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Howard Aldrich’s advice for young organizational scholars

Howard Aldrich, a man who needs no introduction, has written a new book about entrepreneurship and evolutionary theory. He’s also written a blog post at the publisher’s website discussing some of the book’s key insights and detailing his own intellectual journey as a sociologist who has embraced entrepreneurship as a topic of study. It’s really interesting.  Everyone should go read his blog post.

In addition to providing a really fascinating look into the mind of Howard Aldrich, in his post he offers some sage advice to young organizational scholars. It’s such good advice I thought I’d cross-post it here:

  1. Think in terms of long-term projects, especially if you are studying dynamic processes that take some time to unfold. Cross-sectional studies provide snapshots of the way things are at a moment in time, but most contemporary theorizing concerns mechanisms and emergent processes that must be studied over time. Many of my projects involved data collection that extended over 4 to 6 years, with analysis and writing requiring several more years. Luckily, I had a portfolio of projects, some of which came to fruition earlier than others and thus I never lacked things to do!
  2. Think in terms of cumulative work that builds one paper on top of another, as a project matures over its planned life. In this age of “salami-publishing” – chopping bigger projects into smaller chunks and then publishing the smaller bits as independent papers – scholars often forget that such behavior cannot go undetected.  Independent observers of someone’s career take notice of suboptimal publishing patterns and are likely to discount a project’s worth, if its contributions are diluted by being parceled out in dribs and drabs. Instead, focus on establishing theoretical and empirical continuity across your work.
  3. Pay attention to what others are doing and find ways to link your work to theirs. With tools such as Google Scholar, citation alerts, table of content alerts, and other technologically-enhanced ways of keeping track of work in your field, you can enhance the impact of your own contributions by showing how it relates to the emerging state of the art.
  4. Most research projects in organization and management studies are multi-disciplinary, especially in entrepreneurship. Keep up with key work in other disciplines working on the same or similar issues, attend conferences, read their journals, and seek other people with diverse competencies to work with you on your long-term projects.

I really like his second point about the cumulative contribution of your work.   One of the travesties of contemporary scholarly contribution metrics is that we have substituted quantity of publications for cumulative contribution. We assume that somebody with 5-6 publications in “A” journals has made a contribution, irrespective of the content of that work or how it aggregates into larger themes. Personally, I’d like to see more younger scholars who are actively laying out a theoretical and empirical agenda that builds on itself over time and who think less about how they can get their next AMJ paper published. Of course, making that a winning strategy is best done in a context where tenure committees actually read the work and make thoughtful assessments of quality rather than just counting lines on a CV.

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Written by brayden king

February 8, 2013 at 8:27 pm

9 Responses

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  1. Thank you for sharing such wonderful pieces of advice, Brayden.

    The idea of building “empirical and theoretical continuity across your work” seems very daunting to me, though I see it in the oeuvre of many senior scholars who eventually come to define a field. I might be looking at this advice at much too early a stage in my academic life, being a graduate student with little in the way of a coherent, professional identity to try to express across multiple projects. But, I wonder how accumulation happens and the ways in which individual-level accumulation is good for the discipline.

    Writing reflexively, Howard Aldrich presents his trajectory as a series of fortunate accidents in many ways. And, issues of autobiographical narrative structure aside, it seems that path dependency in research interests and field of study is important to consistency across projects. But, Aldrich himself says that the book came from post hoc looking for common threads among his projects well after his various papers were published. So, how Aldrich managed to make a coherent, cumulative career is ambiguous.

    At the same time, when I think of the most coherent people across their work, Jeffrey Alexander, David Meyer, and Michael Hannan are the kinds of people who come to mind. As valuable as their careers have been, they do seem constrained by a narrowed focus in a way that people like Art Stinchcombe, Harrison White, and Charles Tilly do not. We might all become Alexanderians tomorrow and Harrison White might publish a book on general theory without any math, but there’s something different about the accumulation David Meyer has achieved and that achieved by Tilly, and I’m interested in hearing your thoughts about what those differences are and their implications for the discipline.

    I fully agree with the notion that we should reward people who publish work that builds on their research cumulatively rather than simply how many publications they have. My question is really how we go about planning a cumulative career and what kind of accumulation we would want for the discipline.

    Thanks for such an engaging post,
    Jason

    Jason Radford

    February 9, 2013 at 6:32 am

  2. Sorry, correction: John Meyer, not David Meyer.

    I’ve done too much with social movements.

    Jason Radford

    February 9, 2013 at 6:56 am

  3. Jason, Great comment and good questions. My first reaction to this is that none of the people you wrote about in your comment are people who failed to establish a programmatic research agenda. I definitely don’t want to come across as saying that I think scholars would be better being very narrow. You can have a broad research agenda that is still focused and builds cumulatively. Charles Tilly is a great example of that. His perspective allowed him to write about revolutions, social movements and inequality (just to mention a few). A clear Tilly-ian perspective shone through all of it. Similarly, even though you could argue that Mike Hannan’s theoretical approach is more narrow, it has proven to be quite versatile in allowing us to make generalizations about different kinds of organizational populations. And Hannan has certainly evolved over time. Just look compare his most recent book to his writings with John Freeman in 1984!

