Thursday, February 20, 2014

PhD Talk for AcademicTransfer: Explaining the Value of your Science to Friends and Family

This post is part of the series PhD Talk for AcademicTransfer: posts written for the Dutch academic career network AcademicTransfer, your go-to resource for all research positions in the Netherlands.

These posts are sponsored by AcademicTransfer, and tailored to those of you interested in pursuing a research position in the Netherlands.

If these posts raise your interest in working as a researcher in the Netherlands, even better - and feel free to fire away any questions you might have on this topic!


Unless you are in the very unlikely case of having a family full of academics, it might be hard the communicate the value of your science to your friends and family.

Have your friends asked you when you will finally be out of school?
Has your family been wondering why you keep on changing countries?
Do you get yawns or frowny faces when you try to explain your work?

Don't despair - it takes just a little bit of practice to explain the value of your science to friends and family.

Remember how TED Talks can make scientific topics as the most exciting thing ever, and how the National Geographic has its way of bringing research to the broader public? For structural engineering, for example, I think that MegaStructures does an excellent job.

So, how can you engage your family and friends into your enthusiasm for your research?

1. Societal relevance

Before getting into the nitty-gritty details of your research, take the helicopter view and explain them the broader importance of your work. Are you somehow helping finding the cure for cancer, making safer bridges or making the production of food cheaper? Even though you yourself might not be involved in the broader scope directly, your science has its position in making the world a better place.

2. Compare to everyday situations


Remember how popular science documentaries compare distances to number of soccerfields, and weights to number of trucks? When presented like this, your numbers become alive - we can all relate to the dimension of a soccerfield and the weight of a truck. So jot down a few numbers on the back of an envelope and learn how to translate your numbers to something from everyday life.

3. Avoid jargon

At TEDx Delft, Leo Kouwenhoven joked that you lose half of your audience with every equation you show in a presentation - and subsequently showed two equations. Avoid technical terms when talking to your friends and family - it will only reinforce the stereotype of the scientist living in his own world, babbling in an ununderstandable pidgin language. Practice explaining your science without any technical terms - you'll often need this skill anyway.

4. Pictures

Bring your science to life by showing pictures of your laboratory and your experiments to your friends and family. But also show pictures of your conferences, and how "social" science as a practice really is - people need to know that the scientist who spends his days withering away in a dark room, working on a project all by himself, barely exists. Science is collaboration, science is playing around and fiddling. Tell your story of exploration and discovery to your friends and family.

5. Life in science is fun

Following the previous point, involve your family and friends into your life as a scientist. Explain them how diverse your tasks are. Do you know anybody in science who is at the same task for a couple of months straight? No, instead, we teach, do research, talk to the industry, play around in the lab, do some planning, go hunt for obscure articles in the library, and what not. Highlight how independent you are as an academic, how much liberty you have in pursuing your own interests, making your schedule for the day, getting involved in additional activities and more. Show them how polyfaceted scientists really are, much to the contrary of some popular cliches.

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