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Tips for Academics: Interacting with Family over the Holidays

For many graduate students and faculty, particularly those who are the first to pursue advanced degrees in their families, holidays can be as stressful as the academic year. Taking a final exam can be a piece of cake compared to an “in your face” relative asking questions that imply that all you do is sit in a library reading dusty books and wasting your time thinking about the meaning of life.

I’ve found that the more complex your discipline (e.g., biomedical engineering), the greater the confusion among relatives about what it is that you do on a daily basis. Questions such as “Do you still live in the same place?,”  “Are you still in school?,” and “When are you going to get a real job?” are sure to come up as the sweet potato pie is passed around the table.

This year, I’ve got you covered. Instead of stressing about how you’re going to grin and bear the jabs that are coming your way during the holidays, see this time of year as an op

Below are a few tips that will guide you during some of the exchanges that are sure to occur over the holidays.

(For Grad Students) “How long are you going to be in school?” – Although you might want to say, “Until my advisor says that I can leave with a degree,” take time to explain big picture aspects of your higher education life (e.g., taking classes, conducting research, and writing papers). With a smile on your face, explain how your professional work is making a difference in everyday life.

(For Grad Students) “When are you going to get a real job?”– Inform your interrogators that teaching and research assistantships provide opportunities for you to pay for your education and teach and mentor the next generation of scholars. Although you are not yet called a professor, you are on a path to making sure that college students will become well-informed, educated citizens.

If this doesn’t satisfy people, become a little defensive and ask people if they have seen your face on the news for anything negative. Look at them with big eyes, count to 5 silently, and wait for them to respond. Say that in a world of negativity, TMZ hasn’t put your business in the streets, and if someone googles your name, they won’t find a mug shot (I hope!).

(For Faculty) “Why are you working over the holiday?”– Academic life is broken down into terms such as quarters or semesters. To make sure that the next term is successful, inform others that teaching preparation is vital for professors. This means that while your students are relaxing and sleeping late, you need to make sure that they have a class to attend when they return.

Tell people that if you don’t take care of your business during the holiday, you might need to reserve a permanent sleeping spot on their couch until next Christmas. I bet that this question won’t be asked again!

Although the scenarios above are light-hearted perspectives about possible exchanges, the reality is that many first-generation academics are expected to operate successfully in at least two worlds- one where they will forever remain a child, and another where a degree can be perceived by family and friends as permanent separations from familiarity. Although it may be difficult to convince people that you are a new, improved version of the family member that you always were, remember to remain patient with others as they learn about the idiosyncrasies of your academic lifestyle.

In sum, no matter how crazy the holiday gets, celebrate the blessing that you have to obtain an advanced degree, to educate others about your profession, and to represent your family and community. Although there are growing pains when you are the first to do something, remember that you are strong enough to handle anything this holiday season. After all, to whom much is given much is required.

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