    Your point about post-hoc rationalization of career choices is also really interesting. I definitely don’t want to come across as saying we shouldn’t evolve. I am the last person to say that you should develop a plan for your career in year one of grad school and plunge ahead without correction. That’s not how my career has gone. Our careers and research interests evolve over time, as Howard’s essay nicely demonstrates. My point was just that you shouldn’t see publishing as an end in itself but rather publishing is a means to developing a set of ideas and putting them on the public record as a stamp of who we are as scholars and what we have to say to the world. It means following a set of ideas across a series of papers. It means letting one idea lead to the next. I don’t think it entails getting narrower and narrower over time. If you look at the careers of the scholars you described in your comment, it also means letting those ideas take you in unexpected directions at times. But if you’re paying attention to the ideas that emerge in your own research, you’re going to inevitably go down a few surprising rabbit holes because new puzzles and problems present themselves all the time in the course of a research project.

    brayden king

    February 9, 2013 at 2:43 pm

  4. Bryaden, do you remember a few years ago when we had that discussion about “pushing your cookie?” Jason, I think, is referring to scholars who dedicate their careers pushing their Big Idea. That’s different than developing “continuity.” Take Michael Hannan – essentially every major paper he has written is essentially defining, testing, debating, or reinventing some version of ecological theory. That’s different than someone like Art Stinchcombe who hits a lot of different topics, even though his writings still have his “personality” imprinted on them.

    While history rewards cookie pushers, I am not persuaded that it is good for science.It sounds cool to have continuity in your CV, but that is not important. The only important thing is finding out the Truth. If you happen to have an idea that continually generates knowledge during your entire career, great. But you should drop it if it doesn’t pan out. Did we really need the 14th book from Parsons on structuralism? Or the 23rd ecology article from Hannan? or the 8th book from Meyer on world polity?

    I conclude with an apocryphal story about orgtheory gawd Ron Coase. Allegedly, he went to a job talk at Chicago and a colleague said: “Ron, isn’t it interesting that this job candidate has more publications than you?”

    Coase: “Sure, but mine are all different.”

    fabiorojas

    February 10, 2013 at 4:25 am

  5. Brayden, in your 2:43 pm posting, you nailed it! I can only quote with approval:

    “My point was just that you shouldn’t see publishing as an end in itself but rather publishing is a means to developing a set of ideas and putting them on the public record as a stamp of who we are as scholars and what we have to say to the world. It means following a set of ideas across a series of papers. It means letting one idea lead to the next. I don’t think it entails getting narrower and narrower over time. If you look at the careers of the scholars you described in your comment, it also means letting those ideas take you in unexpected directions at times. But if you’re paying attention to the ideas that emerge in your own research, you’re going to inevitably go down a few surprising rabbit holes because new puzzles and problems present themselves all the time in the course of a research project.”

    People like Art Stinchcombe (have you seen my essay with Taintian Yang in a recent Entrepeneurship Research Journal paper on “What Did Stinchcombe Really Mean?”) and Karl Weick pursue BIG ideas across their papers & we’re all better off for it. Those guys are my heroes when it goes to challenging us to think “big thoughts.” As I wrote in my essay, I’ve been fortunate in finding support for empirical projects that, in some cases, lasted a decade from start to finish, but I’ve also chased rabbits down holes (to use your metaphor) when they crossed my path! One reason for collecting a bunch of my essays in one place is that I’ve found many people aren’t aware of the range of stuff on which I’ve written, e.g. most of my OT friends have no idea I published a bunch of papers on race, small business, and ecological succession back in the 1970s. (Probably still don’t!)

    Jason, to be clear: I wasn’t talking about “planning a career” but rather focusing on building a cumulative body of work. A “career” is what we see in our rear view mirrors, as Karl might say.

    Howard Aldrich

    February 10, 2013 at 5:01 am

  6. When grad students discuss possible topics for their dissertation, I’ve always asked grad students if they will enjoy living with their topics for many years after completing the dissertation – with the time and effort it takes to prepare publications, research projects are often long-standing commitments, much like raising children or caring for elders. (In rare cases, research projects may come to a “natural” end because research sites close.)
    Thanks for your follow-up comment and for sharing the “back story” for your research, Howard.
    Brayden, your comment about quantifying publications as a proxy for impact reminds me of the Steven Kerr’s classic article “On the folly of rewarding A, while hoping for B.” Worth a re-read for understanding the perversions of incentive systems.

    KatherineKChen

    February 12, 2013 at 4:38 pm

  7. Katherine, you’re welcome! Your point about long-standing projects being like “raising children” struck a responsive chord in me. My 2 adult children are around 40 years old, and I’m STILL involved in giving them advice (although now it works both ways…).
    I don’t see the comment from Brayden that you referenced — “quantifying publications” — and so I’m wondering if you were referring to Jason’s post?

    Howard Aldrich

    February 12, 2013 at 5:12 pm

  8. Sorry, I meant Brayden’s last paragraph in his post, not his comment.

    KatherineKChen

    February 12, 2013 at 7:42 pm

  9. [...] as much as i am this one. _____ *While we’re here, i also had Howard Aldrich’s advice post “bookmarked” and highly recommend it as [...]

    scooped? | re-musing

    February 27, 2013 at 7:38 am


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