The holiday season is fast approaching, and if you’re like me you probably feel like a stranger going home for the winter break. One of the common refrain graduate students say is, “My parents still don’t know what I do.” In a research-heavy, experimental psychology program, the misconceptions of what “we do” abound. For me, my career goals currently encompass getting either an academic job teaching and doing research at a university or working in industry as a statistician.

Only recently did my mother-in-law stop asking if I was going to open my own practice near our hometown in rural Nebraska. I know next to nothing about clinical or counseling psychology.

By design, graduate students are constantly trying to move up the academic ladder. Attempts at success may seem like one-upping to your family back home, especially if you come from a working-class background. Because they don’t share the same perspectives you’ve had, they may still view you as the same little “Johnny” or “Susie” who is just playing schoolhouse for the time being and will eventually come back home to your roots. These misunderstandings can cause some awkward or even hurtful conversations with family members back home. So what can you do to make going home a more pleasant experience? Here were just some tips I had. Feel free to comment and add more to them!

1. Don’t be hurt if no one asks you how school is going.
Your family members (especially extended family or in-laws) may feel very uncomfortable that you’re getting an advanced degree and inviting you to tell them about it may only remind them of all the dreams they had that they couldn’t realize. They may actually be embarrassed by how little knowledge they have about your area of study. So asking you about it may only open themselves up for feeling less competent than you.

2. If someone asks you what you do, tell them in 1-2 sentences.
Scholars love to talk about their work, and it’s easy to give them the 20 minute breakdown of every project that you’re involved with. Most people who ask you don’t really care to know what you do but want to know what you do. They’re trying to know you better not knowing your work better. Give them a simple, plain-English version. This also comes in handy when you’re at a conference and you’re talking to someone who isn’t in your field of study.

3. Try to get back into the “home spirit.”
Even though visiting the same tired convenience store doesn’t seem like much fun anymore, your family members want to connect with you again. Try to see the value in some of their quirky traditions or ways of doing things—even if those things seem strange or uninteresting now. Your family members miss you and want to share their reality with you. Talking down their town or way of doing things will only hurt further attempts to connect with you.

4. Remind those closest to you of your long-term goals when you’re away from home, too.
If your mom has grandiose ideas of you getting your PhD and coming back home to work at the local community college, you may need to remind her frequently of your ultimate career goals (not just when you’re home). These goals may change as you move through the program, but your family members need to know what to expect when you graduate. This way they can better prepare themselves and be better informed. If they don’t know what you plan to do, how can they be supportive of your goals?


  1. Amanda Morin

    Good advice! I’ve also found it helpful to think about the common misconceptions people have about what I do and when I’m asked, “So, what do you do?”, I immediately say what it is I don’t do, and then explain what I actually do. Like, “I’m getting a PhD in experimental social psychology so I won’t have an office with a leather couch where people tell me about their childhood. What I actually do is run experiments to study normal human behavior.” Sometimes they want to know more about the experiments so I pick one with the most pop-appeal and describe it.

  2. I totally know what you mean. I went home for the holidays, which for me is only a 20 minute drive, and as I am sitting around looking around looking at my family, I realized that my reference point for all children is from the moment I started graduate school, and I could barely recognize any of them.

  3. @AmandaMorin, I think you give some valuable advice to anyone getting a PhD. Most people do NOT get a PhD and have a lot of misconceptions about what people with advanced degrees do. My advisor told me a story about a guy who got his PhD in psychology (in quantitative statistics) and worked for AT&T. When people asked him what he did, he would say, “I’m a quantitative psychologist.” He got so tired of people telling him their mental health stories that he finally changed his story to, “I work for the phone company.” That ended the mental health stories quick!

    @JohnM, you’re so lucky you have your family close! But I’m amazed that even the physical proximity doesn’t seem to help feeling close. It’s advice to everyone, that graduate school consumes your entire life. You have to be willing to put off an entire season of your life and devote all your time and energy to grad school. It’s a sacrifice that is definitely not worth it to some, but worth it to others!!

You must be logged in to post a comment.