Friday, November 14, 2008

The age old question...

Over the years, many people have asked me the dreaded question, "What do you do for a living?" Throughout graduate school the answer continued to change on a somewhat regular basis. The first thing I learned was to avoid informing others of my student status. I found it difficult to explain to people that while yes, I was a student, I really didn't spend that much time in class and that instead, I spent most of my hours toiling away in the lab. The additional benefit of not telling people that you are a student is avoiding the painful, "When are you going to graduate?" question. People just don't take well to "I don't know" or "It depends."
Even after deciding to remove the word student from my answer, the response to that question still changed over time. Versions included:
  1. "I am a microbiologist and I study gene regulation in Painintheass bacterium, the causative agent of horrible way to die disease. Followed by way, way too much information."
  2. "I am a microbiologist and I study gene regulation in P. bacterium. It causes disease X."
  3. "I am a microbiologist and I study P. bacterium. It causes disease X."
  4. "I am a microbiologist."
  5. "I grow and kill a shit-ton of bacteria on a daily basis." (current response)
It's not that I don't like to talk about what I do. I freaking love, love, love to talk about my work, but molecular biology is just a little to complex for the lay person and I am getting progressively worse at using non-science lingo. I find that people want the short answer, and for me (at least for now) that is #5. If people inquire further, then I provide more information. For me, the take-home message I learned about discussing my career with non-science geeks, is to let the person you are talking to determine the amount of information they receive.

Does anyone else have their own version of #5?


Ambivalent Academic said...

#5 - I study balls.

I will not explain further for risk of forfeiting my pseudonymity but it still makes me snigger to think of the facial expressions I get in response.

PS - Heard you inter-met BH the other day!

Ambivalent Academic said...

Tag! You've been hit with the "5 things meme"!

I can't get the damn hyperlinks to work in comments so here's where to go to find it:

Sorry so ghetto

Thomas Joseph said...

I just tell people I'm a microbiologist. If they ask what that is, I take a deep breath and begin the 45 minute lecture. ;)

Anonymous said...

I tell them "i'm a big nerd." Then they feel sorry for me, i blow it off, and we drop the subject OR they smile and inquire, win.

Otherwise, i feel like people get all weird about being in the midst of a 'smart, belittling scientist'...little do they know im just a dedicated student...not unlike their five year old.

quietandsmalladventures said...

usually i just say i'm in science. then i wait for them to ask more or not.

but if i'm out and some annoying person insists on talking to me at the bar when i don't want to talk, i pull out all the stops: i'm a graduate student studying gene regulation in a particularly toxic bacteriophage. they usually back away slowly and run for their friends!

Dr. A said...


microbiologist xx said...

ambivalent academic:
1. You work on balls. LOL. That is a good one.
2. Yes. I did inter-meet your better half. How funny is that. I hope I can pass some good info. along to him.
3. No worries, ghetto is fine with me. It took me where I needed to go. :)
...Balls...still laughing about that.

thomas joseph - 45 min. lecture...sounds about right. :) I'm not sure people really know what is in store when they press for details.

rhea miller - I know exactly what you are saying about people getting kinda weird. Sometimes I feel like I might come off like an asshole when I talk about what I do. It is not my intention unless the person I am talking to is being an ass themselves.

quiet and small adventures - welcome and thanks for stopping by. So far, I think the short, simple answer is the best approach, and I agree, too much information about your job is a great way to get people to go away. :)

Unbalanced Reaction said...

#5: I teach.

This is usually followed by an inquiry as to what subject, which is ALWAYS followed by "oh, what grade is that?" After that, people either shut up or (more often) blurt out "but you look too young to teach college students!" It's awesome.

Ambivalent Academic said...

God I'm so juvenile..."balls" still makes me giggle and it's my effing project.

I have found that it's a "great" bar conversation...just alter the voice inflection.

For jerky guys you wish would go away say, "I work on balls" in a an intimidating tone, followed by "no really, I grind them up on a daily basis," for the really persistent ones...and *presto* problem solved! No need to tell them that the "balls" they are thinking of are not really what I had in mind.

For the guys you'd like to take home...well, I'm sure I don't need to spell it out for you.

I find this to be very convenient...weeds out the insecure and self-obsessed with their own genitalia crowd, and self-selects for guys with a sense of adventure.

Hell, how do you think I landed BH? ;)

PS - Where's your damn meme!?!?