Saturday, February 11, 2012

Explaining your work to friends and family

Has it happened to you that at a large family gathering, your relatives ask what you are actually working on, and you end up mumbling some code language? Or that you tried to explain a friend what your research is about, and why it matters, but that you don't really know how to find the right words for it?

Here's a few little ways to make it easier:

1. Avoid jargon

Starting to mumble code language will make the attention of your friends and family vanish. They'll just nod at you and think you're doing something pretty complicated, which is for sure worth a PhD and which a normal soul can never understand. However, if you understand your topic very well, you should be able to explain it without the big words as well. Using simpler words doesn't mean the concept you are explaining becomes simpler. In fact, it challenges you to break out of the paper-language you normally use, and learn to really talk about your work.

2. Compare it to something from every day life

The National Geographic Channel typically compares sizes of building and spaces with Olympic swimming pools and soccer fields. When I showed the parents of students our experimental setup in the lab, I compared the forces in there to a number of heavy trucks concentrated on one wheel. To give them a general idea of the amount of experiments we did, I pointed out how many tons of concrete and steel had been going into the specimens already.

3. Point out the broader goals

Also related to the "So what" question. How will your research influence the world? Will it completely change the way we think about the world (rather unlikely) or will it be implemented in the machines of the future? Why should you really solve your research question? Will it have practical consequences? Don't start pulling out fancy mathematical formulas, but focus on the broader reasons for studying the problem and the possible implications of the results of your research.

4. Practice makes perfect

Practice it; doing so will make you look at your research from another perspective. Regularly talking to non-experts about my topic makes me realize time and time again what is the broader perspective of my work as well. It helps me to oversee original reasons why my research was initiated and the consequences it can have on society.


  1. Absolutely. And if all that still draws a blank (and it can!), don't panic. If you love what you do, there's no point in getting frustrated and starting to question your own actions after a negative family experience. I'd have given up on all sorts of things (academic and otherwise) if I worried each time I got confusion and/or skepticism from a family member.

  2. That's a good point! Thanks for bringing it up :)

  3. I love this! I get the blank stare from my wife when I try to explain some aspect of my work (of course, I give her the same blank stare when she talks about her job). One of the funny things is, in my family, many of us are in the same profession (education) and we talk about education related stuff as everyone else flees the room! Thanks for the tips!

  4. That's great that you have so many educators in your family - in mine, I'm the odd academic and the odd engineer... (except for my soon-to-be husband :) )