Auriel Fournier is a PhD student in the Arkansas Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit at the University of Arkansas. Her research focuses on the fall migration of secretive marsh birds and how they utilize different kinds of wetlands. She tweets bird and grad school related things @amv_fournier and writes for Birds and Binoculars  and Natural Austerity .
Last Christmas I’m sitting around my grandpa’s living room with my family talking excitedly with a few of them about how I had to go “into work early” last Friday so that my adviser and I could leave for this cool thing. They all look at me funny and then one of them asks “Work? Where are you working?”
“Work?” I said, “I'm a grad student!”
I'm the first member of my family to go to graduate school. In their mind I'm still “just a student.” They don't understand the intricacies of my job or that I even have one. I'm not just a student, I'm a teacher, a researcher, a manger, a writer, and everything in between.
If your family and friends aren't academics there can be some communication breakdown since they aren't going through the highs and lows of grad school. This confusion often exhibits itself at the holidays, especially if you've recently made the switch from undergraduate to graduate life. This transition from a student to a professional  can be awkward, but it’s important to help your family understand that these are different stages in your professional life. Chances are they want to understand what you do and support you, but they might not know how.
Expressing the why behind what you do  is also really important. Perhaps equally important is the why behind you as a researcher. Your passion is why you do what you do, help them feel that. Its really helpful for friends and family and a good challenge personally to learn to summarize your research in layman's terms. I always want to give people every detail about my research, but that isn't necessarily appropriate for everyone. Most people just want a few sentences. So instead of giving everyone you meet a long explanation give them two or three sentences, hit the high points and the why points. And skip the jargon. Try and communicate the why. For me this goes something like this:
“I work on the fall migration of rails, a kind of sneaky marsh bird in the state of Missouri. We’re trying to figure out how the rails use publicly managed wetlands that are currently being managed for migrating waterfowl so that we can manage for both waterfowl and rails.”
It can also be helpful to have 2 or 3 interesting or funny facts about what you study, even if it's only broadly related to what you do. I study birds, so I try to have some cool birds facts (skinny as a rail actually refers to the bird, not the railroad). This helps keep the conversation light and also help everyone relate to what you do and remember it for the future.
Most of my family and friends are probably going to keep asking me all of their bird questions, which I love because it usually involves them imitating the bird in some way. They may not understand why I don’t have a “real job” yet but with some time and explaining they can understand my world better and why I do what I do. In turn I am also learning that I have to be part of theirs as well, even as mine continues to change in so many ways.
[Image by Flickr user Andy Peters , used under creative commons licensing.]