Talking About My Research With Non-Researchers aka How I Bore Friends, Family, and Random Strangers

How do you talk about your research with non-researchers? After spending some time earlier last week talking with other LIS researchers about my work and then spending time talking with non-researchers, this question popped up in my mind (not for the first time). I’d rather not have my work, something I feel quite excited about and proud of, to sound terribly boring and pointless.

When someone asks what I do, I respond that I’m a doctoral student. I’ve learned not to say ‘doctoral student in information studies’ because that generally gets confused or weird looks. This is completely understandable. Information studies is a pretty vague and odd sounding area to study. Library-ish studies or library related stuff, while not completely accurate, is close enough and often how I describe my field. Then, the next question is, “what are your research interests?” or “what are you researching now?”.  Most of the time I say some combination of social media, young adults, and libraries. But sometimes I feels as if the questioner wants a more thought out response. And there is the unexpected moments when I am so excited about what I’m working on that I feel the need to gush.So, how much is too much? How much is boring? How much can I get away with? But mostly, what does this person really want to know? (If anything.)

I’ve come up with a few guidelines for myself in response to these questions. I’m not sure if they make sense to anyone else, but here goes:

  1. Avoid talking about theories/theoretical frameworks/models/paradigms/etc. – Not to suggest that whoever I’m speaking with can’t understand these theories, but who outside of my committee, colleagues, and advisors could possibly be interested in hearing about my particular theory or model? I’m guessing nobody…
  2. Avoid using the word “context” – This word just sounds pretentious and snotty.
  3. Try not to sound like you’re regurgitating a journal article – This probably applies when you’re engaging with researchers too. Journal articles aren’t the most exciting of reading, even if you’re interested in the topic.
  4. If you have another doc student in the group, avoid talking about committees, IBR, the peer-review process, your advisors, colloquiums, etc. –  In any conversation, it’s important that those you are talking with have some working knowledge of whatever is being discussed. These words have little meaning outside of the ivory tower, so why bring them up. It’s just rude. I made this mistake during a conference last week. Silly Abby.
  5. Try to find the fun and interesting parts of whatever you are researching and highlight those – If you are interested in it there must be something that others will find amusing, thoughtful, surprising, vaguely curious, or at the very least not boring. Maybe this could be thought of as the sales pitch for your research.
  6. Ask what he/she/they think about your research – Maybe they know something you don’t. Maybe they have some insightful feedback, first impressions, or confusions. It’s fun to get a fresh perspective from someone outside of your world on what you’re passionate about.

Has anyone else thought about this? How do you talk to “normal” people about research or academia? Any other suggestions? Something to add to my personal checklist? Mistakes I’ve made?

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One thought on “Talking About My Research With Non-Researchers aka How I Bore Friends, Family, and Random Strangers

  1. Try to not think about it too much mid-conversation. Let it be as natural as possible by initially not going into much detail. Can gradually get more detailed if you detect the other person has similar knowledge or experiences.

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