What does an elevator speech mean when you’re in science?

Elevator speeches are a pretty common networking tool. The goal of quickly and accurately conveying what you do, and why it matters to who you’re talking to, can be incredibly useful when meeting new people. For most people it is a chance to give a quick summary of what they are interested in, or what they work on, so that others can relate to and understand their work.

But what happens when in order to fully understand what you do, one needs to have 5+ years of specialized scientific and mathematical background knowledge? This is what happens when you’re in science. I can’t causally meet someone in the elevator and in the 10 second ride from the 1st to the 6th floor, explain what it is I do. Especially when my honest and quick answer to “What do you do?” is usually met with blank stares or awkward comments praising my intelligence (which, honesty, make me just as uncomfortable as the people saying them)

So what do you do when in most causal conversations the topic of what you spend your days doing makes people feel intimidated or as though they can’t relate to you? You have many responses! I try to have a wide range of options because I want to find a balance between not making people feel talked down to – by simplifying it too much – and making people feel lost and unable to understand. I hope that here I can explain my work at many different levels, so you can get an idea of the variation! (And hopefully make you a bit more informed about how to talk to a scientist)

The first, most causal, level is to actually avoid it. I’m sure most people find this the easiest thing to do, regardless of what they do. Sometimes I will decide to just tell people I’m a student, or a graduate student more specifically. This works for really quick interactions like with the barista at the coffee shop as you wait for the chip reader to work.

 

If I have the opportunity to get an idea of 1) how enthusiastic the person is to talk to me or 2) how much science background they have I’ll start with a general statement;

“I’m a computational astrophysicist, I study galaxies”.

This is often met with some blank stares (I said astrophysics, see? and computational… ) I don’t think it’s everyday people meet an astrophysicist so it’s hard to come up with some sort of follow up! [I have actually had people leave a conversation with me saying, “This is so cool! I’ve never met an astrophysicist!”  While that’s fun, honestly, it’s also kinda weird.] … but don’t worry, there’s more! I continue with a general overview of what computational astrophysics is;

“Most of astronomy and astrophysics is done with observations since we can’t do experiments on space. By doing computer simulations of things in space, like galaxies, we can get as close as possible to experimenting with space. From the simulations we can learn more about how the universe works.”

See? Not so bad. Here I try to explain what the field is and don’t need to go into the details of what I study specifically. This is a good way to go for people I’ll only meet once or twice but want to make a connection with.

 

The next level is for family and friends (apart from the ones that get regular updates on my work like my parents and Alex). For these people I know that they want to make an effort to understand what I’m doing, even if they don’t quite have the background.

“I do hydrodynamic simulations of galaxy outflows.”

Those are just fancy words to say what I do concisely. Past that, it’s appropriate to explain a little further

“Outflows are hot, high velocity winds coming out of galaxies, and they interact cold clouds that are in the way. I do computer simulations to study the interaction between the wind and clouds, specifically looking at what happens when different kinds of physics are included.”

Here I’m simply giving more detail to what I do with the simulations. Most people can understand that galaxies are a thing and it’s possible that gas could be coming out of them. Past that, it’s simple to imagine computer simulations – I usually conveniently leave out that they are run on supercomputers (unless I want to impress them 🙂 )

 

But what about when I’m talking to someone that is familiar with physics? Maybe a fellow graduate student, or a faculty member that doesn’t work on the same kind of thing I do? It’s not appropriate to simplify the details of my work, but I still need to stay it succinctly.

“I study observable properties of hydrodynamic simulations of galaxy outflows. Specifically I look at the influence of radiative cooling and thermal conduction.”

This gives a nice overview of what I study, with out getting to the fine details. I have no need to explain the physics because they are familiar with it, but I do need to state the different types of physics in order to give the other person more context for my work.

 

Now what about talking to someone who studies the same thing I do? Or that is familiar with my work but needs to hear it in a compact statement? This would be appropriate for my dissertation committee members, or other astrophysicists I meet that I hope to network with.

“I’m looking at the column densities and velocity profiles of various ions such as O VI and N V within hydrodynamic simulations of galaxy outflows. I’m specifically looking at the influence of radiative cooling and thermal conduction. I aim to connect these simulations to observations to understand the dominant physics in these wind-cloud interactions. For instance, there are a number of observations where there is a significant detection of O VI but not N V which is odd considering the ionization energies of those two ions are very similar. Currently, I’m finding that I cannot recreate those observations with my simulations.”

Whew. So that’s.. different. Here I need to convey not only familiarity with my work and general scientific competence (hence the jargon) but I need to give a quick summary of why what I’m doing matters (the odd observations of O VI and N V) and what I’m currently finding (I can’t recreate observations). Speaking to a fellow scientist, by giving all that information, I’m able to open up a discussion of my work – and scientists love to give feedback and share their own ideas. If I didn’t, it’s no longer a productive conversation.

