Have you ever written something you thought was brilliant and then reread it a week later and have no idea what you meant? Or had it covered in red comments from your adviser?
Do you get overwhelmed and mumble something unintelligible when someone asks you “what you’re studying”?
You are a smart, capable person. But…
You don’t speak the language.
It all comes back to the words. The majority of what you want to say has been said more concisely and eloquently by someone else already. I think this is safe to assume for all graduate students. We’re learning. It’s ok.
Don’t try to reinvent the wheel by explaining difficult concepts “creatively”. What you think is clever wording is probably unintelligible to the person listening to you.
There is a unique language in each field of study. Adopt that language as soon as possible. Veterans in your field speak it fluently while baby grad students stutter along.
I’m not just talking about jargon (though that could be a large part). I’m referring to the way professionals in your field talk about your subject, the phrases they use, and the style of the questions they ask. As in a foreign country, speaking a little bit of the language can take you from being the loud, awkward foreigner to being a welcome part of the community. It is critical to acknowledge this language barrier and address it.
Three Places to Find Your Field’s Language
1. Your advisor’s bio page – This is a perfect place to see what your advisor uses as an elevator speech. What is the main purpose of their research? Out of everything in their decades-long, super auspicious career, what do they choose to highlight? If you’ve chosen to study under this person, chances are your goals are similar to their accomplishments.
2. Mission statements – Whether from your department or an NGO or a grant organization, mission statements give you concise, goal-oriented language.
3. Introductions of journal articles – Authors often start their papers with an overview of the current knowledge. Clear, simplified concepts just for you. Bonus: check out their citations.
Use Your Common Language
Besides writing, you can use this language in many different settings.
For example, you may be interested in the BOND project. Their website states that a “primary goal of the BOND project is to harmonize the processes for making decisions about what biomarkers are best for use in support of research, program development and evaluation, and generation of evidence-based policy.”
Here are a few ways you can use that language:
Introducing yourself to someone at a seminar: “Hi, I’m interested in what biomarkers are best for use in iron research in populations with high infection rates.”
Talking to a faculty member: “Could you point me in the direction of good resources for program development and evaluation of iron supplementation trials?”
Get the gist?
***Note: Obviously, if you’re going to use any of this language in writing, you will provide the proper citation. No plagiarism ever.
Collect Winning Words
Start a collection and refer back to it before writing or making an introduction. This is your “Smooth-talking cheat sheet”. Just copy and paste phrases into a Word document (citing them, of course, for future reference) or put them in an Evernote note (guess which one I do). I find Evernote’s Web Clipper to be really useful for saving grant websites’ mission statements.
Remember, learning the language is only the first step. It’s up to you now to use this language to spruce up your pitch and your proposal and get you talking with the in-crowd.
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