I’m nearing the end of my PhD (well hopefully anyway!) and several times now I’ve been in a position to explain my research to other people. I’ve found that when you ask people about their PhDs they have a tendency to either be reluctant to talk about it at all or they gloss over at a very very high level. I’ve always had the impression this is because ‘normal people’ wouldn’t be able to understand it or because they just wouldn’t find it that interesting. My research seems to have the opposite problem. It isn’t complicated to understand, but people then seem to think it can’t be ‘difficult’ enough. “That sounds like something a ten year old would do” is the worst of those reactions. There is also a bit of a problem between industry behaviour and academic behaviour. In academia I believe (and hope obviously) that my research is actually quite novel, but in industry I think it would be perceived as ‘obvious’ and probably nobody would take the time to investigate it! I’m not helped on the academic side by having a very multidisciplinary project – it doesn’t entirely fit into any one of the four or so areas that it relates to – and therefore can easily be ignored by all of them!
The theory and the results are very easy to explain and be understood by a non-academic audience but that doesn’t mean that getting the results or designing the experiments is easy. I think it is easy to understand is because it is relevant to ‘normal people’ and can be explained in a way that is meaningful to them. But is that a bad thing?
I was talking about my research with a few different people this week and afterwards I felt very down about it. Because I can explain it easily and quickly, it feels insignificant. But you know, the findings are actually rather important. That there are findings to find is obvious, but what those findings are certainly isn’t! And that’s what makes it interesting and valuable.