Recently I got a PhD and moved into industry. So far, at least three different people have asked me if my job is related to my PhD research.

My PhD research was on privacy; specifically, ways to violate privacy. Unfortunately, my job is very related. But I am not allowed to say that since it reflects poorly on the company.

How do I answer the question without looking suspicious or violating confidentiality? I feel like the possible answers are

  1. "Yes" => this violates my NDA
  2. "No" => this is a flat-out lie
  3. "I don't want to talk about it" => then they're just going to get super suspicious.
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    Have you asked this question to your boss? They may have a better understanding of what does and does not violate your NDA. You might be okay to say "Yes, I do research in the field of information privacy, though I can't go into details." – David K Sep 25 '17 at 15:56
  • To violate most NDAs, you have to give out sufficient information that a rival can replicate the work you're involved in. The word 'Yes' doesn't really do that. Why not just say that you work in Internet Security, and then drive the conversation along the lines of popular hacking TV shows. – PeteCon Sep 25 '17 at 16:12
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    I think just saying "yes" would not disclose the confidential information. But I am worried that if I also give them other information that is likely to come up in a casual conversation, such as the name of my company, my product, or my team, or the exact nature of my PhD research, they may be able to infer confidential information about things my company does. None of these facts alone are confidential (my manager has told me it's okay to tell people what team I'm on), but the problem comes when you combine them. – user77372 Sep 25 '17 at 16:23
  • How about "I can't talk about it. I can lose my job if I do."? A bit less confrontational than not wanting to talk about it. – PoloHoleSet Sep 25 '17 at 17:03
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    @JoeStrazzere: I can see a situation where a company -- especially in a cybersecurity -- doesn't want outsiders to know what they're working on. Case in point -- I had an American friend who was working in cybersecurity and found himself getting chatted up by a friendly individual at a conference. A few hours later, while talking to someone else, he discovered that he'd been talking to a Russian cybersecurity expert, and it got him a stern talking to from his supervisor after the conference. – tonysdg Sep 25 '17 at 18:20

How do I answer the question without looking suspicious or violating confidentiality?

As some people commented, I suggest you talk to your boss so he can give you a better idea of what sort of questions could violate your NDA. Also, I doubt that "answer casual questions" will break any NDA, even more if it is just a single-worded answer.

In any case, if they keep asking you after you safely answered their initial questions, you could try steering the conversation and talk about your PhD instead, as it is highly related to your work and is something you have complete knowledge and most surely are able to freely talk about it without violating any agreement.

  • I've had some friends who had restricted dissertations -- i.e., working in national security-related fields -- so the OP might have to pivot to related work or something like that. – tonysdg Sep 25 '17 at 18:17

Knowledge isn't good or evil. Just the application of knowledge can be.

So saying "Yes, I use my knowledge of privacy violation in my job" isn't saying how you use it. You might be using it for evil (violating people's privacy), for good (finding ways to protect people's privacy from the attacks you know about) or in a moral grey area (violating the privacy of people who might deserve it, like potential criminals).

Unless the company you work for is known for being active in exclusively one of these three areas, just saying that you apply your knowledge doesn't say in which one.

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