22

I mean, I really should be glad when they ask me this question. But inevitably, different people will ask me the same question many different times (over many different interviews), understandably so, and response fatigue does start to set in. I just wonder how other people can manage to be so patient when I ask them the same exact question (that they've probably answered hundreds of times by now).

I guess one of the things that has always driven me (despite an initially subpar educational background) was that I was always extremely averse to any form of redundant stimuli or repetitiveness. This helped carry me from a crappy middle school into UChicago/Brown. But I do need to get used to it a bit more as my role changes.

38

Your job, as an academic, is twofold:

  1. Do amazing research.
  2. Write it up and convey your results to other people.

It sounds like you view (2) to apply only to others who are already in your field and are completely familiar with everything you've done. You will find that, in the entirety of your field, there are probably just a few dozen people who are intimately familiar with every details of your field, and only a few hundred who are really familiar with what you do. Everyone else — academic, layperson, village idiot — will require an explanation, and you should do them the favor of explaining it to them.

To more directly answer your question, you should always have two answers ready to the question "what do you do?":

  1. An elevator pitch, as described elsewhere. This should take ~15-30 seconds to say and would give a very high-level overview of your work.
  2. A more in-depth explanation, which would take about 3-5 minutes, which conveys what you do in more detail. Generally speaking, less time than that and you can't convey any useful information, more time than that and you're giving too many details. After your in-depth explanation, either the person will say, "oh", and move on, or they'll ask questions and you can have an intellectual discussion.

(Note: the following point is somewhat debatable.) I've found for myself that it helps to visualize the person you're talking to as paying your salary; if you're on a publicly-funded research grant (i.e., any governmental grant), their taxes are funding your research. It gives some perspective.

  • One downvote for village-idiot. Not everyone has to be an academic. – Alexandros Jan 7 '14 at 15:01
  • @Alexandros - That's why I included "layperson". – eykanal Jan 7 '14 at 15:47
  • 7
    One upvote for village idiot. It made me chuckle. – Marc Claesen Feb 19 '14 at 7:30
28

You should have an elevator pitch version of your research i.e. a description of your work that you can concisely explain to an incoming grad student within the time taken to ride a few floors in an elevator. I know that can be pretty hard to think up on the spot, which is why I'm suggesting you have the basic points at the top of your mind. With time, you can reel it off without even thinking for it!

As to why I emphasized on why you should do it, there can be enormous benefits of having such a version ready (say your adviser introduces you to someone with whom you'd like to work with in future in the hallway one morning, and he asks the same question out of courtesy - it might really look bad on both you and your adviser if you start hemming and hawing!) for when you really need it. Also, it would keep you grounded to what you started working on while deep inside the technicalities of a paper...

20

The previous answers are all good and I strongly recommend having something prepared in advance. However, I think some people are more prone to fatigue from repetition than others, and if you get tired easily from answering this question like me, you could challenge yourself to come up with something different to say every time.

It is definitely true that each person you talk to will have a different background, and in general how you inform somebody of your research should be not just a function of what you know about it, but also of their personality and their knowledge.

This is a good practice because it will make you more aware of the subtleties in communication, which is important especially when you are applying for a job. A fellow colleague won't react in the same way as a potential employer for instance. In other words, you should practice finding some common ground which will inspire your questioner, and in this case every time someone asks you what your research is about, you will always have something new to think about.

  • 1
    +1 for the answer being a function of the audience's background! – TCSGrad Feb 19 '12 at 18:15
7

Well, if repetition does annoy you: I usually hear this question as "What kind of research did you do recently?" If you research evolves a bit, this will help to avoid too much repetition. Also it helps to keep you explanations fresh and if you like your recent results you may probably like to share your enthusiasm...

2

I have been in the same situation - having to explain the same thing over and over again, usually in interviews and such... The way I dealt with it was to explain it in a fresh way every time. So, on one occasion I may focus on the "fun" part of that work, while another time I may focus on the discovery part of it, while yet another time I may focus on the teamwork that was needed... The interviewer may give me a clue (body language, vernacular, etc) as to what type of answer may work best for their media/platform, so I tune into that. If it is a younger audience, I will try to make the answer more fun and attractive, while if it is for a serious, older audience, my answer will focus on serious matters more. Say a project I worked on was both famous and earned a lot of money - in a show for teens I may talk about fun part of it and perhaps someone famous I met, while in the other, serious show I may throw in figures and profits and such and perhaps even the whole industry a bit, to make it interesting for their audience. This also gives a benefit to the listener who may have seen/heard/read more than one of my interviews and would not be bored by repetition (although some repetition is to be expected).

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