82

I was surprised when starting my PhD as to how much I get asked this question and how much I fail at answering it. Whenever I attempt an answer, I fumble around and the subject immediately changes after. If I state exactly how it's going, the stress of publishing and intensity of the program comes off overly negative. If I state what I'm working on, I either lose them or bore them.

What's a good social strategy to respond to this question?

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    I sometimes respond by showing them this: phdcomics.com/comics/archive.php?comicid=47 – JiK Mar 21 '15 at 23:45
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    If you're being a good grad student, you'll be too busy with research to meet people who might ask about your research. – user137 Mar 22 '15 at 21:15
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    @user137 In my experience in CS, more efficient people don't work overly long hours. In fact, working too long is stigmatized in Germany as a sign of inefficiency. – Blaisorblade Mar 23 '15 at 0:41
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    @user137 I fear too many people will take that comment seriously. – JiK Mar 23 '15 at 10:22
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    I usually immediately start crying, run away, hide under a blanket and eat ice cream directly from the pot. You should try it. – Ander Biguri Mar 23 '15 at 13:31

10 Answers 10

93

"It's going well, last week I made some good progress on X. How're things with you?"

The vast majority of people are just asking to be polite. If they're actually curious for specifics, they'll follow up with a more specific question. I personally like to have some kind of a cute story about my research because nobody has any idea what pure math people actually do. (I draw fractals for a living, so I have some pictures on my phone to show around.)

EDIT: Some of the comments bring up relevant points about cultural differences. If the local culture is one in which asking out of politeness is frowned upon (ie German @O. R. Mapper, or grad students @JiK), I think it would be still best to start an answer of the above form. This allows people to either gracefully exit or pursue a more in depth description according to their own interest and cultural mores.

  • 18
    Exactly. It's analogous to answering "How are you doing?" Very few people want an update on whatever tumultuous events are happening in your life. Just because your PhD is consuming your life doesn't mean it's that interesting or important to others. They are just being polite. – Chan-Ho Suh Mar 22 '15 at 0:45
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    @Chan-HoSuh: "Very few people want an update on whatever tumultuous events are happening in your life." - being from one of the cultures where "you don't ask unless you really want to know", I feel compelled to point out that this statement is extremely culture-specific (cf. e.g. this, or this) ;) – O. R. Mapper Mar 22 '15 at 10:09
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    In the UK, when someone ask you "how are you doing" the last thing they want is for you to tell them how are you doing. They think it is extremely unpolite not to answer "not bad" or "all right". This is commonly called the "British politeness paradox", they are the most polite in the world but they care the less of all. – Ander Biguri Mar 23 '15 at 13:35
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    (I just made up the "British politeness paradox" thing, but it should exist) – Ander Biguri Mar 23 '15 at 13:36
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    @AnderBiguri americans do the same thing, except europeans call us 'fake' for it. – easymoden00b Mar 23 '15 at 15:34
40

Use it as a chance to practice your "lay person" elevator research pitch. The more you practice it the better you get. "I started working on ... here is why it is significant ..." Don't answer with how your research is going, talk about your research. Presumably you are interested in it. Convey your excitement. Think about it from the other person's point of view. Would you rather hear "great, how are things with you", or would you rather learn something new.

If your elevator pitch isn't very good yet, then forcing yourself to do this will make it better. If your elevator pitch is in fact good, then they will be way happier hearing it than "great how about you." Either way someone benefits from hearing the elevator pitch.

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    +1. Any researcher needs to be able to relate his research in laymans terms. Its good practice for futher job interviews and you will often get much more better conversation if people understand what your doing. Im not saying you should explain your subject in details to complete strangers, but you should be able to convey what your doing and why it is important! – Thorst Mar 23 '15 at 14:53
24

Unless the person really has an idea of what a PhD requires and some background knowledge about what you are doing, I agree with the other answers, it's nothing more than an "How are you?".

If you are bothered by the question, I'd highly recommend PhD comics on the topic, e.g., here, here, and here. You're not alone.

For practical purposes, a canned answer like: "It's research, it has its ups or downs." usually works well.

  • 1
    You're right, it is often used to replace to "how are you?" for people who know I'm working on the PhD and wanted to ask a more interesting question. Perhaps improving my small-talk skills would improve my responses here too. – y3sh Mar 22 '15 at 20:42
24

I think that most people, if they ask you "how is your PhD going", they want to talk about you, not about your research. So I try to answer them with an anecdote about some aspect of my PhD work that I believe the other person can relate to based on what I know about them.

  • Great, I have very nice colleagues and we work together well. Recently, we talked about a research article that is relevant to my work in a coffee break. (Answer this to people that work in an office).

  • Great, but it's a lot of work right now, because I want to submit a research article until this and that deadline. I'm really excited about writing about my research. (Answer this to people that work on projects with deadlines).

  • Great, I finally understood how this-and-that arcane topic relates to my thesis topic, and now I can progress further. (Answer this to undergraduate students in your own discipline).

  • Great, I have been working as a TA for this and that course and it was lots of fun to teach young people. (Answer this to school teachers).

There are many aspects of doing a PhD you can talk about, many of them even less related to your research:

  • Great, my new computer arrived and now everything feels faster.

  • Great, there was one fellow student who annoyed me a lot, but now the student graduated and I don't have to be around them anymore.

