News You Can Use: How Staying in Touch with the World Improves Your Problem Sense

by Jerry Davis

In partnership with Phanish Phurnam and the Collective Impact Salon, we are in the second year of our project to help PhD students choose a dissertation topic. We started with a familiar insight: the time after comprehensive exams can be a twilight zone of uncertainty. Doctoral training is very good at helping identify methodological weaknesses in research, somewhat good at training in literature reviews, okay at training on how to find “gaps in the literature,” and not good at all in helping to figure out a good topic of study. Year three can be a time of anxiety and dread while one searches for a suitably grand yet do-able dissertation topic.

Some people seem to have a gift for coming up with ideas. As a doctoral student, I marveled at my mentor Mayer Zald’s ability to read the morning newspaper and come up with several researchable topics. Mayer might say “’Conglomerate’ has become a dirty word in business, yet private equity firms look just like ITT in 1970. What’s up?” How did he do that? The ability to do that it turns out requires a particular frame of mind that can be learned: identifying the general in the specific, that is, answering “what is this a case of?”

Great research ideas can come from the world around us and not merely from gaps in the literature. To that end, early on Phanish, in response to my challenge, created a dissertation canvas to help students converge on a topic, like the Business Model Canvas for research projects.

Prior to asking students to complete the dissertation canvas, we held a workshop where students read two to three – recent news articles on topics in the news that might be fruitful for research. These articles included competition and the new antitrust; the use of AI in the workplace; the politicization of ESG; the “anti-woke” backlash in business; and creating the green transition in business. Students selected the topics they cared about in advance, and during the webinar students were organized into small groups for discussion and share-out of topics, followed by a general discussion.

We concluded with four takeaways.

First, great topics can come from the events in the world, not just elusive “gaps in the literature.” As a certified news junkie, I see several stories each week that get me thinking about the management implications. For strategy scholars, there seem to be policy changes every week from the FTC, Department of Justice, National Labor Relations Board, and others that change the playing field for business and create natural experiments left and right. Exciting times!

Second, nobody owns topics, and it does not pay to be proprietary. When we do this exercise there are often several distinct research ideas prompted by the same story – perhaps an ethnography, a field experiment, a fancy archival diff-in-diff analysis, a Levinthalian simulation. We limit our impact if we keep our topics close to our chest because we don’t want anyone else to do what we are doing. A year after my first dissertation article appeared in print, another article in a different journal appeared that examined essentially the same dependent variable for the same population – and it read completely different from mine. Your training, theoretical inclinations, methodological preferences, and crew of advisors will ensure that your version will be unique.

Third, ideas are improved when you talk with colleagues who have a different perspective and training. Your work, and ultimate impact in the field, will be broader and deeper as you engage in conversations with people studying different aspects of the field. Colleagues in accounting might be doing cool topic models of analyst calls; operations friends might have insights into supply chain transparency; the economist down the hall might know of a pristine data source on wage changes over time that are perfect for your project. Diversity makes us smarter.

Finally, remember that thinking and collaborating across boundaries is a good thing. You should embrace it. While the life of an academic may often seem solitary, that is a perception, and thus in some cases reality, that we need to change. Talk to practitioners. Talk to colleagues in other countries. Get out and talk with others!

Understanding and practicing these four takeaways will help you grow as an academic and collectively ensure we realize greater impact.

One comment on “News You Can Use: How Staying in Touch with the World Improves Your Problem Sense

  1. Hi Jerry,
    A lot of great insights! Thank you so much for sharing these pieces of advice with us who are struggling after the comprehensive exam. The struggle is real, but as you suggested, there is hope in adopting a more diverse approach to thinking about our work.

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