Monday, December 13, 2010

Haven't I done anything already yet?

Holiday parties, part 2.

More funny things about attending parties with no scientists: the way people try to get to know you by asking about your career aspirations. This is the more polite, friendly, less-condescending version of what I described in this previous post .

Dude: So, what do you do?

YFS: I'm not working right now.

Dude: So, what kind of thing do you want to do?

I pondered a bit over that question, because I couldn't figure out why it was bothering me. It's a perfectly reasonable thing to ask someone you've never met. Right?

In fact, it's probably more reasonable than what most scientists ask, which is past-tense, i.e. "What were you doing before?" or "What's your background?"

Because really, you might not want to talk about whatever you were doing before. It might not even be relevant.

In fact, I got tired of answering too honestly along the lines of, "Well, I'm trained as a scientist but I couldn't find a job and now I'm going to have to switch careers."

I thought the short answer version might send the message:

I don't really know you and don't really want to talk about it.

Apparently not.

I'm vaguely aware that an open-ended, future-directed question is where you're supposed to give your pitch. Because you never know when you're going to meet a rich philanthropist just looking for a place to donate for a tax write-off.

So I think I missed an opportunity or two by not having a prepared 30-second commercial for My Potential.

At a scientific meeting, I know exactly how to answer the "What do you want to do" question. I may not have ever been very good at it, but I did get better at launching into my condensed blurb about my exciting research project and how I still want to continue working on it if I only had the money, a (tenure-track) place to do the work, and don't you have a search going on in your department?

But I need to be expecting to be asked anything beyond doing the usual name-handshake dance and nod.

Afterwards, I realized the problem is that I feel like they are making the perfectly reasonable assumption that I have done nothing thus far.

Obviously, because I'm not famous, and I don't drive a BMW.

Things I maybe should have said instead of just standing there clutching my drink and looking surprised:

"Well, you know I got my PhD several years ago and I have published X # of papers, so... Actually, I have already done what some people might consider a fairly significant body of work."


"I write a blog... sometimes."

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At 9:59 AM, Anonymous BLG said...

Umm - maybe they were asking this question because they had talked to a lot of people who don't like telling the painful story of how they were laid-off from their last job, not because they assumed you "have done nothing thus far". In this economy, if you meet someone who says they are not currently working, you might think they'd gotten a pink slip, and want to give them a chance to talk about their future plans (and be supportive of them) rather than ask about their past. It's not all about you.

At 12:43 PM, Blogger Kea said...

In my case, the 30 second spiel sometimes just pops out, and that usually ends the conversation. There is no point having a 30 second piece ready when the listener is not in the right frame of mind to hear it - and the men never are. I have actually shared lifts with real live millionaires and billionaires, which in theory gives me that 30 seconds, right? Only, at the first condescending glance and polite smile I can sense the futility, the spiel a guaranteed freak show and nothing more.

At 4:59 PM, Anonymous FrauTech said...

Well your first problem is you went to a party and talked to I'm just kidding.

I feel like I'm guilty of this a lot (the question asker) as a person who's life is largely focused on work I tend to ask people what they "do for a living" and focus on that aspect of their lives. And often I feel bad later because a person is more than whoever is sending them a paycheck (or not). Maybe it's just our capitalistic society. And if you told me in person what you say here I'd probably start doubting your ambitions and trying to steer you towards something "practical". Maybe another throwback of the cynical, capitalistic agenda. But I had a friend in high school who used to tell me he wanted to "create stuff" and I doubted how he'd earn a paycheck for that. But in fact he's an internet B-list star, and I believe making enough money off of it to survive as well as travelling and seeing the world to boot. So don't be afraid to shout your dreams, to anyone who will hear them, not that everyone is going to be a philanthropist who will throw money at you but maybe you will find good collaborators and an opportunity you wouldn't have found otherwise.

At 10:22 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Yes, BLG, you're right. I'm just saying that's how I feel. In my twisted view of the world, I can see how to most people who don't know me, I really do look like I haven't done anything. As opposed to, say, a tall white guy in a suit.

Kea, yeah for a while I got interested in trying to learn how to figure out what version they would want to hear and sometimes I've gotten a response that way... but I'm never sure how to follow through all the way to making some kind of mutually beneficial deal.

FrauTech, yeah I think the problem is I'm tired of being put down and rejected, and that has resulted in a lot of fear about reliving the abuse from the past. I like how you put it, to "shout your dreams to anyone who will hear them". I can't remember the last time I was that kind of person. High school?

At 10:29 AM, Anonymous chall said...

I think it is in the time and age more likely to ask "what do you want to do?" as in dreaming since the owrk climate today sucks... as in lots of good people who have done great stuff are unemployed and maybe have some kind of job but not what they trained for, want to have in the future or want to talk about... it's "just a pay check".

I usually smile and say that I would like to do research in some form but that uni world seems sort of closed due to grant issues.

Most of the time though, at Xmas parties, there is just lots of people who need to try and socialize even though they don't know how to ;)

At 1:43 AM, Anonymous Grrlscientist said...

i am asked this question often by strangers who have to reason to ask such personal questions. i hate talking about this topic because it leaves me depressed for weeks afterwards.

so when asked "what do you do?" i answer "nothing." that response generally shocks the questioner into silence and makes him (or her) go away. which, at this point, IS the point.

At 5:52 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I realize this post is a little old, although I would like to ask your advice. I like to ask this question and had not realized it could be taken that way. Would it be less offensive if I asked, "What would you like to do next?"

I agree that always talking about work at social events is not promising. I am asking more in the context of conferences, association meetings, or networking events. When I was unemployed, I had an answer ready for the question I wish that they had asked rather than the one they did ask. That way I could sound positive and engaging. In the reverse, I am trying to ask better questions.

At 10:44 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Anon, yes, absolutely.

"What would you like to do next?" is a version I find much easier to answer.

Somehow it does not seem as condescending, and seems to acknowledge the possibility that I know how to tackle challenges and I'm just taking my time deciding among options.

As opposed to putting forward the implicit assumption that I've done nothing remotely interesting with my life thus far!

I've not yet mastered the skill of answering the question I wish they had asked. One of my advisors tried to teach me to do this for platform presentations, but I always find it disingenuous and transparent when I see other people doing it.

So I'm reluctant to employ this tactic, although I can certainly see its utility and do sometimes find it easy. Especially when i get the same type of question/phrasing repeatedly, eventually I develop a rapid response.

For example, if someone blurts out something sufficiently clueless or condescending, I will apply this approach to correct them.

For example, fairly often I get someone saying something like, "No way, really? You really don't look like a scientist?"

Then I say: You mean, you've never met a scientist who looked like me? Yes, I really do have a PhD.

That usually either leads to a) shocked silence, or b) a flood of questions. You can guess which response I appreciate more!


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