I have found that while many have some appreciation of the level of research in a PhD (usually by saying "that's way over my head" or something similar) and I have not really had a problem with getting impatient describing my research.

Edit to add: this is reflective of my own experience, mostly studying/researching part time and working full time in an unrelated field.

The query here is how to convince people of the time required for completion of the PhD, and the continued dedication needed in order to get the intrinsic tasks complete. In some cases, it is not 'a 1000 word book report'.

For example, my PhD (now just submitted) was highly experimental, each set of observations were 3 hours each, and I had to do about 100-120 of them (usually on weekends as I work full time). After which, I would have to do 6-12 hours of coding/data analysis. So many did not seem to understand that time was required to do the work properly - and were perplexed when I tried to explain.

Edit to explain why I felt the need to explain, this reason I would imagine is true for many - friends and family, people that you respect, may wonder why am I seem to be ignoring them, why am I 'obsessing' over this project, why did I decline the invitation to wherever. They may worry that we are 'hiding' behind the study. They question why we spend so much time on our research, often not due to any jealousy, but not understanding the time commitment needed for research.

I am not after opinions, but are asking what are some strategies that can help educate people of the time required to perform PhD research, particularly for part time PhD students working in an unrelated field?

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    why do you care what other people think? Commented Aug 30, 2013 at 0:02
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    @nathanhayfield it is not as simple as that, part of this is convincing employers, family, friends etc.
    – user7130
    Commented Aug 30, 2013 at 0:44
  • I find that people generally understand "hours of work." So, if your PhD took you 40 hours per week, 10 months per year, for four years, then do the math.
    – earthling
    Commented Aug 30, 2013 at 2:17
  • @UV-D Employers? In academia, your employers will have also gone through the PhD gauntlet, and will understand it. As for family, friends, etc., I agree with nathan that you shouldn't care what they think, insofar as you should be happy with your own accomplishments. Commented Aug 30, 2013 at 2:28
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    @ChrisGregg I am referring to non-university employers - for example, all throughout my PhD, I have been a full time high school teacher - totally unrelated fields. My employers all do not have PhD's and are not in academia.
    – user7130
    Commented Aug 30, 2013 at 3:28

4 Answers 4


I often draw parallels to elite athletes since most people easily realize that athletes need to train and spend much time getting to where they are (and they usually also have some talent for their sport). The point is that to become good one has to spend lots of time and energy training. How easy it will be is unique to each person. Hence, it is also difficult to say how much time and effort each person needs to complete a PhD. Not that one has to be the best, but one has to be good enough to be at the top. Another aspect that I find useful in the parallel is that athletes usually love what they do, and it is an internal force that drives them. I sincerely believe that some such drive is necessary to complete a PhD without having to torment yourself too much.

When trying to explain the time perspective to prospective students the parallel might not be enough and it is usually difficult to make people realize the interest driven part. This is, in my case, due to the fact that people decide on trying to go for a Phd for many different reasons other than just a genuine interest in the subject. I will add that I do not mean such a drive is the only way through but it certainly helps.

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    An excellent answer. However I would strongly prefer to live on a planet where athletes would have to explain what they are doing and how much they train, and one of them would compare the life of an athlete to that of a scientist making parallels between the physical efforts of the former and the mental efforts of the latter. ;)
    – fedja
    Commented Aug 30, 2013 at 2:01

Okay, I think I get it now. "Science" as it is actually practiced is not well understood by non-scientists. I.e., experiments and analysis takes a lot of time, and a lot of hard work that sometimes must happen in long, solitary periods. Popular media gets it wrong all the time, which doesn't help things. Science does not (generally) follow a 9-5 work schedule, and if you're trying to shoe-horn your research activities into an already full schedule (be it another job, or family/friend considerations), you're even more prone to non-regular work hours.

There are a number of ways you could have a conversation with friends and family about the amount of work necessary for your studies and research. You could start by sending a draft of your 100+ page dissertation and saying, "Look what I've been working on!" After about three pages, their eyes will glaze over and they'll realize how intricate it is.

You could certainly invite someone into the lab (if one exists), but you might just end up boring them without the contextual background necessary to see what has to happen to get your research done. However, you can be honest by pointing out the number of hours you stared at and tweaked an experiment, or the number of hours it took you to analyze the data.

You could use other famous examples from science and engineering, starting with the scientists who spent many years working on ideas (Galileo, Newton, Einstein, etc.) before publishing them, and peppering the discussion with the standard epigrams:

In the fields of observation chance favors only the prepared mind.

Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.

When a friend of mine was writing her PhD in history at Harvard, she had stacks and stacks and stacks of library books in her foyer (it was probably a fire hazard), and there was no doubt in anyone's mind that her long hours working were of necessity.

One thing you might also consider (esp. for friends and family) is to come at the issue from a different angle: be honest about your work, but also be honest that you want to spend time with everyone, and you'll do your best to work into their schedule. Set aside time that will be explicitly for them (and without work), and do your best to meet those obligations. The time you spend on your research won't get as much vitriol if you're willing to make some effort (even if it is minor) to spend time with others.

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    +1 Very good advice! Just a bit of a funny story, my 'lab' was a clear patch on a hillside facing the sun, with several standard and 'home-made' devices pointed at the sun taking readings (I have automated that process now). So when I invited them or they invited themselves to see what I was doing, they thought I'd be there sitting on a deck chair, sipping an iced-tea and pressing a button every 20 minutes... they were not prepared for the chaos - the one or two who saw this understood (as they were roped in as lab assistants).
    – user7130
    Commented Aug 30, 2013 at 7:56
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    @UV-D Great story! Commented Aug 30, 2013 at 8:03

As noted in other answers, the general public simply does not understand the level of effort, over a substantial time period, necessary to produce new knowledge. Yes, the popular media have been very unhelpful, since it is more interesting to report on "geniuses" than on "hard work", obviously.

Of course, it is also completely unreasonable to imagine "(re-) educating" people about scientific/engineering processes. Rather, if one really wants to "reach" them, as is presumably the case with friends and family, some rhetorical devices seem necessary.

E.g., one can mention the thousands of people working over the last 100-200 years (or whatever timeframe you want to pick), especially the (figure out an impressive number) of documents produced in the last 20 years (or number of your choosing), and the necessity of _catching_up_ and adding something to that.

Even though it is somewhat misleading, a recitation of the thousands of pages of pre-existing research reports and the difficulty of reading them gives a not-unreasonable "pop" idea of things.

That is, in contrast to the "pop" idea that "this one weird trick" [sic] solves problems, one must convey that extensive, time-consuming experimentation (even, truly, in "pure mathematics", where there is a tradition of pretending that we don't experiment... with ideas...?) is necessary to learn how to exclude plausible-but-failing possibilities. All the "worse" that other people have already looked at the first 1,000 more-accessible possibilities, so that a "newbie" is stuck with looking at far-less-obviously-accessible possibilities.

That is, in summary, an only-slightly-hyped-up description of "prior art", and the need to understand it before pretending to do something new and worthwhile, might "make an impression".

And, then, yes, "it's not a 9-to-5 job". E.g., it seems that a requirement for an academic scientist (and other academics) is a definite urge to work nearly to the exclusion of everything else, out of curiosity. If the academic topic is not one's "job", it'd seem that 80-hour work-weeks wouldn't be necessary... but the point is that most of the "prior art" was produced by such people, giving further (rhetorical, anecdotal) evidence to the idea that further progress will not be made "casually".

The conflict with "normal" human social activities is partly inescapable. It is truly unacceptable in various regards that one's "work" could conceivably have priority over social obligations. There's really no good way to explain how "it's ok" that one refuses invitations from family and friends, "to work". If it's your own choice, you've shown that you prefer work to friends and family. Whether or not that's the case (!), it's safer and less offensive to claim that external forces require you to spend the time... this, after the "complaint" that there's sooooo much to learn.

And, for perspective, we recall that very many people have unpleasant, pointless-seeming jobs, and no "second job/hobby" of any interest to turn to. Indeed, sometimes people take offense at one's enthusiasm or dedication to one's work (whether it's the paying job or the second one). An enviable luxury, etc.

So, no way around it, a tricky thing. White lies may be optimal on many occasions...


It doesn't have to be a Phd you are studying for. I had similar problems just doing an undergraduate degree. I'm what you call a mature student and my mother cannot for the life of her, understand why I wanted the education I wasn't able to get when younger.

She was not amused when it was explained that I had yet another essay to complete and couldn't just drop everything to attend something or other. So it is often not about you at all, its about them and their need of you. Some of the other students faced even more difficulties, especially the women with husbands and children. So, I fear you will just have to carry on and take it on the chin but for heavens sake, don't give it up. Good luck.

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    Professional artists and writers face similar pressures. "But... it's not like you're actually working!"
    – JeffE
    Commented Oct 30, 2013 at 22:23

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