I'm a graduate student in physics. When meeting new people (mutual acquaintances, workout groups, meeting random people while out and about), eventually the question is often asked: what do you do? I typically tell people that I am a graduate student and if they ask for more specifics I either tell them I work in "physics", "experimental physics" or "atomic physics" or some combination.

Sometimes people respond with things like:

  • You must be really smart, that stuff is way over my head!
  • Wow, I could never understand that!
  • Physics? I hated that class when I took in school!

Unfortunately I sort of have a hard time responding to these responses and I feel like I end up a little awkward and floundering.

The first two are clearly compliments and I think I just need general advice for receiving the compliment and then moving on.

The first one is a little more of a compliment and I usually end up saying something like: "Thank you, I really enjoy it so it's not as hard for me to spend a lot of time learning about it"

The second one I respond with something similar like: "That's ok, I just happen to really like physics so I spend a lot of time trying to understand it!" This is always sort of a non-sequiter though and I feel myself wanting to scramble for a change of subject

The third one feels the trickiest. I know they don't mean me any malice and they're just trying to connect with me the only way they know how when it comes to my field of work! I don't take any offence. I find myself wishing I could respond in some sort of joking way to laugh the subject off or something. I respond a little similarly to the other cases: "Yeah, a lot of people don't like math/physics but I really enjoy and hey, everyone likes different things!" Maybe this last one would be spiced up by asking something like "what did you like better in school?"

I would appreciate any advice for how I can respond to peoples responses to when I tell them that I am a graduate student in physics. I don't want to come off as awkward and I do want to connect to the person, and also perhaps probe is there is some way of turning their responses towards a more personal connection for us. I also don't want them to feel like there is a wall or something between us because I study something they perceive as really impenetrable and difficult.

edit: Thank you for the suggestions so far! In response to the comment requesting what my goals are with my response:

  • I think first and foremost I want to come off as personable. I think the reason these responses bother me is that there is an implication that I must not be approachable since I work in physics and I want to exude the opposite of this.
  • I want to show that I don't think any less of them for not having a good personal relationship with physics
  • If their comment is complimentary I want to accept the compliment in a way that isn't arrogant or overly modest and doesn't halt the conversation.
  • I want to show that I am interested in them as well. I guess either I'd be happy to chat with them in more depth about physics if their interested or change the subject to find out what they are more interested in if not physics.
  • 2
    Hey, welcome to IPS. What is your goal here? What do you want to accomplish with your response in these situations?
    – Mithical
    May 25 '20 at 7:47
  • 1
    Do you have a way of explaining what you’re working on specifically to a layman? For example, I’m a software developer, but not everybody exactly grasps what that entails, so I explain the company I work for and what I’m working on as “I make the website where their customers can ...”.
    – AsheraH
    May 25 '20 at 9:10

I am an outlier in most "small talk" groups, even within my industry. I have a PhD in engineering, I've run a consulting company for decades that has supported multiple families, I fly the world to do keynotes at conferences, and so on. When people ask things like "where did you go to university?" or "what is your degree in?" or "where do you work?" they are usually surprised. If I'm in my village and talking to a neighbor, I don't bring these things up, but people often ask and then react when they get my (normal to me) answer. Most people are surprised in a good way, ask questions, and want to know more.

The kinds of responses you've listed in your question are different. They generally mean "I don't want to talk about that in detail!" This took me a while to learn. Compare them to "wow, interesting, I never could understand that, I'm impressed by people who can." That's a person who might want to hear some more about your subject. So is "really? what's that like? I can't imagine doing that!"

Imagine you asked someone what they did yesterday and they said they watched a popular sporting event that you really do not enjoy at all. You might well say something just like you've listed: that you never saw the appeal, don't follow it, even hate it. If the person then launched into a 15 minute explanation of why the sport is great and how easy it is to understand, you would not be enjoying the conversation, would you?

Your approach of validating your own preferences and theirs with a comment like "everyone is different" is a great one. You're not arguing with them, but nor are you agreeing that your area of study is horrible and impossible to understand. The next step would be to talk about something else, and if they haven't told you what they do, it's an obvious next question. If they have, you can still try other "small talk" questions that are not related to your studies. You can always fall back on talking about the reason you're there: the weather, the happy couple, the food, and so on.

Be aware, sometimes these negative comments are a "hey, you're not smarter than me, and that thing you're good at is worthless so don't get cocky buddy" reaction. There's not much you can do about it. If the person keeps circling back to telling you that physics is dumb and only losers go to grad school and such, you need to find a new conversation partner. (Been there, many times.)


I also have a physics degree and have gotten all your mentioned reactions in countless interactions. Here's how I try to go about it:

You must be really smart, that stuff is way over my head! / Wow, I could never understand that!

Accepting compliments is really not one of my strong points. On the other hand, I am of course aware that physics is not an easy subject, so overdoing it with the modesty can come across somewhat weird or, in the worst case ("Ah, it's really not that hard."...) as veiled bragging.

I have basically adopted two approaches to this. Both try to deal with the seemingly implied statement that the person I'm talking to regards themselves as "too stupid" for something as complex as physics.

  • Humorous approach: "Well, I guess everyone has their weak and strong points." followed by either a self-ironic (maybe slightly exaggerated) example like

"Hand me a musical instrument and I can make the ears of every person withing earshot bleed within 2 minutes. Unless I manage to break my fingers before that of course."

or a funny little anecdote like

"I still remember the painting class were I started painting something and a week later, when we were supposed to continue, I couldn't remember what I had been painting. Unfortunately, the painting itself also gave me no clue as to what I had intended it to look like."

You get my drift, I guess. Ideally, I know a little bit about the person I'm talking to. If I know what they do, I may be able to come up with an example / anecdote more related to their field of expertise / line of work / studies.

  • Serious approach: The usefulness of this approach strongly depends on whether or not my interlocutor is interested in actually discussing the topic which, let's be honest, is mostly not really the case, so I mostly stick to the humorous approach.

Sometimes it happens that they start going deeper into the subject themselves, though, in which case I usually point out that you by no means need to be the next Albert Einstein / Emmy Noether in order to study physics. Traits that (in my experience) are far more wide-spread among physics students than pure analytical intelligence are a strong fascination for the subject itself as well as a lot of tenacity at (and enthusiasm for) problem-solving. And of course a high frustration tolerance (you think you found a super-elegant solution, only to have it shredded by the post-doc who grades the weekly assignments...).

One thing I like to share in this context is that there was no period in my life in which I felt less smart than my time at university.

Physics? I hated that class when I took it in school! Here I try to empathise. I actually have the "advantage" that I myself disliked physics in the first half of my school "career" (also my grades were average at best). It was only when teachers got exchanged that I started to love the subject and subsequently also improved my grades.

Either way, I found that just inquiring to the reasons for that dislike can already lead to interesting and / or funny conversations, which can be steered to either in-depth discussions or light small-talk.

Did they maybe enjoy the experimenting, but not so much the subsequent data analysis? Great, ask them if they are generally good at such technical setups (I'm not. Never give me a tool, otherwise the world will burn).

Did they have a teacher who explained stuff badly / incoherently? This can be an opportunity to divert to a different topic (education system, teacher's job, funny anecdotes about funny teachers).

Did they have "math-phobia" and couldn't deal with the formulas? Show understanding. Even in university, if you weren't taught the mathematical fundamentals properly (or maybe just didn't understand them well enough), good luck understanding the physics based on them (QFT without knowing group theory... ugh).

In general, all three answers seem to imply (intended or not) something like "You do weird stuff, I don't like what you like." All my reactions basically aim at showing that I'm just a normal dude, just with a somewhat special interest.

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