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Following the highs and lows of a new PhD student making her way in the world of organic chemistry...

So... what do you do?

I was asked the inevitable question again the other evening... It pops up in every first conversation with a stranger.

‘I’m doing a PhD in Chemistry.’

I pause, waiting for The Reaction. I have only ever met one person who didn’t pull some sort of face at this point, and it turned out he was a retired hospital lab manager who knew a thing or two about biochemistry. In other words, he was One of Us. To the non-scientist, the concept of a chemistry PhD elicits several different responses simultaneously. The processing of these thoughts is the cause of The Face. I believe it comes down to a combination of the following:

     The PhD – The recent boom in undergraduate education means that many people of my generation have a first degree, but go back a generation or two and it’s less common. The number of people with PhDs is comparatively miniscule, and the chance of me coming across one outside the university is low. So, not only are they faced with someone who has been through higher education once already, but this crazy cat came back for more. This is seen as a) admirable and/or b) a bit weird.

     Chemistry. Physics = Professor Brian Cox, Chemistry = radioactive waste, oil spills, industrial leaks, bombs and drugs, depending on the interests and awareness of the non-scientist. This is seen as either a) cool or b) scary (more likely). By this point, you’ve been placed in one of two categories:

1)      Super clever scientist who does cool research into chemistry in order to cure cancer and save the world.
2)      Serious science geek. Wouldn’t know Michelangelo from Mozart.

The direction of conversation now depends entirely on the curiosity of the non-scientist. The scientist has no choice but to wait for one of two responses:

1)      So what is your research focussing on? (NB: comes with a swift caveat, “I probably won’t understand, will I?”)
2)      An awkward silence while everyone sips their drinks and tries to think of something to say.

I have this down to a fine art now, thanks to a Christmas party where I had to go through it with each of the 20 guests in turn. This is the working title of my PhD thesis:

“Studies towards the synthesis of novel vancomycin analogues via an organocatalytic aziridination methodology”

And here’s how I explain that: “You’ll have heard of MRSA... (pause for response – if they haven’t, and look like a Daily Mail reader, I go with “hospital superbug”) ... I’m making new antibiotics to cure it.”

In chemistry terms, that’s about a million miles from the truth, but it gives people a way in. There’s no need for a “well you won’t understand anyway” attitude. I’ll leave you with this conversation overheard in the girls toilets of the Student Union pub last week:

Girl A: Has Tom submitted his thesis?
Girl B: Nah, don’t fink so, he just left.
Girl A: You know, that really pisses me off, cos right, his degree was basically funded by tax-payers, yeah, so the public pay you to do the research, and then your thesis is like your way of giving them somefink back, right?
Girl B: Yeah, totally.
Girl A: Tosser.

Well said.
Posted by Polly-Anna Ashford on Apr 1, 2012 9:16 PM GMT

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