Query for Non-Physicists: Initial Reactions

I was thinking about attitudes toward physics the other day, and realized that whenever I meet somebody (not a physicist) for the first time and tell them that I’m a physicist, their initial responses most frequently fall into one of three general categories:

  • “You must be really smart.”
  • “I hated that when I took it in high school/ college.”
  • “Can you explain string theory to me?”

It occurs to me that this helps explain why physicists are not generally considered scintillating conversationalists. Because, really, where can you go from any of those starting points?

Anyway, that got me wondering what the stock responses are for people from other academic fields. I asked a few people at lunch today, but there weren’t all that many people there. So, consider this a free-form poll question:

When you meet new people, and tell them what you do for a living, what are the most common responses?

It would help, of course, if you say what it is that you do in the same comment with the response. Though I suppose it might be amusing to just get the response, and try to guess the profession from that…

51 thoughts on “Query for Non-Physicists: Initial Reactions

  1. When I was a mathematician the near-universal reaction was “I always hated math”. Sometimes the “smart” comment would come up, but it always followed well behind expressing loathing for the subject.

    I quickly learned to try to talk around it or avoid bringing it up in the first place.

  2. “Chemistry? I always hated Chemistry.”

    It’s pretty much universal.

    Now that I’m working as a nuclear physicist I’m much more likely to get the “you must be really smart” response. Not so much as a Chemist!

  3. I almost always get a response of the second type (I hated physics in school), which is usually a great opportunity to explain why the physics I do is more interesting than one would believe from the classes in school.

    Of course one time I got a response which was: “Physicist? You mean physical education, like gym class?”

    I suppose maybe it was oddly complementary.

  4. Most common response: “Oh.” And change of topic.

    Given that my two answers to the question are, “Quality assurance analyst at a local call centre,” or, “I’m paid to listen to other peoples’ phone calls,” I can understand why.

    — Steve

  5. “I write scientific grants for $university.”

    “Oh! I’m on the board of this nonprofit, and we could really use some help!” or “I know this grad student who wants to put in a grant. Could you help?” or “Oh, I have a major in English and I tried that once – it was awful! I don’t know how you could do that!” or “…”

    When I was in grad school for sociolinguistics, I got “Can you tell where I’m from?” or “How many languages do you speak?” or “How many words to the Eskimos really have for snow?” or “Just you wait, ‘Enry ‘Iggins, just you wait!” or “…”

  6. When people find out I’m the chair of the Business and Economics department, they either back away slowly without making eye contact, or they ask me about the budget deficit. It’s not pretty either way.

  7. It depends on whether I say I’m a musician, or I say I teach music theory. In the former case, the majority of people talk about their own musical failings. In the latter case they usually say “Now what is that, music that isn’t real?”

  8. Although I’m in IT architecture, I find myself constantly being asked ‘fix’ anything related to computers everywhere I go. “Hey, what do you do?” I reply, “I work in IT.” “So, can you take a look at something? My PC is really slow…”
    Doesn’t fail.

  9. “Oh, wow.” And other intimations of being intimidated; this is if I answer “neuroscientist.” If instead I say “I work on memory and the impact of diabetes” or somethig similar, I tend to get much more engaged responses, so that’s what I have moved towards.

    [Daniel Dennett has a nice schtick on this, where he notes that being a philosopher working on consciousness causes a variety of responses, few good :)]

  10. Once, while in grad school, I had someone insist that I HAD to know this grad student she knew. Only I was in Geology and her friend was in Geography.

    If I say I do research on unconventional oil & gas and carbon storage, I usually just get an ‘oh, I bet that’s interesting’ and a change of subject. Sometimes I get intelligent follow up questions (thanks shale gas boom!). This is in response to a follow up on “where do you work?” “Alabama Geological Survey” “Neat, what do you do there?” Most people seem to think geology is cool, at least vaguely. Geologist don’t get ‘gee, you must be really smart’ much because many people languish under the misunderstanding that geology is easy.

    Also, just because our offices are on campus does not mean I work for the University. I don’t. I work for the State, we are a department level agency (my big boss’s boss is the Governor). We don’t get Spring Break, we don’t get 3 weeks at Christmas….

  11. Depends on what title I appropriate for the day:

    Electrical Engineer: Either a glassy stare, or a request for wiring their fuse box.

    Microwave Engineer: Some annoying insinuation about household cooking appliances.

    Computer Scientist: Can I fix their computer?

    In all cases, even for family, I multiply my hourly rate by at least two (usually three) and watch them redshift away.

    And in all the cases above, the responses are mixed with, “Oh,” and “You must be smart.” No one is forced to take engineering or computer science, so I don’t get the “I hated that in school,” unless someone realizes that it’s all math at the bottom anyway.

