So, what's your PhD about…

Featured image by “Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham,

“Your introduction scares me” my supervisor, a 50+ year old typical introverted researcher, told me after reading the draft of my PhD introduction. “Forget the literature and just write to a general audience, for example, to your grandmother.” Cliche advice I thought. My grandma doesn’t speak English, what shall I do with that piece of information?

But instead of succumbing to the urge of including 10,000 citations in the introduction and frightening my supervisor again, I gave it a try:

Think about a team you worked in before. Doesn’t matter if you liked it or not. Just pick one. Who was on the team? What did you had to do? Did you meet the goal or even exceeded expectations? How did the meetings go? Were they long and dreadful or passing by fast and regenerating you? Got it? Great!

My PhD is about why you asked a specific team member for information, or not.  When teams are formed you have an idea of what others know. You make assumptions based on their role in the team, their job title, gender, age, hierarchy etc. Repeated interaction allows you to get a better understanding of their expertise. But knowing their expertise is not enough, you also need to understand how it contributes to the team’s product: Valuing their expertise is therefore critical, even more than knowing their expertise domains. This is good, as in one of the teams I observed (hospital teams), nurses felt they did not know what doctors knew, but valued their expertise nevertheless.

So far, it sounds pretty straight forward. You need to know their expertise and value it before you can ask somebody for information. But, what about personal motivation to ask for information? Think, when did you knew that your expertise is needed, but nobody asked you? One reason could be the costs associated with asking you. Are you hard to reach? Do you mostly work from home? Or could it be that you are seen as different by your team members? By being (perceived as) different, you are not part of their group. You are automatically excluded and seen as a out-group member. Reason enough to limit interaction with you.

But what if this is not the case. You are not (that much) different? Your team had a great team spirit. On the emotional side, everything was fine. Cognitive forces could then be at play. Your team members maybe didn’t realize that they needed your expertise. It isn’t that they didn’t value it, but that they thought the situation is normal and they have all the necessary resources to deal with it. You were never asked for your input, because they did not know that your input was needed. In order words, they were blind to their lack of knowledge.

Let’s summarize, you need to know the expertise of others, you need to value their expertise, you need to believe that you are part of the same group, and you need to realize that you need information from someone else. But asking for information does not happen in a vacuum. You see your team members asking other’s for information. There is a network of information exchange happening around you, like information highways running parallel and at times crossing each other. This network influences how often and whom you ask for information. For example, where I worked, we had this great person who was always willing to help. We knew to not ask him anything technical, but on content, research methodology, presentations and so on, his help was magnificent. Needless to say, a lot of people asked him for information. In network terms: He was popular and at the center of our information seeking network.

Now, in my context, asking for information normally happens between two people (I know it’s a simplification of reality…). When you are asking for information, you’ll be addressing the expert in the team. But asking for information can also happen between three people. Imagine you are sharing the office with 2 other people, Ben and Jenny. You trusts Jenny’s expertise and it is important for your work. So you ask her for information. Over time, you notice that Jenny asks Ben for information. You think “Ben knows something that Jenny wants to know. I’m relying on Jenny’s expertise, so as Jenny is relying on Ben’s expertise, I should start to also ask Ben for his input.” (As a side note, we call this a balanced structure).

Lastly, when you think about asking for information, you most probably imagine two people interacting (reciprocal communication). But, taking again the example of you sharing an office with Ben and Jenny, your request of information, let’s say to Ben, can be interrupted by Jenny (Jenny may have the perfect answer, and doesn’t give Ben the time to talk). That’s the last network effect I’m looking at and we call it turn-usurping.

Now you have all the pieces of my PhD puzzle. Nobody likes a puzzle with a missing piece.missing_piece

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