Career coaches say you should be able to describe what you do in 30 seconds or less. I can definitely sum up my research in one sentence for non-technical folks (and no, I don’t just say “Frustrating—argh!”)
But I’ve found that I almost always have to answer another question: “What is geochemistry?” I was asked this about 10,000 times during my first year in grad school (I know a lot of people outside of academia) and my one-sentence answer never seemed to satisfy people’s curiosity. So I came up with a little blurb, a bit longer than 30 seconds, that explains my feelings about geochemistry. Dr. Hand-Waver rolls her eyes when she hears me say it, but since she hasn’t offered a reasonable alternative, I keep using it anyway. Here it is. (And yes, it is a bit simplistic: this is what I tell non-technical people.)
What is geochemistry?
Well, you know what chemistry is, right? Most chemists do work in the lab under closely controlled conditions. They control the temperature, what goes into the flask, and stuff like that. Geochemistry is the chemistry of the natural world. It’s the chemistry that happens in water and rocks and the atmosphere, where there are about ten million different variables that you can’t control.
The usual response to this was a pause, then: “So why would you want to study that?” I never could quite convey to them how cool it was. *sigh*