub gathering some strength to get back to IT. You don’t always have the resolve to speak about IT. The first stages, when there is only a chaos of literature and ideas and you are struggling to put the pieces together yourself, can be a particularly dubious time. The imposter syndrome sets in and it is not made any better when asked “so, what are you looking at?” The writing up phase as well seem to be another daunting time. I am not there yet, but I have heard the tales of woe from others.
Sometimes when asked “what are you looking at?” it’s like a bombshell. The moment immediately becomes surreal, you hear the question but you are not sure what it means. When you, in slow motion, grasp the notion, your brain takes a scramble to put together something coherent and interesting. Of course, all this takes less than 10 seconds, but for you it’s an eternity. I don’t know the full psychology, but added to the imposter syndrome is fear of sounding stupid, of not sounding intelligent enough, that your research sounds lame relative to others (all of us think everybody else’s research is more interesting) and even fear of public speaking, or speaking to strangers.
There are also those of us who, having passed through the valley of chaos and began to make sense of our work, have repeated the response so often that it becomes dreary. We have to then think of more creative, and interesting ways to answer the same question, which is itself a challenge. This is where practice helps. We also realize that, depending on who asks, we have to approach the response from different angles, and sometimes we are not sure at what level to pitch the response, ensuring the person understands but we are not patronizing.
Responding to questions about your work is a balancing act and it depends on who, when and where the question is asked. One can politely say, “wow, my brain is a bit tired now I just want to relax.” I have done that. Alternatively, you can beat the question to the punch and ask first. If you realize you are speaking to someone who likes talking about their work (and there are those who do), you continue asking them questions and this should save you. Sensitivity is important here however, people may be in a similar position to you and may really not wish to speak. In that case, it is OK to suggest a different line of conversation, such as “both of us seems to be tired of talking about our PhDs, so where are you from?”, or something similar.
The bottom line is, like many other experiences, each person’s experience of the PhD, although there are broad similarities, is different. Personality, support, whether one is an international or local student, culture, language, and so on, all come together to influence the experience. Be reflective, know your strengths and weaknesses, and don’t be afraid to take a step back if your mind and body ask for reprieve. It is ok if at times you do not wish to speak about your PhD and it is also ok to say so; but you shouldn’t make a habit of it – discussion will benefit your ideas in the long run.