Disclaimer: This blog post is meant to record my fleeting thoughts and reflections as I progress in my Ph.D. studies. What I discuss here is not necessarily related or backed up by prior studies in management scholarship.
“Once you label me, you negate me.”Søren Kierkegaard
Mid-career Ph.D. students in social sciences face many challenges. One stems from its career transition aspect—transferring into academic life. A career transition to academia can significantly differ from a normal career transition because the academic professions come with unique societal expectations. A quick look-up on the Thesaurus gives educational, intellectual, scholarly, and scholastic as the synonyms for what it means to be “academic.” In simpler terms, people think that academics are well educated, smart, and know a lot about something. These expectations are, to some extent, unrealistic to most Ph.D. students—after all, five to six years of intense socialization in academia are not enough to make someone “expert” in something. It requires years of experiences of challenging the frontier of knowledge to become a true expert. This dilemma places many Ph.D. students in an awkward position between what people expect from them and what they are capable of. As a result, many Ph.D. students feel insecure about their expertise and legitimacy as a member of the profession.
The dilemma is particularly complicated for the mid-career Ph.D. students, as they feel increasingly knowledgeable about their research topics. The combination of the expert insecurity and the feeling of being empowered by expert knowledge sometimes tempt us to think that we know a lot when we don’t, without thinking deeply about the essence of the issue. Unfortunately, I see a lot of people, including myself, suffer from this temptation. Increasingly, I observe that Ph.D. students, facing new ideas and insights, act as though they already know a lot about them. What we don’t always notice is that we are often merely “labeling” things impulsively with what we already know. Impulsive labeling is a common phenomenon among us but can hinder our ability to spark new insights.
Referencing What You Already Know Is Not Thinking
Knowing a lot means that we have a pool of knowledge from which we can derive to compare with what you newly encounter. Such comparisons help us recognize (often heuristically) similarities of the subject matter with something else that we already know. Recognizing things other than the subject matter—sometimes as analogies—often facilitates a deeper understanding of the subject matter, because:
- Having references helps shed lights on aspects of the subject matter that you otherwise cannot become aware of
- Comparing similarities and differences will lead to a deeper understanding of the subject matter
Comparisons are useful in so far as we attend to differences as well. From my personal experiences, paying attention to the differences rather than similarities is more useful in analyzing the subject matter. If we only attend to similarities, we can easily feel that everything is related to everything else. That is not an understanding of anything. Having a large pool of knowledge to refer to can create a false perception of knowing the subject, precisely because we can recognize many similarities of the subject matter with something we already know. In other words, more and more we know something, less likely we might encounter sparks of new insights. It is a dangerous trap that novice scholars like us can easily fall into.
The symptom of this phenomenon is, in my opinion, best seen in the act of “labeling.” Labeling is to assign a label—category, concept, construct, or framework—to something. I don’t get into the categorization literature here, but it is basically about grouping things into what we already know. A scary part of this process for a scholar is that we often get the feeling of understanding something when we label it. A false sense of being knowledgeable comes with greater abilities to label (as in Figure 1). But, as we all know, categorizing alone is not theorizing. Categorizing something is different from understanding the mechanism of why and how the phenomenon happens (Sutton & Staw, 1995). Certainly, how we label things influences how we theorize the phenomenon, as it defines what knowledge to invoke in the theorizing process. But, labeling itself does not lead to an understanding. The more you know, the greater your ability to label things, because you know more labels. But the greater temptation to do so comes with a threat of deceiving yourself with a false sense of understanding.
Let’s Suspend Impulsive Labeling and Look for New Insights
We must remind ourselves not to be blinded by the ability to label things. To be able to associate the phenomenon with some constructs or theories does not mean that we understand it. Any phenomena existing in this world are too complex and nuanced for anyone to understand fully. An ability to always look for new insights in even small things and spark their intellectual curiosity is what mid-career Ph.D. students must consciously work on.
What is the right way of labeling that leads to greater understanding? This is a million-dollar question that requires a career worth of practice and training to answer. At a minimum, we should temporarily suspend the act of labeling when encountering a phenomenon, so as to make ourselves open to sparks of new insights. This moment of suspension may conflict with a Ph.D. student’s sense of insecurity—hence, falling into quick, impulsive labeling. But only when such moments of suspension are there, the right way of labeling can come about. The problem is the false identification of a Ph.D. student, thinking that their professional identity is based on the amount of labels they can use for reference, with the pretension of comprehension, rather than an ability to encounter a phenomenon with open eyes and creatively apply labels.
How can a Ph.D. student find security in suspending the act of labeling and shift from an impulsive to the conscious, creative labeling? I don’t have an immediate answer, but it might be something to do with individual factors like confidence and perseverance, as well as organizational factors like how nurturing your school’s culture is.
I conclude this essay with the following quote:
“Reading furnishes the mind only with materials of knowledge; it is thinking that makes what we read ours.”John Locke
Ataka, K. 2010. Issue Driven. Tokyo: Eiji Press.
Sutton, R. I., & Staw, B. M. 1995. What Theory is Not. Administrative Science Quarterly, 40(3): 371-384.