Things you never say to a graduate student

You may be friends or family with someone in graduate school. To help you better navigate conversations with this PhD student, here are some landmines to avoid the next time you’re chatting it up over coffee or Christmas dinner. While none of these questions are even slightly sinister, they can alienate your graduate student friend because they reveal that you have no idea what their work is like.

(“Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham – www.phdcomics.com)

Here are a few I commonly encounter (and what I think about them):

You must be so much smarter than me.

The first thing you have to deal with after deciding to get a PhD is that everybody you meet and asks about your career will immediately make you feel uncomfortable by stating either how smart you must be or (even worse) how much smarter than them you must be. Obviously some level of intellectual ability is necessary, but getting a PhD is much more the result of sustained effort and discipline than intellectual prowess. It takes hard work to understand advanced mathematics or material science. So don’t minimize that by thinking it’s just a result of being smarter than average. People mean these statements as a compliment but it’s awkward and offensive.

When are you going to graduate?

This question is irksome because you don’t know the answer. A PhD isn’t a “complete 60 hrs of coursework and you’re done” sort of thing. You’re finished when your advisors collectively agree that you have made a substantial contribution to the body of knowledge in your field. Your work is a long term endeavor with very little incremental feedback. Once you have a research idea, it may take months to develop it enough to find out if it works or not. So, your graduate student friend doesn’t know when they will finish or if it will all work out, and your question just reminds them of that while implying: “you haven’t finished yet?”

Aren’t you tired of being in “school”?

This question makes it sound like people think you’re still in college. It might come as a surprise, but I haven’t taken a course in 2-3 years and don’t own a pair of scrubs. Instead, I teach and conduct research on more or less a 9-5 basis. It’s laughable how removed this is from the undergraduate college experience. I too would have gone insane if I was an undergraduate student in perpetuity. Graduate school is largely a competitive, professional environment.

Do you have such and such holiday “off”?

Graduate school is an environment where you have to excel in your classes and progress in your research in a punishing economy of time. There’s no real thing as time off, because the nature of my work means I could theoretically work all the time. I’m eating dinner with friends and my mind wanders to the problems I’m trying to solve so I can graduate. Holidays (Christmas, Spring break, etc) are often viewed as “research catch-up time”. Sometimes I honestly feel I should work in every single free minute I have, because it feels like every minute I don’t work is a minute later that I’ll graduate. So, I can always work and it’s always up to me whether I do. I don’t “get days off”; I choose to spend time on things other than research. Research is very entrepreneurial in this sense.

In conclusion…

All that being said, if you’ve ever said these to your graduate student friend, don’t worry too much about it. They understand that you didn’t mean it badly and are no doubt well-versed in handling these questions or statements with grace and nuance. Hopefully you can just make their day now by bringing up an awesome topic about anything but grad school. Perhaps I’ll work up a future post about questions grad students love to be asked.

(And in case it wasn’t obvious, this post was written tongue-in-cheek.)

Related: Discussion on Hacker News