Hopefully no one reads this and assumes I'm wrote this article because you personally asked me one of these questions. On the contrary, take these ideas as gifts to you. If I were going to take a tour of Google or Microsoft, and if there were certain questions that I shouldn't ask computer programmers because they are annoying or would cause them to make fun of me after I'd left, I'd certainly want to know that before going in. Wouldn't you??
Therefore, please enjoy this public service announcement. You're welcome.
Three Questions to Never Ask a Grad Student
1. What is your dissertation on?
This is by far the most common question graduate students receive. We understand that you mean well. Maybe you're even halfway interested in the answer (though I doubt you're as interested as you think you are—more on that later). Still, keep this one to yourself. It's annoying. Ever get a splint or boot after an injury and have countless hoards ask you what happened? Yeah, it's like that.
Another thought: you really don't care what the dissertation topic is; you're just "making polite conversation." If we answered truthfully, we'd smile and say something like, "Oh! I'm studying Child Self-Regulation in the Context of Poverty-Related Environmental Risk: Neighborhood Crime and Family Instability as Predictors of Cognitive, Behavioral, and Emotional Control!" Halfway through this response you will have looked at your watch, remembered another appointment you had, and wondered if you left the oven on.
Some of you reading this might be thinking, "No, I really am interested!" That's nice for you. We're not. :)
The other side of the coin is: we often don't know the answer and asking us just rubs it in. Coming up with a dissertation topic, let alone researching and writing one, is an insane amount of work. It causes great stress in our lives. Please don't add more stress by reminding us that we aren't even close to graduating yet.
2. How's your PhD program going?
When you're sick and you go to the doctor's office, did you know your doctor doesn't have a PhD? (S)he has an MD (or another type of medical degree). If the one profession we actually call "doctor" doesn't even have a PhD, why is it that everyone automatically assumes that all people getting doctorates are getting PhDs!?
The "Ph" in PhD stands for "philosophy." Trust me, not everyone is getting a degree in philosophy. Let me paint an example. Here are some of the many doctorate degrees offered by the nation's universities:
DSocSci (Doctor of Social Science)
DBA (Doctor of Business Administration)
ThD (Doctor of Theology)
MD (Doctor of Medicine)
Pharm.D (Doctor of Pharmacy)
PsyD (Doctor of Psychology)
DMA (Doctor of Musical Arts)
PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Ed.D (Doctor of Education)
DDS (Doctor of Dental Science)
...and the list goes on. There are hundreds more. Sure, many areas of study include the study of philosophy (philosophy of education, philosophy of social behavior, etc.) but, statistically speaking, there's a good chance that someone you know getting a doctorate is actually not getting a PhD.
Look, I get it; you mean well. It was an innocent mistake. Remember, however, I'm not here to ridicule you but to help you! We are working very hard to earn these degrees and not all of us are interested in philosophy.
3. When do you finish your degree?
When we're having a conversation with you, it's very likely the first moment all week long that we haven't been immersed in research, study, and stress. We're not terribly interested in discussing the degree right now, let alone the aggravating thought that we're never going to finish. Even if we know how much time we have left, it feels so far away. It's so far away it makes us cry. Don't remind us of that.
So what SHOULD you say to a grad student?
Lest this article come across as all negative, here is a list of things you should definitely say to a grad student:
- Hey, sit down. Let me do that for you. You work hard enough as it is.
- Oh I've got the check; it's on me! I know the grad student life isn't cheap.
- Can I babysit your kids for free? I'm sure you could use the break.
- I admire your hard work. I know earning a doctorate is no walk in the park. Let me know if there's anything I can do to help.
- Here's $20. Just because.
And there you have it. You can now confidently speak with someone in graduate school, armed with knowledge. You're welcome.