I enjoy a good metaphor1. In the decade or so since I began pursuing an academic career I’ve had to explain how things work to friends and family dozens of times. As many other academics certainly know, metaphors can help, particularly sports metaphors.
For explaining the profession:
Let’s go with baseball. The players are the academics; the major league teams are the universities. First, there are a limited number of teams; particularly if you are talking research universities2. Also each team only has so many roster positions. Year to year the roster is mostly the same, full of known players many of whom have longterm contracts (tenure). Opportunities to break into the majors are limited, and can take some time. The minors are graduate school and postdocery. There’s a steady stream of new people every year, not everyone gets called up to the bigs. If you want an opportunity to be a starting shortstop, you may have to be geographically flexible3.
Trades don’t really happen, but free agent signing certainly do. Just as in baseball the "big market" teams tend to have an advantage in landing free agents.
That usually gets me some nods of understanding. The only odd wrinkle here is the idea of staying with the same team. Imagine if minor league teams were not officially associated with major league teams. So a promising AAA player might try out for several teams, no of which had exclusive rights to the player.
For explaining my field of research:
Let’s say I study cars. Now a lot of different types of people work with cars and car related things: mechanics, engineers, racecar drivers, civil engineers that make roads, car company execs, car sales people., etc. All have some knowledge of cars, how they work and what they do. Of course that knowledge can be very different. The skill set of a race car driver is not the same as the CEO of company that makes the car. Everyone thinks that their part is the most important or interesting part of the big picture.
That one works ok. In general the sports metaphors work the best, though since baseball isn't super popular I might have to switch to football.
1. Also puns, maps, and data. Any data really, sports, census data, etc.
2. The answer to the inevitable “What’s an R1?”, I go with: any big university that you’ve heard of is probably a research university, if it’s smaller and more local, then probably not. Obviously this isn’t a hard and fast rule.
3. An important point for the family.