How to hold your own at parties as a PhD student

Julia Wijnmaalen & Julieta Matos Castaño
22 apr ’21

During your years as a PhD student, you will likely attend a party or two. The most frequently asked question at parties is: what do you do? So, of course, you then (often proudly) say that you are doing a PhD. Know that you may expect two kinds of replies:

  1. People will compare their Master’s thesis process with doing a PhD. They will start to use scientific terminology (99% of the time incorrectly), and name researchers they used for their thesis in a completely different field. When you reply that you do not know these specific researchers, the person is very surprised: ‘Aren’t you the one doing a PhD?!’
  2. The second standard reply you will receive is: ‘Oh my God, I do not think I could do that!’. Do not think that this reply is a sign of admiration for your obvious high intelligence. It is not. It is actually a covered statement saying: ‘Is (s)he crazy?! I hated writing my thesis. I would never ever start doing a PhD!’

How to react to these two possible reactions? Only a few people know what a PhD is, let alone know what a bumpy road it entails. At the same time, it is very difficult to estimate if someone knows this or not. Sometimes, I have assumed that people know what a PhD is, only to find out later that they do not have the faintest idea. At other times, I have also tried to explain what a PhD was, only to be perceived as a snob. So, my conclusion is that it is hard to get your reaction right…

Then, on the occasion that you have found someone who is sincerely interested in hearing what doing a PhD entails, explaining it can be very difficult. At first, I told people that I conduct research on a specific topic. This explanation often led to the question: ‘OK, so what do you do the other three years?’. So, then I started telling people that I was writing a book. Somehow, everyone understands that writing a book takes time. One day someone asked me how my days looked like, how I spent my time. Thus, I described that specific day, the phone calls I made with research participants, and the interviews I transcribed. His reply was: ‘Ok, so you are something like a project assistant. Hmmm, not quite….

So, as you can see, holding your own on parties might make you feel like the alien in the room for the upcoming years! Good luck!

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