Rapid thesis communication: we can all learn something from lawyer-guy

I had an interesting experience over at the ACT Supreme Court the other day that I thought I might share. No, I wasn’t on trial – but rather was there to see my partner being admitted as a lawyer to the “honorable court” (meaning he can now officially practice law).

Anyway, it wasn’t somewhere I thought I’d likely encounter anyone interested in science or research.  That was until a fellow to-be-admitted lawyer who was speaking to my partner turned to me and asked if I was also a lawyer. The conversation went something like this:

Lawyer-guy: Are you a lawyer too?
Me: No, I’m a PhD student at the ANU.
Lawyer-guy: Oh right, what’s your research area?
Me: Environmental policy and economics.
Lawyer-guy: So what’s your research question?
Me: *takes breath thinks rapidly* I want to know whether market-based instruments can effectively conserve biodiversity.
Lawyer-guy: Pauses momentarily, brief thoughtful look.   Yes.  Self-assured look.
Me: Smiling- Well then, I guess I don’t have to do my PhD now!
Lawyer-guy: What is your case-study?
Me: Biodiversity offsetting.
Lawyer-guy: *confused look*

At this point we had to move into the courtroom and couldn’t continue the conversation – which I was somewhat disappointed about as it had just begun to get interesting!  There’s a couple of things I immediately took away from that exchange: (1) never underestimate the degree of faith people can have in “the market”, even when they might not know anything about the particular market or context you’re talking about, and (2) it’s really important and entirely possible to communicate what your research is about in 2 short sentences.

Michael shows off proof that he can now legitimately say “lawyered!” after winning an argument

For whatever reason, at the time I didn’t feel like I could launch into a rambling description of what I think my thesis is about, which is what I’d probably do out of habit around other scientists. But the way lawyer-guy asked those questions – he demanded quick, concise answers, and I felt compelled to answer in that way to keep his attention.

I actually found the experience rather funny and ultimately useful, and was happy I managed to think on my feet as well as to confirm to myself what my PhD is actually about! My partner however was pretty annoyed with lawyer-guy though, and for the next hour and later that day went on and on about how much of an obnoxious douche-bag he was. While it was nice that he was annoyed on my behalf,  lawyer-guy had inadvertently provided me with some great experience on how to quickly communicate my research. Thanks!

4 Comments

  1. I think you’ve stumbled upon a common problem that a *lot* of science has when communicating their fields – when you translate the science down into simple terms, people automatically assume there must be simple answers.

    1. That’s an interesting point Jonathan – I hope there’s a middle ground somewhere between boring people silly with (important) details versus simplifying things too much – not sure if I struck the balance in this case

  2. Nice post – elevator pitch stage one pinned down. next bit I’d say is to figure out the elevator explanation for biodiversity offsetting because while your conversation gave some interesting insights into faith in the markets, the science communication bit here surely is the offsetting??? and say congrats to Michael for me!

    1. Thanks Carina – yep, you’re right, explaining offsetting can be tricky (“biodiversity” can be confusing in itself) but I’ve had a few opportunities to practice that now (sadly not with lawyer-guy). And thanks – will pass on your congrats to Mike :-)

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