  • Great, all students contributed some money and we bought a new coffee machine for the lab.

20

This doesn't work for everybody, but I generally deflect uncomfortable questions with humor. If somebody asked me how my PhD was going and I didn't want to answer I'd say:

  • It was DELICIOUS! ...or
  • The conditions of my parole don't allow me to reveal that information. ...or
  • I'm up to 15! ...or
  • WHO ARE YOU? WHO SENT YOU?

Again, it doesn't work for everybody. But for me, the level of absurdity of the response is 1) directly proportional to the amount of time it buys me to think of a change of subject, and 2) inversely proportional to the chance they'll ask again.

So first time's usually a polite, slightly funny head fake. Then it gets weirder and weirder ("I can't go back to Spain after the pants weasels attacked me!")

-hth

  • 2
    There is the risk that this sends the message that you don't want to talk about your PhD studies. Since there is a correlation between things not going well and not wanting to talk about that, this strategy may easily make people suspect that your studies are not going well. – DCTLib Mar 23 '15 at 8:50
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    Yes, it's true that there are few absolutes in social situations, which can be dynamic and complex due to many factors. There is the same risk you mentioned in the OP's current strategy, which is to fumble around and get lost. Sometimes innocent questions can feel like an overbearing "interrogation," so one way to interrupt that cycle and give agency back to the person being asked is for them to shift the tone / focus of the conversation. One way to do that is through humor. – GojiraDeMonstah Mar 23 '15 at 12:34
  • @DCTLib: my experience of PhD students is that things are never going well until the day after their viva. So people will form the same suspicion whether you talk about it or not ;-) – Steve Jessop Mar 25 '15 at 17:35
15

In my humble opinion, the key to answering this question in a good way is not to be pressed to talk about results, but rather about the process. So for example, an answer to "How is your PhD going?" could be:

Good. I'm currently performing a study on the effects of sunrays on the love life of cobblestones.

Now some people may ask back tricky questions, such as "But didn't you work on that already 6 months ago?". In that case, stick with the process, i.e., what you are doing at the moment. For past work, you can use results, but they do not have to be strong. So you could say:

That's correct. Back then, I worked on an axiomatic approach to this question. The results were promising, but not statistically significant. So now I am conducting a survey with the cobblestones.

In the end, the only "selling" that you may want to make when hearing such a question is that you are working on your PhD. Unlike the author of another answer, I would refrain from giving funny answers. That gives the impression that there is a need for you to dodge the question.

5

There are a lot of good answers here, and I use various responses based on who I'm talking to. I try to be honest, but also to find something positive to say. One thing I've found is that the vast majority of people have no clue what getting a PhD entails, and so I try to convey a little bit of that to them. They don't know what "research" is, or how long a PhD takes, or what graduate students spend their time doing. I have a chance to change that!

"So, is spring break next week?"
"Well, it's spring break for all the students, but I've got a research presentation on Tuesday and have a lot to prepare for TA-ing. Not really a break for me."

"You've been here three years - are you about to finish?
"Hehe, no! The median time in my program is six years. Someday I'll graduate!"

"How much longer till you finish?"
"Well, I'm done taking classes, so now it just depends on how fast I can come up with great ideas, and make them work, and write about them."

"How's research going?"
It's up and down. It's tough, because there isn't a lot of direction and it's hard to see how everything fits together. I got a few bits of code to work this week, though."

I am sometimes a bit sarcastic or pessimistic ("I'll get out of here some day..."), but in truth I love what I'm doing and I try to make that clear when I'm talking to someone.

4

"Eh, I'd rather not talk about it, so how are you?"

If you really don't want to talk about it, and it's not going great, and you don't want to lie, this is the answer you should give.

Now, some people will try to press you for more details, even though you just told them you don't want to talk about it, which is why you're shifting to focus to them right after saying so.

If they insist on asking for more details, just reiterate that you'd really rather not talk about it.

At that point, it's simply rude to keep pressing. Just remember - you don't have an obligation to anyone to talk about your thesis if you don't want to.

Mind, if it's going well, then disregard this advice - telling people you'd 'rather not talk about it' gives the impression that it isn't going well.

If you want to give the impression that it's going alright, say instead "Well, it's going okay, but I'd rather not talk about it" - which delivers the same message, but helps give the impression that you're doing fine.

Unfortunately, there's no real way to give a 'neutral' impression, because not wanting to talk about it gives a default impression that it isn't going well - this is cultural, and there's no real way to get around it.

Either way, you may get pressed for more details, but in both cases, you are not obliged to provide any.

0

How you would want to answer this would depend to a large extent on who's asking the question. If it's a colleague or someone from a related field, the person might have a genuine interest in your PhD. So, depending on how much you wish to reveal, you can talk a bit about the work you are doing and share an interesting experience or perspective.

However, if a lay person is asking you, it is most likely just out of politeness. In that case, you can give a very general or witty reply as mentioned in some of the other answers.

0

There is the risk that this sends the message that you don't want to talk about your PhD studies. Since there is a correlation between things not going well and not wanting to talk about that, this strategy may easily make people suspect that your studies are not going well. – DCTLib yesterday

@DCTLib naw paranoia is so over rated of course you can talk about I was just suggesting an opening line. – caseyr547 yesterday

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