Started on November 19 until 21, RENT XXVIII (Research in Entrepreneurship and Small Business) was my first conference I had attended. It was a great experience. Not only because I was one of the participants, but also because I was quite involved in organizing the conference. People were generally satisfied with the conference, which I found to be quite relieving given that our team—the organizer—are rather spartan. Only 5 or 6 people organizing the whole event. Small team but solid.
Anyway, here are my takeaways.
As a newbie in the circle of entrepreneurship research, I started to experience how it feels to be connected to the leading scholars. It’s true, your proximity to these people will bestow you with some degree of inspiration and motivation. When I wrote my doctoral proposal, for example, I was largely inspired by Mats Alvesson’s writings on organizational culture. At the conference, I did not have the chance to see Mats (and he wasn’t attending the conference either), but what I did have a chance was to meet Daniel Hjorth—Mats Alvesson and Bengt Johannisson were his supervisors back in his PhD days. It’s not the source, but despite that I felt there was energy emanating from him to me (no exaggeration intended).
For Bengt, I first met him when he was teaching at Jönköping International Business School (JIBS). In entrepreneurship research, he has been well-regarded and famous (among other things) for his “entrepreneuring” point of view. He was retired few years ago, but still very active in research at Linneæus University, Växjö, Sweden (I’m sure he will never stop researching). To me, he is a figure who wakes entrepreneurship, breathes entrepreneurship, sleeps entrepreneurship—literally, everything he does turns into entrepreneurship. Denise Fletcher, my supervisor, said that Bengt was the one who inspired her towards the critical perspective on entrepreneurship when she attended her first RENT conference in 1996.
The conference was held a week after Andrew Pettigrew’s seminar at JIBS. From the hindsight, I see these two events as an eye opener. First, that I got to meet the scholars whose writings I can only read before. Meeting these people in person and have a dialogue with them really helps to motivate and inspire you. You began to see a wider landscape of entrepreneurship research (and researchers). Second, because you are connected with these people, you started to contemplate on your potential as a doctoral student in the field—what kind of career do you want to choose and what kind of impact do you want to make.
When you meet the teachers of your teachers, you feel like you are in the lineage of something. You feel like being part of the family.
Naïvety or bravery?
I tend to raise this question whenever I had a chance to seek advice from people. As a (doctoral) student, I think we are fated to be naive. Because the lack of experience, we may think big but occasionally failed to appreciate the difficulty in achieving that goals. We know little but act as if we can change the world.
Is there any way to reduce this? How can we know that our research idea is a form of bold and brave thinking, or is it a naive shot of the inexperienced? How can we be brave while being not too naive?
“That’s a hard question,” replied Daniel Hjorth. “But the kind of readings you read will help you.”
More specifically, reading about philosophy. Well, Daniel doesn’t recommend us to read Foucault or Bourdieu directly from the source. Not only that it is difficult to read, but there are some language that we (non-philosophy student) simply don’t have the vocabulary. Instead, it is advised that we read interpretation of such and such authors.
By understanding the philosophical grounding of your research, it will help you to be sensitive about the knowledge about knowledge. It is the critical quality when you are able to distance yourself from your thinking and see how you see yourself.
But please be careful when you are absolutely sure about your way of thinking. When your way becomes the way. That is a sign that things get settled. And when you are settled, you stop to appreciate other alternatives. And when you stop, you don’t make progress. Conviction is necessary for the faith to blossom, but doubt is needed for the faith to be healthy and sustainable.
Bengt took a slightly different angle to answer these. As a doctoral student, he said, you are not expected to change the world. Well, of course you need to make a contribution. But the expectation for contribution is certainly less than the professors in the field. They need to change the world.
Rather, at the very basic, you have to learn the craft. The basic skills of research, writing, and presenting the work. These are the homework that you have to master before you can start being ‘playful’. Just like when Mozart ‘improvises’ on Salieri’s composition, he needs to master Salieri’s composition first before playing around with it.
But can we really play as a student? Bengt once talked about how his students commented to him, “You are a professor, you can do whatever you want. But we are just a student [so we have rules to obey].”
It is difficult to improvise when we don’t grasp the rudiments of research. By mastering the basics, we will be able to see how the current practice could be changed—that would be our own angle. No one learns the same way (even from the same teacher). It is our own framing and interpretation of a phenomenon which makes our thoughts unique. Which we hope will be our contribution.
Where would you go from here: The triangle of career, institution and publication
In the end, as a doctoral student, you are faced with one pressing question: where do you want to go after your PhD life?
Yes, there is life after PhD, said Martin Hannibal.
Together with Steffen Korsgaard, they kicked-off the pre-conference event with a doctoral workshop, something of a tradition within the RENT conference. There they gave their straight-forward and pragmatic point of view on the relationship between career choice, the institution that you are working, and the pressure for publication. I found this to be fresh and revealing. It was more like an honest conversation between the seniors and juniors.
If you prefer to settle down in the university where you are working, then you need to conform with the institutional system, understand the formal and informal rules, accept some degree of teaching responsibility, and aim less for publishing. Or maybe you prefer to work at the best business school in Europe or the US? That’s fine too. Then you need to get published on the A+ journal (presumably with less teaching load) while it is not really necessary to conform with the institution (given that you will move pretty fast between different institutions). For those who are in between, good luck balancing the two.
For me the message is clear: (1) you need to ask yourself what is valuable for you, and (2) you need to find it early in the process. Because whatever that is, it will affect any decision you will make about your research, your publication, and your career.
Again, it was a great experience. With now the conference is over, it is time to get back to work, read, and write. I hope by the next conference I can have something that I can present. As a present.