One of my Facebook friends posted this very insightful blog post on his wall. It discusses how to navigate the tricky, sometimes stormy waters of asking questions to/trying to show support for graduate students who are in the throws of researching and writing. For those of you who want to read the article on the original blog and see the awesome comic, here’s the address: http://jbdeaton.com/2010/things-you-never-say-to-a-graduate-student/
For those of you who are too lazy (and yes, I would sometimes classify myself in this category), here are a couple of my favorite sections:
WHEN ARE YOU GOING TO GRADUATE?
This question is irksome because you don’t know the answer. A PhD isn’t a “complete 60 hrs of coursework and you’re done” sort of thing. You’re finished when your advisors collectively agree that you have made a substantial contribution to the body of knowledge in your field. Your work is a long term endeavor with very little incremental feedback. Once you have a research idea, it may take months to develop it enough to find out if it works or not. So, your graduate student friend doesn’t know when they will finish or if it will all work out, and your question just reminds them of that while implying: “you haven’t finished yet?”
DO YOU HAVE SUCH AND SUCH HOLIDAY “OFF”?
Graduate school is an environment where you have to excel in your classes and progress in your research in a punishing economy of time. There’s no real thing as time off, because the nature of my work means I could theoretically work all the time. I’m eating dinner with friends and my mind wanders to the problems I’m trying to solve so I can graduate. Holidays (Christmas, Spring break, etc) are often viewed as “research catch-up time”. Sometimes I honestly feel I should work in every single free minute I have, because it feels like every minute I don’t work is a minute later that I’ll graduate. So, I can always work and it’s always up to me whether I do. I don’t “get days off”; I choose to spend time on things other than research. Research is very entrepreneurial in this sense.
Many thanks to Ben Deaton who so adeptly verbalized what I and so many of my colleagues go through. And I must stress that usually we don’t take these things personally because no matter how hard or how often we try to explain these concepts, people just don’t get it – and we’ve kind of resigned ourselves to the fact that unless someone is in grad school, they never will get it. However, it’s really annoying when the same people ask us the same question over and over again. Especially the “So aren’t you tired of being in school?” or “Man, aren’t you tired of being an ‘eternal’ student?” questions or any of their derivatives. It’s almost like people are saying “Gee, you really need to start doing something worthwhile with your life and/or contribute to society.”
The reason why this is so bothersome is because no one would ever say that to a med student whose program is longer than most, or to a teacher who is required by state law to enroll in continuing education courses, or to a law student who goes to law school, etc. For most grad students, their time “in school” is an integral part of their professional training and many times it is impossible to even get a job in said field without a Masters and/or PhD.
So as a personal favor to me, cut your grad school friends a little slack. Because for the most part, questions like these – while innocent on the surface – can turn into a guilt trip. A guilt trip because we really do want to “finish” and move on to accomplishing our larger-scale professional goals, a guilt trip because yeah, we’d LOVE to go on that vacation, go to that party, go to that event, etc – but some aspect of the research, writing, etc is always turning, turning, turning in our mind and the only way it advances is if we’re working on it. So when we do take an afternoon, evening, or week for ourselves, deep down we’re often chiding ourselves for not working.
Why? Because experience has taught us that many individuals judge our intellectual, professional, and personal competency on how quickly we “finish.”
Until that thesis or dissertation is submitted to our committee and then to the university, it is a crushing burden that never goes away. Not ever. So if you want to be supportive (and I believe that most people who ask these questions are really trying to be supportive – albeit unsuccessfully), ask questions similar to the following:
- What aspect of your research do you find really exciting/inspiring?
- What led you to that particular angle of research?
- How have you overcome hurdles in your research?
- Who has been your professional/academic inspiration, and how have they impacted your work?
- How do you see yourself using this particular topic in your future research/publications/career?
- Etc, etc, etc
So there you have it – Formulating Respectful Questions to Grad Students 101.