So What Do You Do?

Kieran Healy has dusted off and re-posted some very good advice about attending academic conferences. It’s the advice you really need — who to go to dinner with, how not to embarrass yourself when introducing people to each other — rather than boring stuff like how to give a good talk. The spirit of the approach is captured by this quote:

As with teenagers, conference attendees secretly and falsely believe that other groups are having a much better time… Your conference strategies should therefore be geared towards counteracting the tendency to re-live your teenage years.

It’s surprising to realize how much “smart ways to behave at conferences” are really just “smart ways to behave in life.” (Though probably it shouldn’t be that surprising — academics aren’t the special flowers we like to think we are.) This bit of advice in particular struck me as useful:

[If] you worry someone will ask you what you work on, have something to say that’s three sentences long and takes fifteen seconds to get through. Write it down and practice it if you like.

I think every person should do that all the time. As you go through life, there will be multiple occasions on which people ask you “What do you do?” (If you’re in academia or an otherwise creative field, it will be “What are you working on?”) A high percentage of the time, questions like that elicit an awkwardly long pause, or something deflecting like “Oh, you know, lots of things.”

It makes sense. In your mind, “what you do” or “what you’re working on” is this incredibly rich, diverse, tightly interconnected set of things, and here is someone you don’t know asking you to instantly distill it down to a pithy phrase. Outrageous! And what’s worse, if you actually give a substantive answer, you’ll inevitably be leaving something out. You think, “Well I could mention this one thing that I’m mostly thinking about, but it’s not really representative of what I’m usually doing, so maybe I should mention this other thing…”

It’s not really a good look. Think about your own feelings when you ask someone what they do, and they respond with “Oh, I don’t know” or “Oh, lots of things.” Really? You don’t know what you do? Are you a spy whose memories are wiped at the conclusion of each mission? I’m sure you do many things, but perhaps picking out one would provide me with more useful information? At a conference in particular, it’s not the best first impression.

It’s important to come to terms with the fact that there are no perfect answers to the whatdoyoudo/whatareyouworkingon kinds of questions — and yet, we should have answers ready. Ones that are confident, short, and convey just a bit of the necessary flavor, so that more detail can emerge over the course of further conversation, which after all is the point of these well-meaning interrogations. This is especially true if you’re going to academic meetings, but it holds for life more generally. As adults, we should be better at these everyday skills than we were as teenagers.

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13 Responses to So What Do You Do?

  1. Mark Cettie says:

    I’m working on being pithy…and funny…oh, and erudite… have I made it to 15 seconds yet? …. OK…. Fine… I’m working on myself.

  2. Lawrence says:

    I’ve taken to attending conferences wearing a Roman collar. Nobody asks.

  3. Ian liberman says:

    Is this one big plug?I am coming out with my second hard rock game. I wi ll be the pop culture consultant for the company. first game sold close to 750000 copies in the eighties. Wrote a a book called Congratulations you are a Science Nerd. integrating science and coma con pop culture. Thanks.

  4. Bill Brett says:

    What ever comes my way.

  5. Katherine K. says:

    I must say I had a good laugh at this. You are a very smart man! I hope your tribe members take your sound advice. All of you have my respect.

  6. ix says:

    I struggled with this for years, and only got the hang of it near the end of my academic career. Still, it’s sound advice. Advanced level: instantly tailor your response to your audience. It doesn’t do to use technical lingo with non-experts, but dumbing it down with experts makes you sound patronising. Difficult.

  7. I am a bit surprised — living in an area where there are a number of software/information technology professionals around — how difficult it is for them to say succinctly what they do.

  8. John Barrett says:

    I figured it was always best to just tell them that you do nothing, and you still live with your parents. It is a sure fire way to keep the gold diggers away from you. Hey, you may end up being single for the rest of your life and dying alone, but at least then you will end up having a lot more money in the long run. No matter what follows that line, they will end up walking off for some reason or another within a minute or so…

  9. Those were very good points indeed.

  10. James Gallagher says:

    “If I told you I’d have to kill you … hahahahaha …”

    then make sure to look REALLY serious for quite a bit longer than is necessary.

  11. Swami says:

    In general, the shorter the explanation, the better it is. If the other party is truly interested, he or she will have follow-up questions. My brother was a mechanical engineer and I liked his one word answer, “construction”.

  12. bgg says:

    I’m skeptical that this situation is as general as you claim it is. The problem is that in real-life social situations, unlike at academic conferences, the question, “what do you do” is rarely asked sincerely. Many people react to any discussion of mathematics or physics with disgust and fear. Such people will recoil at any honest attempt to describe what one is working on; instead, what they want to hear is a terse, pleasant-sounding lie, which hopefully involves some big words, e.g., “Oh, you know, string theory,” to which they will say, “Oh, wow!” and hurriedly change the subject.
    In such cases, where the question is obviously not asked in good faith, I see no reason why I should provide anything more substantive than, “Oh, lots of things.” If someone honestly wants to know what I do, he or she can indicate so and I am happy to go into detail; otherwise, I see no reason to lie.

  13. SteveK says:

    I work on energy and space systems, particularly simulating them with computers, and I watch shows about astronomy on NetFlix when the show “Cosmos” is not running.