Postgrad science students have a lot on our plates. Between labwork, presentations, keeping up to date with the latest publications, meeting with our supervisors and the dreaded thesis, we are busy people. We are, after all, trying to uncover how the universe works and find new ways to interpret and use nature. Quite often, we get a few questions from our non-academic friends and family that we’re a little tired of hearing. We have either heard them (and answered them) 5000 times and often come from a place of misunderstanding or, worse, not taking our work as seriously as other fields. These questions can be frustrating for your favourite postgrad student, so here are five things not to say to them:

When are you getting a real job? 

This question is particularly frustrating because most postgrad students don’t really feel like students anymore. The work we do as researchers is very different from answering assignments and studying for exams. It’s a whole different phase of our lives that is already, in many ways, like a job. And if we plan on staying in academia, we won’t get a ‘real job’ (usually understood by most people as lecturing – something we may not even be interested in doing) until after we’ve got our PhDs. Nobody goes around asking medical students or law students when they’ll get a ‘real job’, even though they’re in training for as long as scientists. 

The Earth is Flat/Climate Change isn’t Real/etc

Most of the time, these people are trolling. If that’s the case, we’ll just keep moving and ignoring these questions. We don’t always have the time or the energy to lay out the mountains of evidence a quick google search would reveal. But, if we do, it would be a good chance to practice our science communication skills.

You must be so smart! I failed maths (economics/statistics/physics etc.) in high school!

While we all love being complimented, being ‘good at maths’ doesn’t necessarily equal being smart. Yes, I can do integrals and enjoyed trigonometry, but I can’t manage a business or figure out how to cook anything more complicated than pasta. We all have different talents and different ways of being smart. Additionally – not all scientists are good at maths or even use maths in their work. It’s better for everyone if society stopped viewing scientists as special geniuses and instead as ordinary people whose job it is to do science.

Isn’t it a waste of money to build bigger telescopes/particle accelerators/etc?

I understand the frustration at seeing the immense cost of building and running the Large Hadron Collider and the MeerKAT telescope when there is so much inequality in the world. But to do science, which informs us about our place in the universe and helps us understand what its made of – as well as developing technology and creating thousands of jobs – requires expensive equipment to push the boundaries of the unknown further. A quick look at the salaries of top soccer players and how much Jeff Bezos earns per second will put the cost of science into perspective. 

When are you going to graduate? Or How is it going with your studies?

Simple advice on how to ask this question: Simply don’t ask this question. Postgrad is stressful and this question may result in tears. We’re all trying to graduate as soon as we can, and asking this question isn’t going to make the process any quicker. Also, maybe another piece of advice, ask this question if you have the whole day free in your schedule to listen to the whole story. 

I hope this post clarified some of the misconceptions around postgrad science students and what you should not ask us. If you’d like to strike up an interesting conversation with one of us, ask us what we research and why we love it. We’re more than happy to talk about science (most of the time). 

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