It’s good to be able to explain, in a brief, compelling, non-technical way, what you do and why anyone should care*. This is often called your “elevator pitch”, though I often think of it as “How to answer when an intelligent non-scientist asks me ‘So, what do you do?'” Here’s my elevator pitch for my microcosm work (probably the line of research for which I’m best known):
The best way to understand what I do is with an analogy. An aircraft engineer who was designing a new plane might build a scale model and put it in a wind tunnel to study the aerodynamics. In many ways, that scale model is nothing like a real plane, but for aerodynamic purposes it is. And a building a scale model is far easier than building a real plane. I do the same thing, except with ecosystems. I build scale model aquatic ecosystems in small bottles in the lab, using microscopic organisms with fast generation times. In many respects, those model systems are nothing like any natural system. But for the purposes for which I use them, they are. My research tests hypotheses about the general rules by which all ecosystems, including microcosm ecosystems, operate.”
I thought a long time about this pitch. I wouldn’t claim it’s perfect, but I think it’s pretty good. Here are some of the the features that I think make it work, plus some random remarks:
- It’s non-technical. This isn’t just the level at which you need to be able to explain what you do to an intelligent non-scientist. It’s also the level at which you need to be able to explain what you do to, say, the non-ecologists sitting on the search committee for that faculty position you’re applying for. Notice that the most technical terms in the whole thing are “aerodynamics” and “ecosystem”, terms with which even many non-scientists are reasonably familiar. If you find yourself wondering if you need to include the definition of some term in your elevator pitch, you should probably consider dropping that term. This is why my elevator pitch uses the term “ecosystem” rather than a more accurate but more technical (i.e. jargony) term like “ecological community”.
- It’s brief. Although not extremely brief. If asked to explain my work in one sentence, I usually reply, “Well, I could, but if you give me one short paragraph I can give you a much better explanation.”
- It uses an analogy. I don’t think everybody’s elevator pitch ought to include an analogy. But in my case, it’s a compact way to convey information about what I do and why it’s worth doing. I haven’t yet come up with a more compact, non-technical way to explain why one might want to do ecology indoors. I also think starting with the airplane analogy is an effective way to hold the listener’s attention. When you ask an ecologist “So, what do you do?”, you’re probably not expecting to hear an answer that begins by talking about aircraft engineering. So you’re listening actively when I get to the key punchline: “I do the same thing, except with ecosystems”. (Well, that’s my hope, anyway!) And while the analogy is imprecise, that’s ok because it’s just an elevator pitch. It’s not supposed to fully explain my work in a way that anticipates and addresses all possible questions or objections.
- It’s perhaps more focused on methodology than most people’s, as opposed to on the specific questions I work on. That’s not because I think my methodological approach is the most important aspect of what I do. And it’s not primarily because that aspect of what I do needs explaining, though that’s part of it. It’s mostly because I find this pitch more compelling than any question-focused one I’ve been able to come up with.
- You may want to have multiple elevator pitches to respond to different questions. My elevator pitch answers the question “What do you do?” It doesn’t answer the question “What have you discovered?” Ecologist Alienor Chauvenet has a post discussing the challenge of answering the latter question briefly and honestly, especially if you’re a fundamental researcher.