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Crush those horrible holiday questions about your academic project

Holidays can be welcome respites from our daily routines and the seemingly relentless pressures to produce. But at holiday gatherings we also risk what are often inevitable and often embarrassing questions from well-meaning relatives and friends. Whether you’re writing your dissertation or, post-dissertation, sweating through the first article from it, a book chapter, or an entire book, at least one person asks those questions that make you squirm. They’re right up there with the personal in-your-face ones: “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 suggested replies I’ve collected from my academic coaching clients who are agonizing through working on their scholarly projects. Clients report, I’m glad to say, that these 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 do. 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 Target?
    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. And then turn to the host,  compliment the desserts, and ask for more pie.

The Ally

Alternatively, if, sitting across from you is your second cousin or longtime friend, a Ph.D. who 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 knowing 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’re 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 venture fuller answers, and by their 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.

Professor David Perlmutter gave some wise advice about academic friends, dividing them into two categories,  “enablers” and “disablers” (quoted in Enago Academy, 2018). Enablers will praise you extravagantly. Some praise I’ve heard: Your topic will make a great dent in the literature. You’ll surely get a Fulbright for this. This book will help save humankind.

Disablers will lament over everything associated with the project—and refer to their own unequivocal experiences. Clients have reported these from their colleagues: Chairs, advisors, and committee members are totally unresponsive. Journal editors don’t know what they’re doing. My book publisher took my manuscript only to fill a hole in the upcoming catalog.

Perlmutter counsels that both extremes are to be avoided. The best choice—and hopefully your holiday relative is this—is “someone who is a little of both. A peer should be someone with whom you can share your ideas and who will give you an honest, constructive opinion” (para. 14; for an incisive academic paper on academic friends, see also McCabe [2016]).

If an academic relative or friend is at your holiday gathering, great. If not, 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. 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 uncomfortable excuses. Instead, you’ll sail smoothly until you can proudly say to them all, “Just call me Doctor” or, with great casualness murmur, “Oh, yes, just published my latest article/chapter/book.”


Enago Academy. (2018, May 21). What should you look for in an academic friend?

McCabe, J. (2016). Friends with academic benefits. Contexts, 15(3), 22-29.

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

© 2022 Noelle Sterne

Noelle SterneDissertation coach, nurturer, bolsterer, handholder, and editor; scholarly and mainstream writing consultant; author of writing craft, spiritual, and academic articles; and spiritual and motivational counselor, Noelle Sterne has published over 700 pieces in print and online venues, including Author Magazine, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Children’s Book Insider, Graduate Schools Magazine, GradShare, InnerSelf, Inspire Me Today, 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. Following one of her own, she is currently working on her third novel. Visit Noelle at