This is a post about self-presentation, particularly to non-academics. I am currently a PhD Candidate at a mid-size private research university in the Midwestern United States (at least that’s one version of my autobiographical spiel). From what I can tell from speaking with colleagues at institutions across the country, professionalization for U.S. PhD students varies a great deal from discipline to discipline, institution to institution, and department to department. In my department, students have the option of enrolling in a professionalization course, in which we learn how to create compelling CVs, ‘biosketches,’ ‘elevator speeches,’ etc., but all of these are aimed at communicating what we do to an academic audience.
This training is less helpful when we venture into mixed company.
I recently found myself at a boozy brunch with a large group of my husband’s coworkers (he’s an engineer), meeting someone for the first time. A friend of a friend from out of town who had joined in for the festivities. We ended up seated across from one another. Our drinks had no sooner arrived than he lobbed that infamous question at me, the one I had grown so loath to answer over the past several years, and particularly the past two months. “So, what do you do?”
I had already been rehearsing in my head what I would say. I was in transition. As a graduate student, I always sort of felt that way, but lately it was really true. My dissertation was out for a final reading by my committee. I was planning to defend in six weeks. After seven years of graduate school, I was graduating. And I had been offered a beautiful, coveted, tenure-track job, which I had accepted, and planned to start in the fall. On my campus visit in December, I had impressed myself by NOT acting like a graduate student. But by mid-March, as I waited with bated breath for my dissertation committee to validate half a decade’s work, I felt more graduate student-y than ever. “I’m…an anthropologist,” I offered, sounding entirely too unsure of myself. He pressed, “Oh, so what kind of work are you doing?” I haltingly explained that I was finishing my PhD at University of Large Midwestern City and would be moving in the fall to work at University of Snowy Great Lakes Place. When he asked what I would be doing there, I said I would be “teaching.” Every word felt awkward coming out of my mouth.
I found the whole exchange troubling because there were so many different ways I could have answered and they all felt partial.
“I’m a graduate student.” (I once said this to a gentleman at a holiday party, and he responded by gesturing to my husband, who was standing next to me, and saying “Oh, so he’s supporting you then.” I never introduced myself that way again.)
“I’m finishing my doctorate.”
“I’m a cultural anthropologist.”
“I’m a researcher.”
“I’m a writer.”
“I’m a social scientist.”
“I’m a knowledge worker.”
“Isn’t this question really just a way for you to suss out how we stack up socioeconomically? I refuse to participate in this tired exercise.”
I’ve never actually used that last one out loud with anyone. The “knowledge worker” one either.
I don’t think this dilemma is particularly unique to academia; there are other professions with overly complex hierarchies and careers that require one to fulfill a number of differently named roles. But to be able to sum up the varied aspects of academic work into a neat cocktail-party-ready discursive bundle has always been a challenge for me. Perhaps this is just something that comes with time and experience—getting comfortable in your academic skin. I would imagine it’s additionally complex for those among us whose work is contingent or otherwise less stable and secure, and thus in a sense, always in transition.
How do you respond when asked the proverbial “What do you do?”
Kate Mariner is completing her PhD at the University of Chicago. Thank you, Kate!