The ultimate question. Simple, on the face of it. A natural query. In fact, I heard it a lot this weekend as we had a big family gathering with aunts and uncles and cousins and second cousins (or first cousins once removed, whatever the definition is).
How are you? Fine, thanks!
What are you up to at the moment? I’ve just started a PhD actually…
Oh right!….So what are you doing? *Silence, hesitation, racking my brains for a starting point*
How do you explain a potential three years of research, which happens to be in a very specific field which you’re only just beginning to understand after reading half the library’s books on the matter? How do you put your entire research proposal - with all its concepts and assumed knowledge – into a simple answer for someone who knows nothing about the subject?
I haven’t specified until now, but my PhD is in Translation Studies. If your response to that was, ‘Huh? You can do a PhD in that?’, then that sounds pretty much like every other response I’ve had. This answer obviously isn’t adequate to the ‘what are you doing’ conundrum. I need something tangible, understandable for the common man.
I therefore go a bit more specific, I give them something recognisable: ‘I’m doing a PhD in Translation Studies and French Literature’. This seems to satisfy most. ‘Oooo, French, that’s complicated’. This makes me laugh – they still know nothing about my project, but they are quite relieved to know that at least it involves something tricky like a foreign language. Sometimes, however, they press me. ‘What specifically are you doing then?’ – they have recognised that ‘Translation Studies and French literature’ is a very broad subject matter and actually want to know more.
So here comes my little spiel. I’ve got it down to a sentence now, a reasonably short sentence that actually tells people what I’m doing without chucking them in the deep end of translation theory and french colonial criticism. Conciseness is a beautiful thing, and it helps me focus on my project. If writing a conference paper, or an article, or a thesis, I’ve had the incredibly simple but useful advice that you need to be able to summarise your argument in one sentence. If you can’t, you don’t understand your own argument. I think this is the same with the question that others pose.
Therefore, as someone asks you rather bluntly what you’re focussing your time and effort on, what you are interested in, what your next three years are going to look like, you get to refine your project even as you answer. You get to tell yourself again what your goal is, what your conclusion will involve. Take that opportunity. Refine the sentence to tell them, but also to keep yourself on track of your work.
I think what’s hard about this particular question is that often the hearer doesn’t want to hear the full answer. They want to voice an interest, they want to figure out what you do all day (yep, I read, I constantly have to tell people that at the moment most of my day is spent reading!!!). They want to be interested. But they’re not going to fully understand the spiel that you spout, let alone the actual project itself!
Of course you won’t be able to tell them every miraculous detail that fascinates you about your project, but you can give them something to latch on to, perhaps something to arouse curiosity, and something to answer the question.
‘So what are you doing?’
What’s your sentence?