It’s all well and good for me to say it isn’t the right question.
People still ask it. People you care about. People you have trouble ignoring or being snarky to.
So what do you say?
Assume the best intentions
Whenever you are faced with a stomach cramp inducing question like this, it is always best to assume that the person asking the question really does mean well.
It doesn’t really matter what their real intentions are. Act like they care about you. (Most of them probably do.)
They could be genuinely curious.
The person asking the question doesn’t have a PhD. They don’t know anyone with a PhD. They wonder why anyone would stay in school that long. Or, they may be unfamiliar with your subject of study.
The key thing is they really have no idea what the possibilities are. More importantly, they genuinely believe that you know, that you are a good person to learn more about this from.
Answers for the genuinely curious
This is where knowing the intrinsic value of the PhD is going to help.
“I’m not really sure but [insert something from your list here].”
You might even steer the conversation into something more directly related to what you are doing now.
“Have you ever come across [your subject] before? Would you like to know more about what I study?”
“Is there anything in particular you wondered about my research? I’d be happy to try to explain it to you.”
“I’m not sure but I’m really enjoying learning about [something you are working on right now].”
Of course, then you are going to have to talk about your research in a way that people outside your discipline can understand. Don’t hog the conversation. They don’t need the whole story so you can talk about one interesting thing you are working on. Then ask them a question about what they are doing at work right now.
One important aspect of this response is to treat your PhD not as a developmental task but as a job, something you are doing for 4 years or so that you know you will move on from.
They could be worried about you.
They see you getting older and you don’t have a job yet and maybe you are accumulating debt (or they think you are). They want to be reassured that you are eventually going to be able to support yourself.
Remember, you worry about this, too. That is something you have in common with the person asking the question.
Answers for the worried
If you have an idea of what you might do, say so.
“I am seriously considering [your current plan].”
Then ask them a question to move the discussion on.
Your plan doesn’t need to be realistic. You don’t have to have done any work towards securing such a job (particularly if you aren’t anywhere near finishing yet). The person asking the question is probably going to be satisfied that you at least have a sense of what you are going to do next. They will assume you can figure out how to get there.
If you don’t have a plan
Talk about your process of learning about the options. Since a PhD takes some time to complete, you can also reassure them that you have a few years to figure this out.
“I’m not sure yet. I’m trying to learn more about what all my options are. I know I could be a professor but I’m also looking into what other people with similar qualifications have gone on to do. Our careers office has been very helpful.”
Even if that’s not what you are doing? You could use a variation on that.
Most people who ask have good intentions.
It’s okay to take a deep breath and remind yourself of that before you say anything. It seems like a really long pause, but it isn’t.
You don’t have to have your whole life planned out. The person asking the question probably doesn’t have their whole life planned out either.
They are trying to start a conversation. Respond briefly. Ask them questions about what they are doing. Let them ask follow up questions if they want to know more.
Keep breathing. Keep reminding yourself that they mean well.
Doing a PhD really is worthwhile activity even if it doesn’t lead directly to a particular job. If they don’t believe that, remind yourself that I do.
This post was edited July 9, 2015.