I have at various times of my career been unemployed for short periods. As I mentioned in previous posts, this is a pretty typical part of research as we are almost all hired on short term contracts. Your research might temporarily be on hold and is probably being picked apart by the remaining researchers/vultures, but you as a researcher might well be still actively going to events and trying to make contacts and think about future projects. If anything, when you’ve not got a job this is more important than ever; it’s easier to get a job when people know you exist.

But attending events gives you a problem, how the flip do you introduce yourself at meetings or conferences while you’re between research jobs?

Hi I’m X from…. errr

Once you’ve been to a few scientific or academic conferences or events you get very used to the customary introduction of “Hi my name is X from Y”. This collectively agreed opening statement is efficiently everything that people want to know when meeting you for the first time. There is a good chance that both X and Y will be instantly forgotten but that’s not the point, opening with X and Y is expected.

So if you don’t have a Y then the obvious answer is to change the customary greeting.

But change even in science is scary. If you start with saying “Hi I’m X” then you will almost always be met with first an awkward pause while they wait for you to complete the rest of the expected greeting. Now this pause is likely to only be a fraction of a second but in that fraction of a second the demon of awkwardness pops into existence on your shoulder with a puff of imaginary smoke and a “s’up?”.

Then as the pause extends the person will do the unthinkable, they will look down at your name badge which is with some certainty printed at a font size too small to read without a microscope and a small research grant into imaging nano structures.

Within another fraction of a second the person will realise they can’t read the badge and then also realise that you’ve seen them awkwardly staring, making the awkward pause now even more awkward. At this point the demon of awkwardness on your shoulder will high five the demon of awkwardness on the other person’s shoulder.

The whole experience only ends when the person trying to read your badge eventually makes a terrible joke about how you’d need a microscope to read the badges and mentally starts planning to run from the building and possibly become a hermit in a cave on a small island in a remote part of Greenland.

Well until recently I was….

An alternative is of course to seize the moment and own your complex employment status. Now, being between research jobs isn’t often all that simple so this is liable to take a bit of explaining. You may need to explain where you’ve just finished and then either where you’re maybe going next OR what you are hoping to find.

If you go with this option, the experience is a lot easier to explain. You know that glazed look that your non-scientist relatives get when you try and answer the question “what is it you do”. Well, this is almost perfectly the look you’ll get if you try and give someone a long complicated job history.

Like the question “what do you do” people rarely expect the answer to “where do you work” to be more than 3 words. Once you get up up to 5-6 the person’s subconscious is starting to get very worried about how long they need to pay attention. If you get above 10 then alarms are going to start going off deep in their brain and their subconscious is going to start panicking that there might be some form of test at the end.


So what’s the answer?

That’s not a rhetorical question. I genuinely don’t know. I’ve never cracked this one. What I have done is I had the above experience in various different forms multiple times and seriously considered faking being mute on a regular basis instead, but anyone that has ever met me might realise that would possibly result in my having some kind of embolism. You don’t write 1000 word blog posts every week if you’re good a not talking for an entire conference.

Maybe the best answer is that we need to create a fictional university that we can all say we work for when we’re unemployed. “Hi, I’m Matt I’m from the University of ErrantScience”. Sounds much better!

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Becca · 6 December 2017 at 20:43

Since people rarely ask me “What do you do?” before we start off with “Who are you?” pleasantries, my preferred strategy is to switch from “Hi my name is X from Y” to “Hi my name is X and I do Y” (where Y might be anything from imaging nano structures to being the resident hermit on a small island in a remote part of Greenland). This way, the other person still gets two pieces of information – X and Y – as expected, and I get to start off with what I do, which is probably going to be a better conversation-starter for us then where I work anyway. That said, the University of ErrantScience sounds like a wonderful place to work!

Kate · 7 December 2017 at 01:45

That is a great way to handle the situation. I am also totally up for working at the University of Errant Science.

Hermoine · 13 December 2017 at 10:22

I was in a similar situation for a chunk of 2017, and may be again come May 2018. My usual tactic was ‘I’m X, and I recently completed project Y. I’m concentrating on writing at the moment, but I am looking for a new project’ …followed by a hasty ‘ And you?’ to deflect attention!

Caitlyn · 30 December 2017 at 15:54

I like the idea Hermoine suggested of saying you just completed project Y and then being upfront that you are in the process of job seeking but maybe instead of deflecting you can ask if they have any leads. You can even do so in a bit of a joking manner to take the pressure off them. Lots of people are very interested in helping others so who knows they might know of someone that is hiring or if later they hear from someone they know that they are looking for someone they might pass your name along. Also I think most people can be empathetic to the job search because even outside of academia it’s a hard road.

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