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Explaining your PhD to your friends and family.

Explaining your PhD to others can be difficult as they don’t always understand what a PhD is. This post breaks down how to explain your PhD in ways that make sense to everyone.

A PhD is a weird qualification to obtain because the vast majority of people don’t really understand what it is or what you do on a day to day basis. When it comes to explaining your PhD to non-PhD-folk, I think it’s easy to focus on explaining your topic in a digestible format. We basically ‘dumb down’ the research topic so that lay people can understand it without having much prior knowledge. This is why everyone else see’s PhD’s as highly intelligent people (and rightly so), because we become experts in a very specific topic and niche field. But being able to explain this to others isn’t always straight forward. Doing this well is in essence good (science) communication and can be considered a transferable skill. By practicing the correct way of explaining your PhD really helps when looking to transition into industry later on or finding a job that is based outside of academia – as the vast majority of people won’t necessarily appreciate what you have done or achieved.

Definitely explaining your PhD topic area is important, and why it’s important to be researched is more of an obvious point to get across. Once people have understood your topic, they can find it interesting, understand why it’s important, and they are then able to ask you more relevant questions about it. However, this is not the only important part when it comes to explaining your PhD to your friends and family. For non-PhD’s, they often conceptualise your PhD as just university all over again. Attending lectures, doing coursework, doing exams, the lot.

As any PhD student knows, this is far from the truth. Explaining to your friends and family that you are in fact doing your own project and your own research from start to finish (including the planning phases) is the second piece of the puzzle to help them to understand. Often PhD’s don’t have any formal assessment until the very end. After explaining your topic area in a lay context and why your topic is important, you can then explain to your friends and family how you’re achieving your goal. Here you can break down the smaller parts, the individual projects that are embedded within your PhD, the different layers of research studies and how one finding leads to your next one, and so on.

I find that doing this really helps them understand why a PhD is so long. For your friends and family who have been to university as part of an undergraduate degree, I find it helpful to get them to think about their final dissertation or ‘third year project’ which they had to complete. Emphasise that you’re basically doing this in more detail, and one per year. So, if your PhD is 3 years long, you’ll be doing 3 ‘dissertations’ worth of work. If they haven’t been to university – just be bit more explicit with the steps involved. I.e. getting ethics, reading what other people have published, collecting data, analysing it, and then writing it up in a larger report/paper. Lastly, emphasise that you’re doing this all on your own. Most people think you work in a team or each step is divided up into parts – it’s not, so be sure to emphasise this.

Another useful way of explaining your PhD is to emphasise that it’s a training programme. You’re being taught how to execute good research in a specific field. Just be clear to stress this is more similar to ‘on the job training’, you’re being taught what the key steps are to do good research in real time, as you go. You’re not being taught from a textbook nor from lectures – you’re literally doing things, getting it wrong, and then being told how to do it correctly. It’s also why the PhD is so stressful. One tip here is be careful when you explain this to employers or during an interview. Yes, we are students, and we are PhD students.

However, it’s a lot more appropriate to explain yourself as a PhD candidate, or research candidate – this really helps address the points listed previously to stop people from perceiving a PhD as the same as an undergraduate degree with lectures, exams, and coursework. Using the word ‘student’ in your job title won’t do you justice and will give the impression that you’re more naïve to the working world than you truly are. Terms such as research candidate places more emphasis on your skills and helps guides the listener to think of it as a real job – which it is. You have specific deadlines, projects to manage, working hours, and are allocated annual leave (if you’re lucky).

Explaining your PhD as a training programme helps communicate why doing a PhD is valuable and how it will benefit your career long term. Explaining your PhD as a training programme that gives you a whole host of transferable skills, that aren’t necessarily just applicable to your field of study, but actually make you a more well-rounded employee with a whole host of potential. Not only learning about a specific topic and becoming an expert in your field happens during a PhD, you also pick up a load of transferable skills such as, data analysis skills, presentation skills, teaching skills, and project management skills. This puts you in good stead for the future and whatever you decided to do after your PhD as you’ll have a range of tools added to your belt that will allow you to work almost anywhere! 

So many tools skills

The last part of explaining your PhD to others is the importance of publishing. In the real world this literally means (almost) nothing – so saying you have a paper published can be difficult for others to understand the magnitude of this achievement. First things first, publishing is the epitome of doing research and a PhD in general. The reason publishing is so important is because it takes your expert knowledge and summarises your findings into a published paper. That way, anyone else can pick up what you’ve done, read it, learn from it, and progress our overall understanding of the topic. They can then answer questions that haven’t been addressed or the things we don’t understand yet. A good way to think about it is in the context of medicine. We know now that smoking contributes to cancer – but if research findings weren’t published, people would still be smoking without a concern and multiple PhD students would be researching the same thing, which would be a waste of time. There’s no point becoming an expert in something over 3 years or more if everything you discover has already been discovered, or if everything you discover won’t be looked at by anyone else. Publishing your work makes your PhD tangible and cemented into human history. That’s the importance of publishing at least.

The other reason why publishing is a massive achievement is because it’s so difficult. Everything you publish must go through a process of peer-review. In other words, your work gets sent off to other experts in the field and they criticise it to the finest detail, and often reject it (aka deem your work unworthy of being published). Sometimes you work doesn’t even make it to peer-review because the journal (i.e. the publisher) doesn’t think what you’ve done is novel or interesting. No matter how frustrating this is, it has to be done. It would be pretty stupid if anyone could write some nonsense and publish it without any scrutiny. People will actually believe it. It’s irresponsible, dangerous, and doesn’t help us or society move forward. This also creates pressure to be the first person to move the world forward. So, if what you discover has already been published by someone else, your work won’t be published. Your work must be new, novel, and solid. Once again, if you do publish. It’s a massive achievement! Not many PhD’s do publish and only a small minority of the entire world are able to contribute to research in this specific way!

If after explaining your PhD to your friends and family with these tips and they still don’t get it. Don’t be shy to forward them this post – you can make use of the share links below!


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