On the other hand, if I were to say this to a friend, an acquaintance, or a barista, I would be met with blank stares and ultimately we both would feel uncomfortable. I left nothing for them to relate to, and they begin to think that my brain normally thinks like that (no – I don’t speak with that much jargon in day to day life). They have nothing more to say to me and I’m left thinking, “Wait! no! Ask me about my hobbies! I like cats! Let me telling you about this funny book I’m reading! I promise you can relate to me!”

If I were to slow down and explain each element (which I’m happy to do by the way) – what is a column density? velocity profile? ionization? my elevator speech turns into an elevator lecture.

 

But I saved my favorite for last, how do you tell a kid – like an elementary school student – what you do? Children usually don’t have the same intimidated reaction; they don’t have preconceived notions of what they are able to understand or a bias that if you’re doing something that sounds complicated you must be “so smart”. It’s true, they won’t understand it all – but that doesn’t make them any less interested in what you do. I love trying to explain what I do to kids.

“I’m a computational astrophysicist. I use computers to study things in space, like galaxies. I make models of galaxies with really big, fast computers and then study what they do.”

 

With so many different ways to interpret and explain my work, I find when I’m asked “What do you do?” I often need to pause and evaluate the most productive way to respond. However, in a similar vein, if you find that my response (or if you’re speaking to another expert in a field you are unfamiliar with) was above or below your understanding, it just means I went with the wrong response – not that you are dumb! and especially not that you can’t relate to me.

If someone were to tell me, “Oh, there was lots I didn’t understand but I’m interested”, I’m happy to explain again. I believe it is a very important skill to be able to explain your work to all audiences, so if I didn’t do a good job, let me try again! If I explain something too simply, don’t take it too mean I don’t believe you could understand it, just ask me another question!

4 thoughts on “What does an elevator speech mean when you’re in science?

  1. (I can already tell this is going to be a long comment…)

    This was a really fun post for me to read because it felt so applicable to so many of my interactions. When you work on computers, sure, that leads to a lot of weird conversations and misunderstandings, but usually that’s because people tend to underestimate just how complicated the world of computer science is, and try to ask about things I don’t actually know anything about, because most of us are forced to specialize. Kinda like scientists!

    But when it comes to my hobbies… that’s where I have a hard time relating things to people that aren’t already interested in them. If someone were to ask me what I was planning on doing tonight, I would have many layers of response based on who I was talking to.

    For a stranger or acquaintance I might say, “Oh, my girlfriend and I are going to play some games with some mutual friends.”

    For a family member or someone more personally invested, I might clarify: “Ellie and I are going to play some Monster Hunter online with friends.” But this isn’t much of a clarification, all I’ve done is added the game’s name. I’m willing to make the assumption that you know what that is, at least on a basic level, and I’m willing to explain further if you don’t know. I’d probably say the same thing for someone that already knows about gaming.

    But when I’m coordinating with that friend I’m going to play with, well… “Yeah, Ellie and I need to farm Daora, but I already finished up all of my weeklies except eight-star quests, so Ellie needs to finish up hers and if you want to help that would be great, then I’ll join in once we’re ready to do Daora – I’m going to see if I can get something with better Elderseal first, plus I’m running low on flashes and I’d really rather not do Daora while I’m low…” You get to a point where the language you’re using is so specialized you might as well be talking about something entirely unrelated. Even the vague qualifiers I use (“get something with better elderseal”, “weeklies”) are specialized. It’s not clear that “something” means “a weapon” and “weeklies” means “rotating weekly challenges”.

    I used to be very bad at all of this – you probably remember – so I find myself consciously thinking about it a lot. It’s interesting, but also a little sad to feel like you’re closing off part of what you love or know to people that are interested, just because you don’t want to give them too much information at once that they can’t do anything with.

    Also if it’s alright I’d just like to brag about how I understood at least vaguely what each of your layers of elevator pitches meant. Is ‘column density’ related to the density of data points within a ‘column’ on a graph? That was pretty much the only thing I wasn’t sure about.

  2. Ok, I really enjoyed this one; it was very nice to be able to follow each advancing discription, right up to wherever it was that I couldn’t follow it.

    I like the kid one.

    I’m going to need to adopt one of these for when I tell people what my daughter does. Any of them would be better than my default “she does stuff.”

  3. Loved reading the different versions of your speech and the way you adapt it to your audience.

    It’s great when you meet people who respond with “tell me more about…” or “explain what _____ is”. That’s way better than “oh, wow!” It shows they are interested (and care enough to inquire) even if they didn’t quite understand it all. If they are brave enough to ask a question, they can easily gain more understanding from your reply. 🙂

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