Communicate Your Academic Life This Holiday Season

Are you an academic? Let’s talk about how to talk to the people we love over the holidays

Chances are you’re spending time this holiday season with friends and family outside your specialty.

Whether you’re an student or faculty member, explaining how and what you do can feel overwhelming.

Maybe you’re like PhD student Andrew Martinez who recalled returning home as a undergraduate

I also began living two lives—my “at-home” life, where I did not speak much about the day-to-day experiences of college, but shared enough for everyone to think I was doing perfectly fine, and my “at-school” life, where I relied heavily on my closest friends and trusted mentors to help me adjust and feel like I belonged.

Read at Diverse: Issues in Higher Education

If you’re a grad student, almost any point in the process can be anxiety-provoking.

If you haven’t checked out Alia Wong’s article in The Atlantic, it emphasizes the pervasiveness of mental health issues associated with graduate school.

Spending time with the people we love, our friends and family, doesn’t have to create anxiety. It can be great for your mental health as long as you also take care of yourself.

There are a lot of articles about college students heading home for the holidays. But what about graduate students and faculty like you?

For me, living at school wasn’t new, leaving was

Woman holding backpack

When I told Matthew I was writing this blog post, he said, “it’s probably even harder for you.”

He said that because I don’t have a whole lot of family. My parents both passed away before I went to college.

Since then I’ve spent holidays with other people’s wonderful, sometimes crazy families.

I told him, in a way, I was lucky. I had a lot of practice talking with strangers around holiday tables. Some of those people, I grew to love.

Leaving the academy for me anytime, was a big deal.

I went to boarding school in upstate New York, so living at school wasn’t new. Leaving it was.

During undergrad, I was a resident assistant during the school year. I took summer classes to stay in the dorms, and later worked full-time as a conference coordinator on-campus.

When I went off to my MFA in Boulder, CO, I moved right into on-campus housing where I was a resident assistant again.

Leaving campus was my different world. And because I was never going “home” to family, it meant new people to meet and engage with at times of the year I most needed connection.

So, how do you have a real conversation about how and what you do in your academic life?

Ask yourself these questions before you head to your next family holiday gathering

Man with glasses hugs older man in a park

What is the impact of your work?

Think this is a big question? You’re right. But that doesn’t mean it has to be a hard one.

It doesn’t matter if you are a graduate student or senior faculty member. Impact helps us measure why we do what we do.

I’m a poet. That means people love asking me “why” and “what are you going to do with that?” for years. When I went on to get graduate degrees in writing and literature, the questions only intensified.

Here are my general responses to conversations about what I do with people outside the poetry niche.

  • I’m a poet. I put words together to examine things in my life in new ways.
  • I write poetry because it’s a fun exercise that helps me think creatively.
  • Poetry is what I create.
  • I also like looking at poetry critically. By reading each word and line individually, I sometimes see cool ways other poets practice their craft.
  • I specifically look at how other poets use language to talk about their hometown and local area, and how they look at that natural landscape.

What if I told you that these are 3 or 4 different conversations?

Most people are only interested in the 1st bullet points. They want to know what, and a basic why.

Others ask a question. But guess what?

It’s easier to get more specific about our work. So start somewhere big.

Most people stop and take time to find a way to connect.

That’s what conversation is about – the connection between what you do and what they know about it. That’s how we can relate.

For people that need justification for writing poetry, I talk about my critical interests.

For people that want to know about money, I tell them they’re right. Poetry is a hard field!

Then I tell them about the importance for the continued study of poetry, and all types of media.

And you know what? Almost no one asks about money again.

What part will be of most interest to this group?

You do a lot of different things in your life. The best way to connect with people is by telling stories.

Think about a few key occasions or specific things you could tell them about. For instance, you could talk about a

  • lesson or project your students found helpful
  • difficult situation you had to resolve
  • funny thing that happened on campus
  • single process (i.e. walk them through the process of submitting an academic journal article, or talk about the steps to pick out PhD programs to apply to)
  • single paper or project you worked on and what it was like for you

Maybe you had a big conference to prepare for and got swamped and ended up writing the whole thing on the plane.

You managed to get it done, have a successful presentation, and even had a couple good questions. When it was over you were starving because you were so nervous you weren’t prepared you forgot to eat.

Your friends and family may not care about the details of the paper or your results.

But they’d love to hear about what happened in relation to the presentation down to the great restaurant you found around the corner of the conference hotel.

To put it this way, in order to understand your project results were important depends upon understanding how and why conferences are important.

A story is a great way to tell people how and why something is important to you.

What can I compare this to?

What about when people ask about the big issues? Like the academic job market or publishing industry.

What about the people who ask about your next book / promotion or when your dissertation or thesis will be done?

Be honest. Most people don’t know these questions are as anxiety-provoking as they are.

  • “I hope to graduate by x, but research / work / writing takes a lot of work so it could be longer.”
  • “Thanks for asking. I’m not sure but thanks for asking. I’ll let you know.”
  • “I’m not planning a book project right now because I’m focusing on x. X is important to me because…”
  • “My students keep me busy enough!”
  • “I just spent a few months thinking about this, I’d rather hear about you!”

By being informative rather than defensive, you have more control over the chat.

Whatever you’re feeling this holiday season is OK

Woman frustrated or tired, leaning back on couch

It’s OK to be anxious, depressed, or frustrated. And it’s OK to talk about it if you want.

It’s also OK to say no thank you.

The best way to make sure you have a good time is by setting up expectations in advance. Let people know if there’s something you don’t want to talk about.

Your friends and family love you. This holiday season it’s important to remember that people care about you first, and your work second.

They want to know how your work makes you happy, or if it frustrates you how they can help.

Let’s meet them halfway.

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Jennifer van Alstyne View All →

Jennifer van Alstyne is a Peruvian-American poet and communications consultant. She founded The Academic Designer, LLC to help professors, researchers, and graduate students manage their online presence. Jennifer’s goal is to help people share their work with the world.

Check out her personal site at https://jennifervanalstyne
or learn more about the services she offers at