The Care and Keeping of Your Ph.D. Candidate Family Member or Friend

For Ph.D. students, the holidays can be a dreaded time because it means inevitable questions from old family and friends about a lot of stressful topics, from their long-term projects to their future career outcomes. Believe me, Ph.D. students do a great job of worrying about these issues for themselves; they don’t need anyone else to remind them of everything they need to get done!

I understand that family members and friends want to show support for their Ph.D. friends or family members and, you know what? There are a lot of ways you can do that without causing undue stress! While I know it can be hard to show support for someone who’s doing work that you may not understand, that you may not relate to, or that you may not see the importance of, one thing Ph.D. students could use in spades is the feeling that people support them and think that the work they’re doing is valuable.

Here are some handy tips for the holidays on ways that you can kindly show that you care about your friend or family member working on a Ph.D.:

  • Mirror their excitement. If they’re excited about something, affirm it! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve enthusiastically explained something I’m working on to someone outside of academia, just to see them wrinkle their nose and go, “So… why does that matter?” That’s probably the biggest possible enthusiasm buzzkill for your Ph.D. family and friends. Even if you don’t know why something matters, couch your questions first with mirroring the excitement: “I’m so happy you’re so excited about what you’re doing!” A statement like, “I’d love to hear more about that” or a question like “What part of your work do you love the most?” is going to go a lot longer way to getting your friend to open up about her work than “What does that mean?”
  • Don’t make disdainful comments about the jargon or specialized terms your Ph.D. friend uses. OK, so your friend’s new and confusing Ph.D. jargon might drive you crazy, but chances are, the reason they’re using that jargon is because they don’t know what else to say or they don’t know how to express their ideas in another way quite yet. It can be tempting to say something like, “Um, can you talk in PLAIN English please?” but nothing is more alienating than expressing disdain about the new ways of speaking your Ph.D. friend has picked up. Even something as simple as “I’m not really sure I understand what you’re getting at. Can you tell me what you mean by [x]?” shows that you’re listening and that you care, even if you don’t understand the jargon or specialized terms.
  • Never ask, “So what’s your dissertation about?” Instead, ask “What kinds of things are you working on?” One of the biggest stressors in your Ph.D. friend’s life is how he or she plans to focus his/her project. This is a source of huge contention – particularly if your friend is in the early stages of working on the dissertation – so if you want to ask about your friend’s work, get them to talk broadly about what kinds of things they’re exploring. That’s a much more stress-free way to get them talking, and it’ll give you more room as well to ask more specific questions if you’re curious.
  • Don’t joke about how little money your friend makes as a Ph.D. student. You might have seen TV shows or movies that joke about graduate students’ impoverished lifestyles, but unless your Ph.D. friend offers a joke him or herself about finances, don’t joke about or discuss money. This is a source of real concern for Ph.D. students; making light of it is not only disrespectful, but it can be downright stress-inducing for your friend. Try not to make their situation more uncomfortable by pointing out something they’re already quite aware of.
  • Avoid referring to their work as “school.Ph.D. students see their work as work. One of the most common misunderstandings of graduate student work is that it’s an extension of what students do as undergraduates. Once Ph.D. students finish their courses, their work actually becomes a lot more like what freelance workers or research associates do; they’re not students so much as they are apprentices to professors. The stakes of graduate student labor are a lot higher than undergraduate student work, as what they produce in graduate school will dictate much of the work they do beyond their graduate training and into their future professions, whereas undergraduate student work typically amounts to a course grade that has little to do with their final professional outcomes. Respect the labor graduate students do and ask about their work the same way that you would ask a friend with a desk job about their work.
  • Never ask, “When will you be done?” Instead, ask, “What are you most excited to do next?” Ph.D. student timelines, contrary to popular belief, are often out of students’ control. Their timelines depend immensely on the needs of their advisors, the results of their experiments in labs, or the availability of historical or archival material they’re attempting to explore. This is perhaps the most irksome question of all because it suggests your impatience with their work and how eager you are to move on to talking about something else (even if you don’t mean it that way, that’s how a lot of Ph.D. students will see it). Asking what kind of work your Ph.D. friend is enjoying will show that you care much more about his or her wellbeing than the timeline at which he or she will complete that work.

So, enjoy the holidays ahead and the thoughtful conversations you’ll have with the academics you love in your life!


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