“So, what do you work on?” “Tell me about your research.” “What do you study?” If you’re interested in the life of the mind, you’re going to hear these. A lot. It’s essential to make sure you have a quick answer, preferably one that invites your interlocutor to inquire further about what you’re doing. Your answer can range from the embarrassingly vague (“economics”) to the embarrassingly detailed (“I’m working on relaxing l’Emenant’s Second Restatement of McBigshot’s Theorem, which, as you know, is the key result in [impossibly narrow subfield consisting of three papers, all of which were published Thursday]”).
You want to strike the right balance. You might be familiar with the “elevator pitch,” which relies on a simple thought experiment. Imagine you’re on an elevator with someone, and they ask you what you do. You might have fifteen or thirty seconds. Explain it. Note that your access to this person’s attention can be measured in seconds. You definitely don’t have time for a lit review. You want to make sure you state the main theme of your research. This can be especially hard if you’re a grad student with lots of different interests, but you want to make sure people know exactly what you’re doing. Now that I’m several years out and have published in a few different areas, I usually say “Southern economic history, the effects of Big Box retailers like Walmart, and development” when I’m asked what I’m working on. When I was on the job market, I was much more specific, usually saying something like “I use data on lynching as a proxy for the security of private property rights in order to help explain Southern under-development.”
When you’re talking about your work, it is very important to be humble, inquisitive, and enthusiastic. It’s a complex mix. There’s a good chance you have not written the Grand Unification Theory of the Social Sciences. Don’t pretend you have if you haven’t. At the same time, you are presumably adding enough to knowledge to earn the right to be addressed as “Doctor,” so make sure yours is a voice to be taken seriously. Note for your interlocutor how your research fits with what he or she knows. Within the social sciences, you will be able to find enough common ground to make a conversation.
This is the kind of question that will come up at cocktail receptions, over drinks at the bar, during conference dinners, and in a number of other contexts. The year I went on the market, I was told (and I paraphrase) that every talk is a job talk. In the same way, you should think of almost every conversation as a veritable job interview. I can’t speak for everyone else in the profession, but I know that when I talk to someone at a conference, I am happiest when it is clear that economics is a way of life for the person I’m talking to rather than “just a job” or something to do between football games or something like that. Be an alert social capital entrepreneur, adopt some of the lingo, and note that there is an opportunity in every conversation.
This can be frustrating—a good scholar is almost certain to zero in on the area of your research where you’re least comfortable and where there are big questions you can’t yet answer. Take this in stride and note that they aren’t trying to make you squirm. They’re genuinely curious, and I can virtually assure you that if you get this question at an IHS event, it’s because the person asking wants to help you come up with a good answer to a very important question.