Instruction Manual for Talking to a PhD Student
First and most important, there are three questions you should never ask a PhD student:
1. When will you finish your thesis?
2. What will you do when you’re done?
3. What are the practical applications of your research?
The answers to these questions are (1) significantly later than my supervisors want me to, (2) God only knows and (3) there are none.
Do not ask what the student’s thesis is about unless you have a good quarter hour to kill and a burning desire to learn things that are known to only five or six other people in the world. Bear in mind that this is not due to these things being state secrets, because they’re not, and that knowledge of these things is not likely to bring either you or the student a tidy sum of money, because it won’t.
If, by accident, you do happen to ask what the student’s thesis is about, please feel free to spend the following 15 minutes thinking about what you’re going to have for dinner, or trying to remember whether you locked your car door, or counting sheep. Smile and nod from time to time. Comprehension is neither expected nor required. Ask questions at your own risk. If the student should start asking you questions, remind her that you have not signed a consent form.
If it’s going on 30 minutes and the student still hasn’t stopped talking, a good solution is to offer her free food. Even the most verbose student will pause for a moment to shovel free food into her mouth. Take advantage of this opportunity to start talking about your own job. This works best if you have an office job, or as some say, a “real job”. Just don’t use the term “real job” to the student. You will never be forgiven.
Don’t take offense if the student corrects your grammar. She's probably been marking all afternoon.
If you are at a loss for things to talk about, remember that everyone loves a good whinge. This is especially true for PhD students. Favourite things to whinge about include undergrads, marking, undergrads, cafeteria food, undergrads, supervisors and undergrads.
And remember this. A mother of a three year old child has put three years of hard, daily effort into her kid, defending him and helping him grow from a newborn baby. A graduating PhD student has put three years of hard, daily effort into her thesis, defending it and helping it grow from a fleeting idea. Say nothing to the student about her thesis that you would not say to the mother about her child. Retribution will be swift and painful.