How To Talk To People Who Aren’t Your Advisor About Your Thesis

By “who aren’t your advisor,” I really mean “people who have no idea about academia.” I’m still trying to nail down the best way to sum up my research without sounding like a walking thesaurus. I feel like each week there’s some new element I want to add or a new source takes me in a totally direction. I also feel like I have to give each person the background on my topic before I actually explain what it is.

The most recent conversation happened when my roommate’s family came to visit for the weekend:

Roommate’s Parents: So what are you working on?

Me: Oh, I’m writing my thesis proposal.

Roommate’s Parents: Oh, what’s it on?

Me: Well, I’m looking into this women’s organization called the Ladies’ Branch of the New Bedford Port Society and their reform efforts  to impose moral order on the transient seamen, within a gendered and racialized and class-related context … y’know, within a rapidly urbanizing whaling environment…

At that moment, I realized I had been talking very quickly and kinda rambling and that my roommate’s parents were probably not that interested in my thesis and were probably making small talk, so I kinda just let my sentence die out.

But trying to shorten my thesis into “I’m investigating women in whaling” doesn’t feel accurate, nor does saying “women in New Bedford” or “investigating social stratification in Jacksonian New England,” all of which are being addressed in this thesis but aren’t really the subject of what I’m looking at. Saying “I’m looking into the Ladies’ Branch for the New Bedford Port Society” usually just gives people blank stares, but feels less accurate.

I think I did a pretty good job in this blog post summarizing myself:

My argument is that wealthy, Quaker women who participated in the organization used it as a way to contribute to their rapidly changing urban landscape by imposing moral standards on the transient seamen.

To make it even simpler, I’ve been following one of my favorite blogs, @lolmythesis, in hopes I can think of a clever answer. If you can get your thesis into something as short and concise as that, I’d be impressed – it’s pretty difficult.

I guess what I can recommend is that simple is best. Yes, you are very excited about your thesis – it’s basically dominating your academic life at this point. But channeling that excitement into a simple sentence makes your goal a lot clearer – and makes conversations a little bit easier to have with people who aren’t grading you.

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