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How to field those horrible questions about your academic project

Whether you’re writing your dissertation, or post-dissertation, sweating through the first article from it, or a book chapter, or an entire book, at least one person always turns up among your family or friends who shamelessly asks those questions that make you squirm. They’re right up there with the in-your-face “How come you’re still single?” or “When are you going to have kids?”

To help you field the equivalent questions about your academic project, maintain your self-respect, and even jab a little in return, here are several of the most common questions, and variations. I’ve collected these from my academic coaching clients who are agonizing through writing their dissertations, articles, and books.

Clients report, I’m glad to say, that my suggested responses have worked well—meaning they’ve shut the other guy up. Tailor your responses as appropriate, but curb your impulse to throw a punch.

The Questions and Answers

• How’s it going? Aren’t you done yet? You’ve been at it for so long. When will you finally finish?

Your answer: Thank you for asking. It’s going very well. It’s a long process, and you’ll know that I’ve completed it when I know. I’m also working on a memoir and a novel based on my research. And how is your miniature Arabian-horse-carving business?

• What do you need a degree/article/book for? Why not get a job that’s secure, like with the Post Office?

Your answer: In the academic field, publishing is all-important. And more—I have a passion to make a difference in [your field/topic/inquiry]. I’ll have many employment opportunities in teaching, research, and consulting. And how is your miniature Arabian-horse-carving business?

• Aren’t you a little old to be in school?

Your answer: I never want to stop learning. One of my colleagues, a professor, is eighty-six and just got a grant to do research on abandoned Hindu temples in Kuala Lumpur. And how is your miniature Arabian-horse-carving business?

• Why don’t you come to the family gatherings/girls’-boys’ night out anymore? Don’t you care about us?

Your answer: My project takes a lot of time and concentrated effort. I love you. That will not change. See you in six months at Christmas. And how is your miniature Arabian-horse-carving business?

The Pattern

See the pattern? A few sentences of reply—crisp, with no details. Delivered with certainty and confidence. Then the zinger—turn the conversation back to them and their interests.

The Ally

Alternatively, if your second cousin or longtime friend is a Ph.D., remembers her doctoral experience, has published three articles, and is bucking for tenure at her university, she may be especially empathic: “Don’t pay attention to Uncle Trenton. He always wanted a master’s but couldn’t master the application.”

Your cousin or friend may also ask questions. The difference is that they aren’t intrusive but savvy:

“How responsive is your chair?”

“What can you do to shake him/her loose?

“Do you have an editor for your article? I found one invaluable.”

“Did you bring cupcakes yet to the research librarian?”

“When will you invite the book editor to lunch?”

If you have such a relative or friend, you are fortunate. Accept your blessing and, at the next family gathering or friends’ reunion, invite your supporter to a private conversation in a corner of the sunroom. You can safely venture slightly fuller answers, and by the responses you may happily discover a willing listener, cheerleader, and academic friend. Just don’t let the conversation bog down into trading stories of committees’ eternal nonresponses or journal editors’ interminable silences.

As the examples above show, you don’t have to be afraid of questions by inquisitive, subtly slamming, and ultimately well-meaning friends and family (remember that they’re probably jealous of your accomplishments and drive). Rehearse some of the answers above, add your own spins, and you won’t run aground in stammers, alibis, and embarrassed excuses. Instead, you’ll sail smoothly until you can proudly say to them all, “Just call me Doctor” or, with great casualness, “Yes, just published my latest article/chapter/book.”

Adapted from Noelle Sterne, Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping With the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2015).

© 2017 Noelle Sterne, Ph.D.
For reprinting, please contact Noelle Sterne through her site:

Noelle SterneDissertation coach, nurturer, bolsterer, handholder, and editor; scholarly and mainstream writing consultant; author of writing craft, spiritual, and academic articles; and spiritual and emotional counselor, Noelle has published over 400 pieces in print and online venues, including Author Magazine, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Children’s Book Insider, Graduate Schools Magazine, GradShare, InnerSelf, Inside Higher Ed, Inspire Me Today, Thesis Whisperer, Transformation Magazine, Unity Magazine, Women in Higher Education, Women on Writing, Writer’s Digest, and The Writer. With a Ph.D. from Columbia University, Noelle has for 30 years helped doctoral candidates wrestle their dissertations to completion (finally). Based on her practice, her Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping with the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, September 2015) addresses students’ often overlooked or ignored but crucial nonacademic difficulties that can seriously prolong their agony. See the PowerPoint teaser here. In Noelle`s Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books, 2011), she draws examples from her academic consulting and other aspects of life to help readers release regrets and reach lifelong yearnings. Visit Noelle at

The views and opinions expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect that of the Textbook & Academic Authors Association. Read more about TAA guest posts here.