An Open Letter on the COVID-19 Crisis to Young Social Science Scholars

I believe we are on the precipice of transformational research.

During this current period of isolation I have had time to reflect about the fact that I have not had a chance to speak my graduate students face-to-face. It is an absence that many faculty and their advisees share, whether their relationship is formal or informal. With that in mind, I want to take this opportunity to share some thoughts that hopefully resonate with other faculty advisers, PhD students, and recently minted PhD’s.

We are immersed in a century-defining moment. It is horrible and terrifying. But I believe that it can lead to you being a generation of scholars who will help to transform how we think about the world. The last 15 years has had many unprecedented events worldwide, enough to push us to ask new questions or to more seriously interrogate old answers. And today, the world is not what it seems, but we still have a need to understand it, and through it to understand ourselves. You wouldn’t be a PhD student if you didn’t already feel this at some level. My point: I believe we are on the precipice of transformational research.

Damon J Phillips
This open letter from Damon J. Phillips first appeared on his account at Medium and is reposted here by permission. At Medium, Professor Phillips lists himself as “Husband. Father. Professor. Sociologist in a B-School. Writer. Fan of Jazz and Most Music. Admirer of the Truth.”

One reason why I feel this way is because my favorite body of research is the social psychology and sociology from World War II to the early ’70s. It is an era, at least in my mind, when social scientists struggled with trying to understand mankind with hopes of making us better humans. WWII highlighted some of the worst of who we could be as humans, and fueled the scholars at the time to understand what was going on. Why do we have negative feelings about someone different from ourselves? What makes us conform, even to criminal behavior? Why might we ignore people who are suffering? Why do we sometimes dehumanize others? Under what conditions can we break these tendencies? How can we cooperate and collaborate if we distrust one another?

So my view is that a very troubled period in history pushed scholars to ask critical questions, and in attempting to answer those questions the scholars helped to profoundly reshape society.

I believe we are at another point in history. The COVID-19 virus is a catastrophic occurrence that will reshape our lives, but it isn’t just the virus. It’s the 2008–09 recession, rising inequality, rising oceans, a new geopolitical equilibrium. But it is also rapid technological advancements and an increasingly global society.

I think that this suggests that you happen to be coming along in a new era that will be stressful to live through, but also one that will fuel the best of our scholarship. In the coming years and decades there will be an urgency around different questions framed by our current crises. I don’t think this means that you will pursue completely different topics in this immediate moment. It takes time to collectively process what we are going through. But it might mean a few things if I am right:

  • We should all actively work on improving and protecting our mental and emotional health. There is no hiding the fact that we are in a tough period and we want to do our best to maintain our focus, sanity, and ability to be there for one another. A good consequence of good mental and emotional health is that we also become better scholars.
  • Don’t lose sight of your goals. In times like this some graduate students lose motivation, like our research pales in comparison with the real immediate needs of society. On top of that the job market will likely be immensely stressful in the next few years with fewer jobs available. The anxiety and loss of motivation is understandable and can even cloud your judgment. But give yourself time to process individually and with others. Who knows, you may conclude that the world needs people to step back and try to answer more fundamental questions that we previously ignored, or theories that are woefully incomplete. There might be questions that we hadn’t considered before. Sorting this out could take years to wrap our heads around, for some it might involve a good chunk of your career.
  • A related point is this: if you had a good research project for your dissertation before the virus and coming economic downturn, it is still a good topic! Don’t make the mistake of pursing a “COVID-19” dissertation unless you were already doing something that speaks to this. Keep in mind that many of the challenges raised during WWII were addressed over the subsequent 25–30 years. The impact of that global event unfolded over several careers. In this way your impact may be a post-dissertation topic. It could be a post-tenure topic. It may even be something that not you but your future PhD protégé will advance.
  • Keep thinking about what’s going on, constantly interrogating with the conceptual, methodological, and empirical tools we currently have. This, especially for those like me in a business school, includes the role of organizations, their founders, those who run them, and those impacted by them. It includes the societies, markets, and cultures that organizations are embedded in — which are all evolving at this time.
  • Intently listen to a diverse set of people about what we are collectively going through. Not just to those in the academic community, and not just to business and policy leaders, but also to the barista, the police officer, flight attendant, caregiver, small business owner, the unemployed, the delivery person, etc. Listen and take notes. Combined with your own instincts, interests and skills there may be fertile ground for transformative ideas to emerge in the coming months and years.

I’ll close with this: I have faith in your generation of scholars. And whether I work with you directly or not, a big part of my passion is doing what I can to lift the future members of our profession. The important thing for you is that I am one of many scholars who are invested in your success. So, when you hit those difficult moments know that there are a host of (imperfect) angels around to help you succeed.

Thanks and take care,

Damon J. Phillips
Lambert Family Professor of Social Enterprise
Co-Director, Tamer Center for Social Enterprise
Columbia University — Columbia Business School

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Damon J. Phillips

Damon J. Phillips is the Lambert Family Professor of Social Enterprise. He received his PhD from Stanford University. Before joining Columbia in 2011, he was on the faculty of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business (from 1998-2011). During the 2010-2011 academic year he was a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University. Professor Phillips has expertise in social structural approaches to labor and product markets, entrepreneurship, innovation, organizational strategy and structure, as well as social network theory and analysis.

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