‘Hello, what is your research about?’

This post is by Heba Chehade. Heba is currently a DBA (Doctorate of Business Administration) student in the Manchester Business School.

I was at a social gathering recently and I was asked about my research.

It is usually easy for me to share information with others about my interests, career, life, etc. but evidently, I am not so good when it comes to explaining my research. When asked by party guest number 1 what my research was about I said, ‘my research is about social innovation…’ BLANK.

So my explanation clearly needed some adjustment.

To party guest number 2 I elaborated, ‘my research is about finding solutions to the financial and social problems we are experiencing…’ STILL BLANK.

Maybe third time’s a charm? To party guest number 3, ‘my research is about Strategy and Innovation, with more focus on the business side of things…’ BLANK AGAIN.

And so it continued as I tried to avoid the dreaded question.

I was worried. Getting people excited and interested in my research is essential if I want to make an impact beyond my immediate research community. Why is it much easier to describe what I ‘do’ for a living but not what I research? Is it because I am just starting out as a researcher? Is making a strong impression an unrealistic expectation at this point?

In a highly connected and impatient world, we should be able to share, in no longer than 30 seconds, enough information about our research to be understood by anyone who will listen, whilst also making a good impression. So I started thinking about ways in which I could communicate my research and the impression I want people to be left with. I remembered hearing about the ‘mini-elevator pitch’.

I discovered that the researchers in the Faculty of Medicine and Human Sciences have used elevator pitches to share information about their research with high school students. You can even watch some of these pitches online!

One of the approaches to producing an elevator pitch is to use a question. In my case, it could be something like,

You know how people, organisations and countries seek new ways to solve important economic or societal problems like unemployment, health, education and poverty? Well, my research is about exploring these new initiatives and how people, organisations and countries come together to implement them and the impact that this has on the people they are looking to help.

Will this help me when I’m next asked the dreaded question? Maybe.

To be tested soon at a social gathering near you.

Have you struggled with this in the past? How do you answer the dreaded question? Have you tried the elevator pitch? Reply to Heba below… 

9 thoughts on “‘Hello, what is your research about?’

  1. Oh yes, that sounds very familiar. But I came to a similar solution as you did.
    ‘Isn’t it strange that we find cooperation between humans although cheating and deceiving seems to be much more rewarding? That’s what I’m interested in, social behaviour, cooperation, and culture. Why do we find, what we find?’
    That works in a way that people get big eyes, but it also makes it necessary to go on and explain that I’m a theoretician, doing computational models.

      • Well, I would say no (in most cases). If you can generate interest in yor topic then it should come up naturally, like: aha, and how are you doing this? But of course the audience matters. If you talk to researchers in your field and work on a topic that is already heavily studied, the methods might actually be the interesting and new thing.

  2. I always HATED this question and avoided it like the plague. I assumed that nobody could possibly be interested in the tiny area of film studies I was looking at. It wasn’t until I realised that people were genuinely interested in what I was researching and writing that I found the confidence to sell it.

    If you are interested…

    My research looked and metaphors of disease and illness in US political rhetoric in the 1950s (Cold War) and I analysed how these metaphors permeated across popular culture (specifically Hollywood film) and how they were used to marginalise domestic groups somehow deemed to be undesirable e.g. working / independent women, homosexuals, juvenile delinquents and drug addicts.

  3. This is always a hard question but I think engaging with people and at least trying to communicate is better than just hiding away in our labs/offices and leading people to believe that us ‘academic types’ are antisocial, because clearly we’re not! Great post!

    While we’re at it…
    My lab group is developing a drug for osteoporosis. My project is looking at finding ways of stopping the drug breaking down during storage and removing the risk of it causing adverse reactions in patients during clinical trials. I use magnetic resonance to see how the molecules stick together in solution so I can find ways of preventing this from happening and keep the drug safe for patient use.


    • Thanks for sharing … do you ever get asked what ‘magnetic resonance’ is? I realized recently that I must take into account the audience as I wanted to practice my small ‘pitch’ and unfortunately it didn’t make sense because the audience was highly scientific.

  4. This is a great question, and because my subject is quite topical and something that most people can relate to, it’s fairly easy to answer. But not always succinctly! Because it often generates a conversation, I start off by telling people what my research title is, and then I explain what that means, and how I’m researching it. This usually generates more questions, and that means the hard work is done. Sometimes this encourages me to think about my work differently and provides me with new ideas, because people never follow the rules and ask the easy questions.

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