When I describe my profession or the title of my PhD dissertation to fellow ecologists, the language I use can be very different from that used with those who are not familiar with the work. It’s not being pretentious or egotistical. It is simply speaking to your audience. Something we fail to do well at though is just that, speak well about our work to an audience who are not familiar with our language or work.
Ecology is not a common profession, and 20 years on when asked ‘what do you do?’ my response is still mistaken for something else; ‘Oncology’ is the most common. An ecologist is somewhat of a rarity at my children’s school. Parents are familiar with titles such as ‘geologist’, ‘botanist’ and ‘zoologist’. As such, when asked by parents I used to simply state my profession as a ‘botanist’ or ‘scientist’. Given people are not familiar with the ‘ecologist’ title, when launching into a description of ‘what I do’- let alone a description of my PhD thesis – I was conscious of sounding like a ‘know-it-all’.
Without realising it, by not stating ‘I am an ecologist’ and using an alternative title, I was insulting someone’s intelligence, as well as my own. I don’t do this anymore. I now state my profession and, if needed, explain exactly what I do. For the more we explain it, the better informed everyone will be of what an ‘ecologist’ does. I still choose my words carefully; I don’t go over the top and I don’t dumb it down to far.
However, dumbing it down can actually be a great icebreaker and opener, as well as a bit of a laugh. Recently a friend of a friend (such is the Facebook world) shared a link to Facebook entitled “20 PhD Students Dumb Down Their Thesis Just For Us.” #dumbeddownthesis The 20 PhD candidates were asked ‘What is a dumbed down summary of your thesis?” The alternative descriptions are sensational. I shared the link on my own facebook page, tagging over 40 friends and colleagues, asking them to share a dumbed down version of their own thesis.
The answers are still flowing in and have been a great laugh. I’ve listed a few of them below, keeping the author’s identity private and not giving away their actual thesis. But for most of them, you can work out what they studied.
Thanks to you, friends and colleagues, for contributing your wit!