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August 29, 2012

The inevitable, awkward question – by Tom

I recently attended a large-scale family affair, my first since embarking on my PhD. It was an amiable affair, all free-flowing wine, witty repartee, and the occasional awkward silence when I was inevitably asked: “So Tom, just what are you up to these days?”

Make no mistake, the silence did not follow my response that I was studying for a PhD, or that I was based at the University of Warwick. Some people did ask me whether I liked living in the town of Warwick, and in the end I just gave up correcting them and started describing how first-years sometimes live in the castle. All of this preliminary conversation was greeted with a smile and a laugh. But I knew what was coming next, and I knew that it could not end well. The question. The unanswerable question. The dreaded question. “Tell me, what is your PhD actually about?”

Some people may have a short answer here, something which satisfies the distant uncles and half-cousins who suddenly take an interest in their life-story. I have seen many a PhD student in the field of engineering bat off such advances with a simple, “Oh, robots, mostly.” A reference to heart disease or Shakespeare usually has a similar effect: the questioner is satisfied, the topic is covered, the conversation rattles on to matters such as careers, babies, and that birthday when you ate so much cake you threw up all over that pretty girl from next door (not, in my case, true: the pretty girl actually lived on the next street).

But when I remark that my PhD is in history, and then in British history, and then in post-war British history, people invariably have the same response. They wrinkle their nose, they furrow their brows, they go, ‘Um-hm”, and then say, “Well, that’s a very big topic…”. In my case, of course, many people to whom I talk actually lived in Britain during at least some of the period which I’m studying. This does not make matters easier. I once remarked to a family friend that my background was in the history of medicine, to which she replied, “Oh, then you’ll know my son, he’s studying to be a doctor at Oxford.” Not wanting to let her down, I made the kind of non-committal sound which I reserve for my mother’s inquiries about whether I am ever going to stop biting my nails.

The problem with describing my PhD to friends and family is that one question begets another. I have tried a myriad of buzz-words and anecdotes, but I always end up repeating myself. The issue is really that I am myself not sure what the whole PhD is really about, and I suspect that I won’t be until the end. I once asked my supervisor how he would sum up my project, and he simply said, “Save it for the viva.”

A PhD is, almost by definition, narrow and specialist. Often, it’s fascinating to a handful of people and nonsensical to everyone else. One cannot fault people’s politeness when they ask exactly what you’re up to. When they earnestly listen and then dismiss your topic (no joke, I once had someone say to me, “It’s history, it’s all in the past, let bygones be bygones, I say”), well, that’s something else entirely, and a subject for another day and another blog.

In the meanwhile, I would advise you to get working on a super pithy description of your PhD. We need single-word answers here, people. Really, it’s all about selling your topic to the interested public. I would advise you, however, to check whether the person who asks is a specialist in your field first. If the biggest name in macroeconomics in the world takes an interest in you, maybe describing your work as ‘about money’ isn’t going to cut it.

As for me, I’m telling everyone who asks from now on that I’m studying the depiction of robots with heart disease in the plays of Shakespeare. That ought to keep the world at bay for a while.


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