PhD pride: getting family and friends to understand and respect what you do

‘So what exactly isit you’re doing again?’

‘Um, research. I’m a researcher.’

‘Oh, that was it, research. When does it finish, this summer?’

‘No Nan, I’ve got another two and a half years to go.’

‘Oh. And then you’ll get a job?’

‘I… well, I’ve got a job really Nan. They pay me, it’s like having a three year contract.’

‘Hmm. Your mum said you were going to be a doctor?’

‘Yes, at the end of it I’ll have a PhD, which means I’m a Dr.’

‘But why did you spend all those years studying English just to go into medicine?!’

Even if your Nan isn’t quite as spectacular as mine, most PhD students encounter this in one form or another. Friends, family and acquaintances who just don’t quite get what you’re up to and, to be frank, don’t really care. On the one hand it’s quite funny, and most PhD students have an acute sense of how esoteric their work is. In fact, that’s one of the reasons Hive socials are so great: we can sit around talking about our tiny, detailed topic to people who know what it’s like for no-one to have a clue about your tiny, detailed topic!

But sometimes it gets disheartening to be met with blank incomprehension about the thing you work your butt off for. My boyfriend admitted to me the other day: ‘Yeah, I don’t really get what you do. I just assume it’s a bit like when I was an undergrad.’ Since my boyfriend mainly ate pizza and played FIFA when he was an undergrad, after ten hours slaving over a hot laptop it can be a tad difficult not to be curt when you point out that actually darling, it’s actually quite different actually.

Most of all, how much harder does it make maintaining that devilish work-life balance when people think you’re free whenever for a chat or a visit because you don’t have set working hours? How do you explain that often you’re a lot more busy than someone with a full-time job, not less?

But recently I’ve realised it’s partly my fault. I’ve never sat down and explained my research to my boyfriend in case he thinks it’s boring. But if I can’t make it interesting, how do I expect other people to think it is? If my response to the dreaded question is to mutter ‘oh, seventeenth century theatre, Shakespeare and a bit later’, how do I expect excitement in return?

So I’m resolving on some Research Pride. I’m going to talk about my research enthusiastically and in detail when people ask me, and assume that if they’ve asked, they’re interested. I’m going to explain what I do day to day to my friends and family, and tell them about new exciting stuff I find so they’re not stuck with my two-sentence sound-bite. Rather than bewailing everyone just not getting it, I’m going to try and make them get it.

…I’ll let you know how it goes with my Nan.
This post was written by Lana, one of our Research Hive Scholars. You can contribute to our blog too! Just send your post of between 500 and 1,500 words to and it could be the next one you see here. We welcome blogs on any element of life as a researcher. If you’re at Sussex University and your post is accepted for publication before the end of the Autumn term you’ll automatically be entered into our prize draw to win a £50 voucher!

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