“So…what is it you do again?”

Like most Ph.D. students, I am wired for academic obsession. Being able to toil over the unanswered questions in life is something of an asset in this particular line of work, but is not without liability.

What do I do? It’s a surprisingly difficult question to answer. Pursue my dreams? Plunge the depths of the biomedical unknown?  Boldly go where no Informatician has gone before? After two years in Oregon Health & Science University’s Bioinformatics Ph.D. program, I have yet to discover an answer to this question that lets both conversational parties walk away satisfied.

“So…what is it you do again?”

The first time I was asked this after starting my research, I treated my audience to a long-winded oration in which I carefully laid out a chronologically-organized argument documenting the place for Informatics in the Neurosciences. Beginning in the nineteenth century, with Ramon & Cajal’s foundational research on the microarchitecture of the nervous system, & culminating in a crescendo of enthusiasm when finally arriving at Olaf Sporn’s work on brain connectivity mapping–I was in my element. & when the dust settled, I realized that nearly thirty minutes had gone by, & I had completely killed a party. This would not be the first social gathering to fall victim to unrestrained enthusiasm for academic science, nor would it be the last.

“So…what is it you do again?”

The pendulum quickly swung the other way. Concision was my new M.O. Not a few weeks later I was given the chance at redemption: “oh, computers & neuroscience, & [inaudible].”

“You mean like tech. support?”

I nodded vaguely, as the conversation turned to something I’ll never remember. Tech. support? Really? Was this what I had become? A sell-out, ashamed of my own passions? A scared little scientist petrified at the prospect of entering into dialogue with another human? For the time, yes.

I would go on to claim several other parties. My friends would go on to invite me to fewer parties. I would go on further to show up at said parties anyway to practice my 10-second job description on the unsuspecting newcomer. Eventually, I would learn to gauge the true level of interest held by my audience before answering the dreaded question. During this process, I also discovered it to be a doorway to one of graduate school’s greatest pleasures.

“So…what is it you do again?”

“I do research on how artificial intelligence can be used to make Neuroscience research more efficient.”

“Oh, do you mean like Neuroinformatics?”

Yes! Instant kinship. The bond shared by academics embarked upon similar journeys is like none other–a surprise oasis within a desert of awkward conversations.

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  1. I graduated in May 2009 and I’m still figuring that out!

    But, this is a great post because it really highlights the importance of having a succinct message when you talk to people about what you do for a job. The guideline is ‘elevator pitch': you should be able to say it during an elevator ride with your conversational partner(s).

    Cheers on a great post!

  2. Thanks, Ted!
    You’re right, the elevator talk is an important skill. At this point, I think I’m good for long elevator rides, or on the tram, set to weekday speed…

  3. My brother recently said to me: “Good luck…with…whatever you’re doing.” And that’s about as good as it gets.

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I'm a PhD candidate and build robots.



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