What exactly is it you’re doing?

I was in India over winter break, and one of the funnier aspects of being home was trying to explain to people what I was actually doing. Like Jane, I had thought it hard enough to explain to former professors, but most of them at least knew about UC Santa Cruz.

Most people that I talked to in India had never heard of Santa Cruz, or UC Santa Cruz, let alone a science communication program at this university. Now, given that even in the US, many of my friends had no idea what science writing was, it wasn’t a surprise that almost no one in India had any idea what this strange field might involve.

But it did lead to some fairly uncomfortable conversations:

Friendly neighbor/family friend/random person: So, what do you do?

Me: I finished my PhD in microbiology, and I’m doing a course in science writing

(I had to mention the PhD to sound somewhat legitimate…even if it led to some head-scratching)

Them: You finished a PhD…but you’re not working?

Me: No

Them: You mean you’re still studying…after a PhD?

Me: Yes

Most people just gave up now, nodding with a puzzled look on their faces, wondering what a 29-year old with a PhD was doing still studying, when the respectable thing to do would be to get a job.

Now, to be clear, most of my friends in India have been working since they were 21, so that’s understandable. It’s also partly because of another misconception that people had about PhDs—they assumed that if you had a PhD, places would be dying to offer you a job. And by a job, they don’t mean a post-doctoral position, but a faculty job. My former grad school classmates must wish it were that easy.

If whoever I was talking to was interested enough to get past that stage, there was more confusion to come:

Them: Where are you studying?

Me: UC Santa Cruz.

Cue puzzled expressed and furrowed brows.

Me: It’s near San Francisco. California.

They nod. They know California, probably because they know a guy (or know someone who knows a guy) in Silicon Valley. Of course, he’s doing something respectable, like computer programming…this is not helping my case.

I’m immediately given the email address and phone number of whoever they know in the US (whether or not they’re in California—the US can’t be that large, right?) with firm instructions to “definitely call them, they’re very nice people.”

It’s my turn to smile and nod vigorously. By the end of my trip, I had the contact information for strangers in Texas, Mississippi, and New York, as well as a few actually in California. (On a previous occasion I had one family member give me the contact details of a venture capitalist in New York, which I politely accepted. I’ve never been sure what I was supposed to do with it.)

Most people changed the subject by this point. But there were enough who were dogged or curious enough to continue.

Them: And what did you say you were studying?

Me: science writing.

This led to a variety of responses, roughly divided into three categories:

1: A common one was, “you mean, journalism? Couldn’t you have done that without a PhD??”

I’m thinking to myself: yes, I just like taking the longer, more tortured route to things

2: For others, it’s “Oh. Ok. I know someone who writes instruction manuals. I think the pay is good.”

That’s totally why I’m doing this course. Look for my writing next time you buy a vacuum cleaner.

3: From the academics, I got something like, “So you’ve decided to do less serious work now,” said with some disappointment.

It’s true, science was too hard, I thought I’d switch to writing fluff.

Thankfully, there were a tiny minority of close family and friends who had heard about science writing, and were actually excited that I was doing it.

But for the rest, after a certain point I tried various means to dodge the subject of what I was doing. I tried to be as non-communicative as the worst sources I’ve ever interviewed, making people have to pry answers out of me.

It didn’t work. Many people were just too curious/nosy about what I did to stop short of finding out exactly what I was doing and where I was doing it. Even if the answer left them deeply dissatisfied and somewhat disapproving.

I can’t imagine what my incredibly supportive parents have been going through for the past few years, trying to explain to people what their son is doing…I did give them some issues of Popular Science and Science Illustrated magazines in which I had articles published, so I think that helped a little—at least they could show people examples of science writing (even if these just prompted more questions about why I needed a PhD to do journalism).

There’s nothing unusual about these responses though. Anyone who does something even slightly off the beaten path has to deal with the same thing in India. It’s a society much more comfortable with someone who can be quickly categorized—ah, he’s an engineer, or a doctor, (or more recently, a manager/consultant/analyst at a well-known multinational company.)

Maybe someday science journalism will be an acceptable option too…:)

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