Wednesday, 16 December 2015

PhDs at the Christmas Table

Heading home for Christmas can be a mixed experience. 

On the one hand, it's a fantastic opportunity to get to spend a decent chunk of time with friends and family, and find out what they've been doing. If you're anything like me, most of your friends are going through exciting changes: buying homes, getting engaged, changing careers, gaining promotions. Your family might have plans to travel, hobbies they're taking up, kids who are turning into bright, talented teenagers.

Of course, in these situations the conversation inevitably turns to '..oh, how is your thesis going?' Personally, I find this a bit of a minefield. How do you answer? How much detail do you give? Do they really care?

To try and navigate these conversations, I sometimes have to remind myself of the following.

1. Of course they aren't going to remember the details of your thesis. That's ok.

If your loved ones are anything like mine, the second question after 'how is your thesis going?' is 'what are you studying again?'

After expending that much energy on something that matters that much to you, it can feel hurtful that your nearest and dearest don't remember the details. But they have lives to live and other things to get on with. 

A lack of knowledge about your thesis does not imply a lack of interest in you; the person doing the thesis. Unless this is asked in a snarky way, I take this is an opportunity to practice summarising my research succinctly.

2. Just because they don't share your motivation, doesn't mean they aren't happy for you.

None of my family are particularly academically-minded, and the vast majority of my friends felt no need to do an MA (lucky them). Inevitably, this does lead to slightly uncomfortable questions: 'so are you going to be an academic?' (maybe, but unlikely) or 'HOW long is this going to take you!?' (6 years, most likely) or 'but, why?' (!??) And these questions, while difficult, shouldn't be read as an attack on your life choices. 

For example, I have 0% interest in having children of my own. It's not a desire I understand. But this doesn't make me unable to understand a friend's excitement when their child is learning to talk, or doing well at school. 

Excitement is infectious. If you're excited about your research, your loved ones will understand that, even if they don't understand your motivation.

3. They don't care about your research...

No, seriously. Most of them really don't care.

4. ....what they care about is you and the fact that you're doing it. And that's the most valuable thing.

In all of these situations, you're seeing these people because you care about them and they care about you. And that's the key to all of this. I know that my parents will never have a real interest in the dynamics of late medieval gender. But I do know that they care about me, and want to support me. 

If you need that support - and your loved ones can offer it - don't turn it down because they don't care whether you use Chicago or MLA. 

5. It's Christmas. If you really don't want to talk about your research, don't.

There are periods where the thesis gets difficult and awful and we just want to get away from it. And if this is true for your this Christmas, that's ok. It's ok to use Christmas as a break away from your thesis.*

And it's perfectly possible to be gracious if you don't want to talk about your thesis. 'I'm finding it quite difficult at the moment, but it can wait for January. I want to hear more about your [new job/ newhome/wedding plans].'

*Just make sure that you get what you need (support, writing help, careers guidance) when term kicks off again.

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