A friend of my wife's is coming over for dinner tonight and he is a lot smarter than me.

What do we have in common, well... A Bachelor's in Computer Science, and that should be enough of a conversation starter. But he's nearly completed his doctoral studies and is light years ahead of me in his particular area, which I find fascinating but don't have any legit reason to care about (except for maybe a better way through heavy traffic - he's a combinatorics guy specializing in that I think) and I got married and had some kids and am a professional programmer for medical records software.

We've got a lot in common, but there's a point where neither of us care or understand each other - although I really want to learn from him and I'm not certain he'd even want to talk about his work.

So for all you doctors or code monkeys, what's a good conversation starter!

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    @gary I just found out he was coming over yesterday! I won't even have time to change my shirt. – Peter Turner Dec 29 '10 at 20:31
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    Computer Science and writing code are not the same thing. You should know that having a B.S. in CS... – P.Brian.Mackey Dec 29 '10 at 20:45
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    @P.Brian.Mackey you're right, now that I think of it - but I kind of needed to have programming in the title to justify asking it here. – Peter Turner Dec 29 '10 at 20:55
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    And how does your wife feel about a lovely evening spent discussing programming or other geek topic? Perhaps you should consider what she and the guy have in common that makes them friends in considering topics of conversation. – HLGEM Dec 29 '10 at 21:07
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    @gary Pretty good, I showed him all your answers and he liked most of 'em (that was a good conversation starter in and of itself)! He's actually been doing practical stuff in Haiti and has worked for the CDC. We talked about education and politics and good stuff like that too. – Peter Turner Dec 30 '10 at 14:11

13 Answers 13


PhD folks are still just people. Yes, they're often very smart (the ones I've met are, at any rate), and they've learned a lot about a particular niche of human knowledge.

Maybe talk about something that's not directly related to either of your fields of work. That way neither of you need feel the conversation's about work. (I usually end up talking about programming language design with my neighbourhood PhDs.)


Ask him to tell you about his thesis project. You won't have to say another word for two hours.

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    Hahaha, that's so true. – chiurox Dec 29 '10 at 23:04

Intimidated? You are a gainfully employed professional and he has no job. He might have academic smarts but you have real experience. Quite a lot to exchange there, methinks.

  • :-) He told me to tell you that he didn't like this answer. I may have miscategorized him though, he's actually done a lot of awesome practical humanitarian stuff in Haiti over the past year. – Peter Turner Dec 30 '10 at 14:07
  • I bet he didn't :-) Look, as I said - quite a lot to exchange. I am not minimizing his accomplishments, it takes a lot to go all the way through PhD when you see others your age making money and raising a family. But also there is no experience like real life experience - having someone paying you to do a job, dealing with pressures and relationships beyond academia and so forth. Believe me, my son is in Medical School, he tells me it is hard sometimes knowing that he will only be able to start "real work" when he is more than 30 years old. – Otávio Décio Dec 30 '10 at 14:27

Geeks are geeks. Doesn't matter if they're PhD's or self-taught, beign a geek is your common ground. We geeks also love to talk about our work when someone is genuinely interested, and he will likely be no exception. It's so rare anyone is interested in what we do that when it happens, we're like pigs in.. well, something warm and moist but foul smelling.

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    "Help! I'm have another Trekkie over for dinner but he's an expert in Deep Space Nine while I'm more of a TNG guy. We're so different, what could we possibly talk about?" – MGOwen Mar 1 '11 at 2:19

Never be intimidated

Don't worry if this guy is some kind of mega-mind. Like many PhDs, his specialism is a very narrow (and deep) field and there is a good chance that he just won't want to talk about it at all.

So keep it simple and light. Listen closely to what he, and your wife, have to say and then follow that route. By being a good listener you may find that you gain a reputation as an excellent conversationalist.


