Problems Communicating Science to Family? It’s Not Them, It’s You.

Dear Dora: Communicating Science to Family?Dear Dora,

My parents are both non-scientists and have no idea what I do, despite hours of attempted explanations. Am I a jerk for getting frustrated at their lack of ability to grasp my project?

-Short fuse, graduate student


Dear Short fuse,

I knew someone in graduate school, who came from a Caribbean Island. For him, going home was, literally, like going on vacation. He was one of five children, and the only one in his family who became a scientist. After he wrote his thesis (in Chemistry) he brought it home to his parents. His father began reading it while sitting on the beach and, after a few minutes, fell into a deep sleep. My friend got the message and did not attempt to share his scientific endeavors anymore.

Clearly, this is an exaggerated example, because most of us scientists (especially if we are sleep-deprived), would probably doze off reading scientific papers on the beach. If the paper is not within our expertise, our attention span will be even shorter.

Your parents are not the only non-scientists who are curious about what scientists do. Many graduate students get asked by relatives (any upcoming Thanksgiving dinners?) about their research. They especially want to know how your research applies to their lives. One of the reasons it can be frustrating to explain your research to non-scientists, is that they are not familiar with terms and concepts that you take for granted. I have been asked (even by scientists, in physics): What is an assay? What is an aliquot? What kind of cell is an endoplasmic reticulum?

Sometimes explaining your work to scientists who are not in your area can be even more frustrating (even annoying) when they try to outsmart you with questions such as: “Why do you do all the modeling and statistical analysis? Can’t you just write a Matlab code to do all the work for you?” or “Why do you do experiments? Don’t cells follow the laws of physics? It seems like you should be able to write a model that will predict what will happen, rather than having to actually do experiments.” All valid questions to be sure.

Since many nonscientists will ask you what you do, it is best to come up with a 5 minute elevator pitch about your research that everyone can understand. It is easiest to start with the big picture (e.g. what disease you are targeting) and then a little about your strategy and methods. When you apply for jobs, there is a chance that you will be interviewing at companies who do very different work, and you will need a clear concise explanation for them too.


Dora Farkas, Ph.D. is the author “The Smart Way to Your Ph.D.:200 Secrets from 100 Graduates,” and the founder of PhDNet, an online community for graduate students and PhDs. You will find links to her book, monthly newsletters, and discussion board on her site. Send your questions to [email protected] and keep an eye out for them in an upcoming issue!


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