I often get asked by people what do I do in my Ph.D. That’s a seemingly easy question, but it is actually quite difficult to answer. How are you supposed to sum up years of work, study and research into a something that should not be longer than a “yes/no” answer? An answer will also depend on how long you’ve been in the program. Several months in, you still have no idea what you’re doing.

There is no one answer for that question. The answer depends on who is asking you and in what context that question is asked. There are three components to this answer: the “How”, the “Why”, and the “What”. As scientists we like to put stuff on triangular diagrams, so here’s one:

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The answer should be somewhere in that triangle. Let’s talk a bit about the end-members:

The “How”

That’s a straight forward answer. How do you do the thing that you’re doing? What machines are you using? What methods? “In my own research I take oxide powders, put them in a noble metal capsule and cook them up in a piston cylinder apparatus. Then I take that capsule and analyse it with an electron microprobe and a laser ablation system“. See? Easy. The problem is, that only people who are in your field will likely understand what you’re talking about. Piston cylinder? What’s that? Laser ablation? Is that something that can shoot rockets out of the sky?

The “What”

This one is also relatively straight forward answer, given that you are advanced enough in your program. The “What” describes your research question, the thing that you are trying to discover in your research project. My own example would be: “I am experimentally simulating the formation of rare-metal ore deposits in a lab“. Short and simple. Note that this can depend on the knowledge level of the individual you’re talking to. This could be easily expanded to “I am experimentally simulating the partitioning of rare metals between solid and fluid phases in peralkaline ore deposits“, given that the other person knows what you’re talking about.

The “Why”

This is the hardest part to answer, and most likely the most important. What good is your research project going to do to humanity? Why should we care? Why should our tax payer money fund this? In some cases the answer can be rather easy. For example, in my case, a possible “why” could be: “Rare metals are important for modern technology. For example, lithium is used in lightweight batteries for mobile devices, tantalum makes your smartphone work and neodymium makes wind power generators a whole lot more efficient than they would without it. These metals have to be mined somewhere, and before that they have to be explored for. My research helps in that exploration process“. Notice how much longer this answer is than the answers to the “How” and “What” questions. Eventually, this is what’s important.

So how do we combine these three end-members to one question? Again, this depends on who you’re talking to and on the social setting. If you’re meeting an old friend in a party, they’re expecting a very short answer. This question usually sits in the same level of “What beer should I get?” or “How is the weather going to be tomorrow?”. Your answer should begin with a very short introduction (“What”), then go to “Why” and then expand on “What”. “How” is usually not required here, unless the conversation keeps on going on for some reason. My attempt at an answer would be: “I do experimental geology. There are some rare metals that are used in your smartphone, and my research helps in finding places to mine them“. This is as simple as it gets. Note that I used the word “geology” instead of the more appropriate term “petrology”. 99.9% of the people will think you’re doing something related to oil when you say “petrology”. Avoid potentially confusing terms. On our triangular diagram this would look something like this:

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If you’re have a small chat with someone with a scientific background, especially from our field (the general earth sciences in my case), and especially if it’s someone who is also a Ph.D student, the “How” becomes interesting. A potential answer is “I study the formation of rare-metal ore deposits. I make synthetic rocks and use a machine called a piston cylinder to press and cook the rocks. I then analyse then with electron microscopes and lasers so eventually we would be able to find deposits of these metals“. Here’s a diagram:

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These were two example of how to combine the three end-members, depending on your situation.

To sum it up, you should have the three end-members in your mind at all times. Once you have that, it’s only a simple matter of adjusting which of them go in your answer and in what order. This way you should have a previously-thought-of answer to the dreaded question “So what do you do in your Ph.D?”. Being caught unprepared can sometimes cause a bit of embarrassment and misunderstandings or just awkward moments when talking to people.

Feel free to try out some of this in the comments section!