My experience is that CS PhD's tend to be quite myopic about their areas of expertise. He may know plenty about combinatorics, but I'm willing to bet he knows very little about the lovely world of HL7 and X12 EDI. :)

Don't be so intimidated. Be inquisitive about his specialty, and hopefully he'll be equally interested in the problems of the medical world. Maybe in talking to him you'll find some insight into some analytical problem you're facing.

  • Well yeah I could ramble on for quite a while about custom implementations of HL7. – Peter Turner Dec 29 '10 at 21:36
  • it is not myopia, it is specialization. – Stephen C Dec 29 '10 at 22:04

Just because he has a PhD it doesn't mean you can't teach him anything.

On several occasions I've found that people with PhD's think they already know everything and don't bother for years to broaden their knowledge spectrum, they carry on specializing to the maximum and miss other real-world (as in other areas of computer science) stuff.

Perhaps advances in hardware could be a topic of interest: the upcoming APUs, quantum computing... hell, even cloud computing. Just talk, and even ask, about what you are interested and let the conversation flow naturally.

Don't feel threatened and try to impress, use this as an opportunity to learn and/or have an interesting debate or two, otherwise you will actually look stupid, for real.

  • Yeah, last time I talked to him he hadn't heard of stackoverflow, that's useful stuff, and now that there's that theory SE it could be even more useful. – Peter Turner Dec 29 '10 at 21:37

If he almost has a PhD, then under no circumstances ask him how long before he graduates. The state of "almost having a PhD" can last for years. There is a name for that, by the way: ABD (all but dissertation). Asking someone who has been in the grad program for many years with no end in sight "So, how long do you still have to go?" may easily provoke violence.


One thing I learned late in life is, "Don't beat around the bush."

Just ask what you want to know about and you'll be able to tell if he wants to talk about it or not. If not, break out the new toys you got for Christmas. I can go on and on about my Digital SLR camera or what I need to do to the '79 pickup out in the garage. Just jump in there and if he's not showing any interest, see it for what it is and go do your own thing.


First, don't be impressed by the PhD. You may see PhD as something much higher than a bachelor, but you could also see it as someone who failed being a professor :)

They are actually very used to explain what they did in their PhD in layman terms (that's a recurrent joke within PhD students - how to explain what you do to your parents, friends, etc..). That's not that different from you explaining to your parents/family/kids what you do for a living. Generally, getting a PhD means you got acquainted with a lot of smart people, many smarter than himself, and it also means people who love learning about new things just for the sake of it.

As a sidenode, I have a PhD myself, but some of the smartest people I have met in programming "only" got a bachelor. And as Peter Norvig would tell you, the best programmer he knows is a highschool dropout.


A degree of any kind doesn't define a person nearly as much as you might think, just as much as a person's job doesn't say as much as you might think either.

A very good friend of mine has a PhD in Artificial Intelligence whereas I'm only just now going back to school for a degree. We've known each other for over ten years and we have never once had a problem finding things to talk about. We usually don't even talk about programming, and if we do the conversation typically revolves around topics found on this site: general programming topics without getting into the details of specific projects. But before we even get into that, we have current events (net neutrality, maybe a little politics), television shows, movies, assorted types of booze (there is always a tasting of some kind at our respective places), etc.


Why not try and find some other common ground that's non-technical?





I'm assuming you have some hobbies\interests outside of work. I can tell you that when I'm out socially I really dislike when the only conversation is professional whether it be mine, theirs, or other people in the group.


Phd or no Phd the job of a programmer is fundamentally to write code which solves problems. In other words get stuff done. I guess you speak to her about interesting problems you have solved in your job or other wise.

There is zero use in accumulating degrees if that doesn't add any value. And in other side of things education has nothing to do with money either.

You don't have to be exceptionally great in programming to do great things. Great things are done by people who want to do them despite all problems. Degrees don't get great things done, its the will and your personal hard work and persistence. Remember the inventor of Php? Have a look at the Php code base from the earlier days to a gist of what I'm trying to say.

But all that doesn't matter, his software runs probably trillions of dollars and generates equal such in value in wealth and employement. At the same time one can cite many academic abandon ware languages.

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