Know how to answer “what do you do” in 30s, 5mins, and 10mins

Often in my department, we give demos of our work to outsiders: students, potential students, parents, employees, visitors, you name it, we’ve probably given them a demo. In one of these situations, I started to realize that me and my colleague (another grad student) didn’t have enough stuff to fill the time for our demo (this was bad on our part, but it happens). Anyway, I knew we needed to improvise, and so I decided that we could easily fill the remaining 10 minutes by talking about our research. I went first and explained to them what I was doing and why. They asked a few questions and seemed interested. Then, I turned to the other student in the room, and asked him to share his research. He just looked at me with a deer-in-the-headlights look and then terribly stumbled through a quick presentation. After the group of visitors had left (and this was one of those days where we were seeing multiple groups for a short period of time) he turned to me and pretty much yelled at me for putting him on the spot. I told him I didn’t get it. Who knows his research better then he does? How is it you’ve never had to answer what do you do without any notice. This experience didn’t look bad on me, but it did on him, and he was embarrassed.  It didn’t make any sense to me that he’d find this unfair or off-putting. It’s his research. How can you perfectly understand your research and not be able to explain what you’re doing in a couple of minutes? I could have explained his research better than he did, just from having paid attention in our research meetings.

Throughout your grad school experience, you are going to often come upon situations when you are going to be asked “what do you do?” or “what do you research?” Here, you need to be able to respond quickly with an answer without stumbling in your delivery. These are often networking opportunities and you don’t want to waste them. They may happen at any time and any moment, not giving you a chance to prepare. Depending on the situation, these people are looking for a 30 second, a 5 minute or a 10 minute response. The best thing you can do for yourself, is have three versions mentally pre-prepared, one for each length.

In these cases, start with a quick 30 second overview of what you do. No, you can’t get into any real detail in 30 seconds, but that’s okay. Your 30 second pitch should be exactly that – a pitch. Give a high level look at what you’re doing and why it’s important. If the person is interested, you can ask them how much time they have and either continue on with your 5 minute or 10 minute spiel. Or, they may have questions and you’ll move on from there.

But by having these three talks mentally prepared, you’re also much more prepared when people ask questions. Who else is an expert on your research then you? The answer should be nobody. Sure, your supervisor should be instep with what you’re doing, but you are the one who’s most up to date with your results, your direction, and what you’re currently working on. Remembering this confidently can help you answer questions without stumbling. Also, talking with others is a great way to learn what they’re doing and possibly find some collaborators to do joint work with in the future.

Why should you do this? Well, to start with, you don’t look like a confused idiot when you start stumbling around trying to figure out how to explain your topic. You sound knowledgeable. You are able to get the general idea across with very little effort and it should all make sense. A stumbling first impression is not a great first impression. They’ll be wondering why you don’t know your research. Even if you’re giving a demo to someone who has absolutely no connection to your work, and there’s no obvious networking opportunity possible, you want to to be able to give them a clear understanding of what you do. First of all, you never know who is a good person to network with, or who they may tell about your work in passing. And, every time you get to talk about your research, you get a chance to better refine your talk. Then, the next time you’re asked, your response is even better. Also, your research is probably often changing slightly to veer more in one direction or another. That means, your talk from 6 months ago is not quite up to speed on what your talk should be now.

How do you prepare for this? Well, the best thing you can do, is try to write down a 5 sentence summary of your work. At the highest level, in the least amount of detail, what do you do. Make sure you have a sentence motivating your research – why is it important and why should anyone care? How would you answer the question when your parents/siblings/neighbours or anyone else without a background in your area ask?

From there, identify a few (2-3) key points of your research that you can expand on to stretch out your talk to 5 minutes. Finally, your 10 minute version just goes deeper into detail. Why are you passionate about your research? What are you hoping to learn from it? What kind of theories are you planning on testing next and why are they important?
Next, anytime you get asked about your research answer them. Use the opportunity to see what explanations make sense, and which seem to confuse people. If you’re worried about doing this in front of others, ask your friends if you can run your explanation by them. Talk to the mirror. Explain to the person at the checkout, dentist, doctors office, whoever is willing to listen. Let everyone see how interested you are in your research, and others will want to know more. Better yet, when that all important opportunity comes around, you’ll feel at ease explaining what you do.

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