“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. You’ll need what I call an “academic elevator pitch” to respond effectively.
It’s essential to make sure you have a quick answer, 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…”). Both are mistakes you’ll want to avoid.
Defining the Academic Elevator Pitch
The concept of the “elevator pitch,” relies on a simple thought experiment. Imagine you’re on an elevator with someone, and they ask you what you do. You have fifteen to thirty seconds to explain before you go your separate ways.
Note that your access to this person’s attention can be measured in seconds. You definitely don’t have time for a lit review, but you want to make sure you state the main theme of your research. This may require some thought if you’re a graduate student with many different interests.
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. I usually said 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.”
How to Talk about the Work You Do
When you’re talking about your work, it is very important to be humble, inquisitive, and enthusiastic.
That’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.” It’s understandable that you want people to take you seriously.
One important way to strike this balance is to show 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.
Where to Use Your Academic Elevator Pitch
You’ll have to introduce yourself at cocktail receptions, during conference dinners, and in a number of other contexts.
And to add to this, the year I started searching for academic jobs, I learned that every talk is a job talk. Personally, 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.”
If you are on the academic job market, therefore, it is helpful to think of almost every conversation as a veritable job interview. There is an opportunity in every conversation.
Of course, this can be frustrating. A good scholar is almost certain to the one area of your research you’re least comfortable with. He or she will probably ask you some 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 they often want to help you come up with a good answer to a very important question.
I will note once more that a good academic elevator pitch is what gets those conversations started.