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Why I didn’t talk about my PhD – and why I do now.

In the Netherlands, the government requires a yearly update on what you are doing and where you are. Normally this happens through your tax return, but if you live abroad, you need to report this in person. Luckily, the Dutch government realizes the backwardness of this, and you can authorize someone to do this on your behalf. Lazy and poor that I am, I do not fly home every year, and my dad is authorized to represent my legal matters. My dad is an intelligent and loving man, but he did surprise me when I received paperwork from the Netherlands claiming that I was studying sexual religion in Belgium. Although intrigued by the topic for a second PhD, I double checked to make sure that I was not in the wrong country and called my dad. Apparently, it was a bit confusing what I was doing, and it was easier to tell the government something he knew instead. It took me more than a year to convince the Dutch government that I was studying urban animals in Canada.

            Talking to non-academic friends and family about what you are doing in Grad School can be a very tiring and confusing process. They normally understand you in as far as that you are going to school, but why you don’t have money, or are stressed about data not uploading or deadlines for proposals and grant applications is a whole other thing. Even more – and bless my grandmother for this – it can be a daunting task to explain why you have still not graduated. 

            At some point I became so frustrated with being introduced as “the forever student of the family” that I decided to find ways to talk about my research to people who do not have an academic background. One of the things I did to include my family more into my academic work is inviting them to a conference I was speaking at. They were very impressed, and although one of my images was a bit too long on the screen for them, it did help them to see how much work goes into doing a graduate degree. Next time they come to visit, they want to see my research site, and although they may not understand exactly what I am researching, they do know now that it does not involve sexual religions. Even more, involving them in my research has made it a lot easier for them to understand that doing a graduate degree is a lot more than taking some courses and drinking beers.   

Working outside of the university environment, I noticed that many of my colleagues gave me vague looks when I would try to discuss what I do when I’m not at work. As I did not want to invite everyone to my conference presentations – I’m not that confident yet – I thought of ways that I could present my research to a larger audience. For me this resulted in submitting my research as an art proposal to the city of Kingston to have my research displayed by an artist on the billboards at square market. Although we didn’t get nominated, we did make it to the top 5 and it taught me a lot about how others see my work. Discussing this process with my colleagues made them much more engaged in it, and when I started to show them the practical applications of my research, they became much more interested – I even helped one of my colleagues to humanely trap and release rats! 

            Although it is still lonely at times to not be able to discuss my research in detail with some of my friends and family, there are luckily places at Queen’s where students can talk about it. Most departments offer meeting times for students to have coffee/lunch together, and the SGPS offers the SGPS Student Advisor program, where you can talk to peers about things you are experiencing in your academic life. Even more, if you are lucky enough to be a woman, the Ban Righ Centre offers free lunches every weekday where you can find an informal environment to chat and unwind. If these options are not enough for you, or if you would like to introduce your research beyond your department, you can also participate in some of the Graduate School projects. An example of this would be the 3-minute thesis, where you attend workshops and learn to present your thesis in a quick and clear way without having to oversimplify. If you turn out to excel in presenting your thesis, you could even compete against other students at Queen’s and beyond! If you are less competitive but would still like to share your research with a larger audience, you can see what opportunities there are in the community to present your research. One way to do this would be by speaking on Queen’s Graduate Studies radio program Grad Chat, which is weekly on Tuesday at 4PM on CFRC 101.9FM and later put on podcast. 

My parents may still not fully understand what I’m doing, my friends still think I’m an animal obsessed crazy person, and my colleagues now hire me as pest control, but they all see me and my research in a more positive and interesting way. Instead of feeling like I need to hide my nerdy PhD side, I now proudly tell people that I try to improve the world for both humans and animals, and rather than blanking on me, most of them seem intrigued. Accomplishing this took a lot of stepping outside of my comfort zone and trying to find new ways to look at my own research. Queen’s luckily also offers less scary ways to talk about research, and sometimes there is just nothing better than to talk to someone who is in the same position. So, I promise you, if you are looking for someone to talk about your research, or even sexual religion, I am all ears! 

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