What do you do exactly?

Every time. I get the awkward look every time.

This usually happens when I meet Nico’s friends/classmates/people. “Hey, have you met my girlfriend Dani?” “Hi, nice to meet you” “Nice to meet you too”. And then, the question pops up: “So, what do you do?” “I’m in grad school; I’m a chemistry PhD student” (2-second silence) “Oh, cool” (5-second silence) “And what do you do exactly?”. Oh, how I hate that moment! What to say? How to answer that question? There are a few options:

– Say something like “Oh, you know, I do experiments… it’s like cooking, but slightly more toxic”.

– Briefly describe the three components of grad school: “I teach undegrad chemistry, I take classes, I work in a laboratory”. That makes me look like Multitasking Queen (or No-Life Lame Lady… oops).

– Make it sound more promising saying something like “My research group works on solar energy conversion… that could solve the world’s energy problem”. This is a) way optimistic and b) not accurate, because I’m not in the half of my research group that deals with solar energy… but that is not something these people know/care about.

– Actually try to explain what I do, but when you say magnetism people think about cool magnets on their fridge and if you say proteins they either think of fitness or biology. Fail.

– Smile and explain that whatever I can say won’t make sense to them.

– Smile and say “I have no life”.

More often than not, whatever I say doesn’t make a difference. People get the idea that I’m a crazy freak that spends a lot of time locked up in a laboratory and grades poorly made homework sets in her free time. Wait… that sounds quite accurate. Sad.

Don’t get me wrong. I actually love what I do. I may not love every day I spend in the lab (as a matter of fact, I don’t love every day spent there), but overall I love it. I don’t regret my decision. I just wish it was easier for me to explain what I do. What I don’t like about science is how hard it is for me to share it with my people. My mom has no clue about my job. My dad at least knows that Ruthenium is a transition metal (I can see the question on your face now… don’t worry; you can lead a perfectly happy life without knowing what Ruthenium is). Nico knows I do stuff in the lab and sometimes get to play with lasers. That’s it. It is even hard to share my experiences with my chemist friends: each research project is unique, it has its own little things; each person’s expertise is different and that makes it hard to talk about your stuff, even with your co-workers. Let’s not get into the “talking about your research with your advisor” topic.; that’s a tough one.

If you work in anything that can be easier to understand/explain (not the details, the general idea), you might think this post is a nonsense. But believe me, it is frustrating to be the “weird” one in the conversation. People look at you and they really don’t know what to say, or what to ask. And it gets even worse if you tell them you have to spend ~5 years in school to get an advanced degree that will allow you to keep doing weird things.

Many times I get a “oh, I was horrible at chemistry as an undergrad”. And let me tell you, this is even more painful to hear when a med student says it. This could lead to a new post (on the joys of teaching premeds why they should know their chemistry. Maybe next time).

So if you have any good advice on how to answer the loathed “what do you do exactly?”, please let me know. I’m still trying to find something to say that won’t kill the conversation. Haven’t succeeded yet.

This is how it feels. Gotta love PhD comics!

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2 Responses to What do you do exactly?

  1. Ah, ah! This was funny!
    How about a trick my Dad told me when I was asked about whether I believed in Santa (!!): “But, ‘nough said, how about you?” with a pat on the shoulder. This way you remain the scientific chick but you get to drink while they talk.
    Have a great day at the lab!

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