    (Of course, here, most people will probably think, “Microwave engineer… and computer scientist? How did that happen?”)

  12. I’m an astrophysicist. I generally tell people I’m an astronomer if I want to talk about it, and an astrophysicist if I don’t.

    To the astronomer answer, the response is usually something to do with black holes, a request for a horoscope, or, nowadays, something about planets (either Pluto or exoplanets). Readers of the Economist do best, oddly enough.

    My responses to the astrophysicist answer are pretty much in line with your physicist ones, after which the conversation lapses.

  13. When I say I am a research scientist, the follow-up question is, “What do you research?” Which makes for slightly longer conversations than identifying myself as a physicist.

    Andrew @6: A colleague who does a lot of international travel (he and his wife are from different continents, neither of which is North America, and he has lots of conference travel in addition), never admits to both his Ph.D. and his job title (research physicist) when he deals with airlines. He is afraid that somebody will see “Dr. [redacted], physicist” on the passenger list and assume that he is a physician.

  14. When the Queen (Elizabeth II) is introduced to half a dozen mathematicians at Christ Church, Oxford, 1976, I think it was, “These are the mathematics undergraduates”, she instantly comes back with “Girls are good at that, aren’t they?” It’s long enough ago that that’s a paraphrase, of course. We floundered, not her.

    On the other side, when faced with someone who does something I know relatively little about, there are always crossover questions that can make the jump. I don’t care what the first few responses are, because they are just the setup for the interesting part, when some sort of connection has been made. A connection is always possible, even or especially with Math or Physics, or it can be interesting to bring in that my wife is a Classicist, or that my daughter writes almost as obsessively as I math. Taking a risk almost always yields something interesting.

  15. I only have an undergrad degree in chemistry and I STILL get answers 1 and 2 when I tell people.

    My actual job (managing editor for a child health website) is kind of complicated to explain, but most people are usually interested in some aspect of child health, so I don’t have too many sticky conversations.

  16. “You’re a paleontologist? Just like Ross on Friends, right?” [thankfully this response is becoming less frequent]

    and most commonly, in various variants:

    “Ohh. . .ancient civilizations are so interesting! Can you identify my arrowhead collection?”

  17. In my musician days, the most common question asked when I informed someone of my profession was “what do you play?”
    My stock answer was “music.”

  18. I’m an ecologist, so I usually get, “Good, we need more people studying that!”. Then I end up explaining the difference between ecology and environmental science.

  19. I do quant analytics for a pro sports team. The reaction I get depends on if the person I’m talking to is a serious sports fan (usually great interest expressed and smart questions asked) or not (eyes glazed over). It’s easier since Moneyball was made into a movie—now I just say, Have you seen that movie? I do that.

  20. Technical writer. The first reaction is “That sounds really boring.” However, if the person is a Jeopardy! fan, I get “You must be really smart.” (Tech writers are apparently overrepresented among Jeopardy! winners.)

    Lately, I’ve been ditching the “technical writer” label and saying, “I develop user documentation and instructional materials for high-end engineering software.” That doesn’t get much of a reaction, but at least it sounds like a respectable job.

  21. I work as a security officer. I can’t really think of a typical response, usually something implying that my job is easy or I must have a lot of free time at work(which are kinda true). When I tell people that I am majoring in economics, my future career, I almost always have people say that they either really didn’t like economics or it was hard. Sometimes people ask me something about the economy which I feel a little uncomfortable about, because I feel like they expect to have some insight which I really don’t. My opinions on the current state of the economy are just based on what I read in the news.

  22. I tell them I make the internet go.

    The answers are pretty evenly split between people who say “Thank you!” and people who insist they want me to elaborate. Of the latter group, about 90% regret it.

  23. I’m an archaeologist, and the first question I get is “Have you found any dinosaurs?” After that, they want to know if I dig in Egypt (I don’t) and what’s the most exciting thing I’ve ever found (they’re usually disappointed by the answer). And the forensic anthropology whodunnit’s don’t make things any clearer either.

  24. 8th grade science teacher. People want to tell me how they misbehaved in lab when they were in 8th grade. Ha ha! Believe me, I have already seen it all and do not find your story entertaining. Please talk about something else!

  25. Academic economist. Either “You need a lot of maths for that, don’t you? / You must be really good at maths / I was never any good at maths …” or “What’s going to happen to the economy / interest rates / house prices …? “

  26. When I was in crop science, I was quite often asked to identify plant disorders or weeds from vague descriptions. Later, when I was flying in to remote communities to teach basic science, maths and statistics to adults very few people expressed any kind of interest.

