So, what do you do?


You’re making small talk with a stranger and then it happens, they ask the dreaded question: “what do you do?” Most people aren’t fazed to be told that you’re a PhD student, as they shouldn’t be. However, while I’ve had mostly positive reactions, there have been some unpleasant exceptions and I’m sure I’m not alone. Have you ever had someone assume you have no practical skills, were a ‘professional student’  or completely unapproachable?

Sometimes your field of research can make things ‘worse’ when explaining what you do. Imagine for example how conversation might screech to a halt when you tell someone you’re doing a PhD and training to become a psychologist. Cue the panicked looks and chirping crickets if the person you’re talking to has a very stereotypical view!!

I wonder whether negative reactions we sometimes encounter about our careers might be our fault. In academia, we tend to promote our ideas but not so much the profession. Like many undergraduates, I’d thought that the role of an academic was to impart knowledge through lectures. It wasn’t until my honours year that I truly appreciated that for many academics, in addition to teaching, research was a huge part of their workload; not to mention supervising postgraduate students, managerial roles, committees  and general admin.

Equally, psychology is sometimes misunderstood – despite what pop culture tells us, I’ve never psycho-analysed anybody, read minds or interpreted dreams! I suppose that for both psychology and academia what we actually do and what people think we do, may not align.

What can we do then to bust the myths? There are various professionals and researchers blogging about what they do and breaking down the mystery and stereotypes. I also wonder whether it might be better to say what we actually do from the outset, rather than labelling ourselves PhD students or psychologists in training. For example, I might say that I work with people, trying to get a better understanding of their challenges, how we can work together to develop skills to overcome them and that throughout this process I’m guided by current understanding which I use to devise and test out new ideas, sharing what I’ve found with others. This explanation seems more informative than “I’m a PhD student and a psychologist in training” and more accurate than some of the stereotypes.

I’d be interested to hear your perspective. Have you ever had a negative reaction from others about your field, being a PhD student or an academic? What do you do about it? How have you seen ‘myth busting’ in practice?

~ Honourable Mentions ~

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