    Thinking of the physicist/physician/phys ed confusion, a friend moved to a rural area and registered at the local employment office. When asked what she did, she said ‘Pharmacist’ so the clerk wrote down ‘Farm assist’.

  27. The universal first reaction I get: “That must be so hard.”

    I always immediately point out that *we’ve* got the *easy* part. We’ve got it *way* easy — compared to the kid, and their parents and families.

  28. Bioengineering — usually something about how I and mine are going to doom the earth with our accidentally-released super killer bacteria.

  29. Mathematician: “you must be really smart”, “I was really bad at math”, or [blank stare]. (Occasionally I reply to the first with “yup”.)

    Saying “unemployed” is much better conversation fodder. (Many are surprised that a mathematician is unemployed; just because they were bad at it doesn’t mean they don’t appreciate it. This is probably true also for the other sciences which get similar responses.)

  30. I avoid “I am X”. As in “Back off, man, I’m a scientist” Instead I focus on what I do. “I do scientific research.” “Oh, what do you study?.” “Weather and climate.” And almost universally I get a genuine “That must be very interesting.” Sometimes followed up by “So, tell me, is this global warming stuff really true?”

  31. I am a science teacher at an alternative high school. The two standard responses are “I was horrible at science in high school” and “You teach those kind of kids?!?!”. If someone is being polite, I’ll share a story of an inspiring student. For rude/stupid/nosy people, I start giving details of having a student begin labor in class with as many details about when her water broke as I can remember or fabricate. That stops the conversation dead. 😛

  32. Biochemist. #1, #2, and “when will we cure cancer?”

    * I usually first ask what field my conversational partner is and what their background is, then give some examples of particularly interesting real-world-relevant biochem tidbits relevant to their interests. When you teach undergrads, you get lots of fun stories and analogies to use!

    When I get the “I hated biochemistry”, I usually give a 2-3 sentence spiel about how they probably had to take the condensed “memorize everything” course that 75% of students taken in my field, and how much more fun it is to go into depth. Then segue into *.

    When I get “You must be smart!” I give a variation of the above with an emphasis on how it’s not about being smart so much as matching aptitudes to a field, segueing into *.

    The really hard part is figuring out what level to aim the elevator pitch version of my research when people ask what I study.

  33. High school science teacher. Most common response, “Oh, I couldn’t work with teenagers.” Second most common, especially if I’ve mentioned my teaching specialty is physics, is the usual “I hated that”/”You must be smart” split.

  34. 1. I could never do that.
    2. Can you fix my computer? (or variations thereof)
    3. So you’re all top secret and stuff?

    I’m a programmer for a defense contractor.

  35. I developed a set of reaction responses:
    Q – “You must be really smart.” A – ‘Yes, but I’m rather surprised you could recognize such.’
    Q – “I hated that when I took it in high school/ college.” A – ‘I’m not at all surprised.’
    Q – “Can you explain string theory to me?” A – ‘Certainly, but only if you promise to sit and learn until I get through.’

  36. i’m an experimental psychologist who studies vision – the field is called ‘psychophysics’, but i can’t say that because nobody’s heard of it. so i either say, ‘i study vision’, or ‘i’m a psychologist’;

    the first sort of answer needs explanation, so i don’t usually lead with it unless the person seems ready for some explanation – and the explanation usually requires mentioning something about psychology, since otherwise they’re going to think i’m an ophthalmologist or something.

    the second always gets the response: “oh, you should analyze me,” or, “ah, stay away from me,” something like that.

  37. Young lady: “Oh! I hate tampering with nature!”

    That was the answer when a young colleague was trying to make conversation with a similarly young woman he had met out on the town, and told her that he was a biologist. He swore that from then on his answer would always be “I write childrens’ books!”. (Actually this happened to a American many years ago in Zürich, Switzerland, and the new line was given in broken German as “Ich schreibe Kinderbuch!”)

  38. I’m planning to go to grad school for dynamic systems/control theory/ optimization… so answering the question is the hard part! Sometimes I try telling people that. I usually get a blank stare.

    Sometimes I simplify and say “Math.” Most people regret asking for elaboration, and I get something like “I don’t understand a thing you just said” or “Oh I can’t do math” or “You must be smart”.

    The occasional person who asks what one does with that is welcome, but the answer isn’t any easier…

  39. pffft. That’s it? Try working in a psychology department.

    -Oprah! Dr. Phil!
    -You must really like helping people.
    -Therapy is lame. Freud!

    Actually I spend all day looking at mouse brains. Thanks though.

  40. From non-medical people, when I tell them I’m a physician, the response is usually either “Wow, that must be so hard” or a variant of that, or “I have this lump/ache…”

    From other physicians, when I tell them I’m a radiologist, I often get a variant of “Well, there’s so much you can do with interventional radiology these days…”

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