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

Management Professor Damon J. Phillips explains how this global crisis will spur groundbreaking scholarship. 

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During this current period of isolation, I have not had a chance to speak with my graduate students face-to-face. With that in mind, I want to take this opportunity to share some thoughts that will hopefully resonate with other faculty advisors, PhD students, and recently minted PhDs.

We are immersed in a century-defining moment. It is horrible and terrifying. But I believe that it can lead to a generation of scholars who will help to transform how we think about the world. The last 15 years have had many unprecedented events worldwide, pushing us to ask new questions and interrogate old answers. 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. I believe we are on the precipice of transformational research.

My favorite body of research is the social psychology and sociology from WWII to the early 70s. It is an era when social scientists struggled with trying to understand mankind in hopes of making us better humans. WWII highlighted some of the worst of humankind and fueled the scholars at the time to try to understand what was going on. This very troubled period in history pushed scholars to ask critical questions, and as a result, to help reshape society.

I believe we are at another such 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 2008–2009 recession, rising inequality, rising oceans, and a new geopolitical equilibrium. But it is also rapid technological advancements and an increasingly global society.

You are in a new era that will be stressful to live through, but it is also one that will fuel the best scholarship. In the coming years and decades, there will be an urgency around different questions framed by our current crises. This doesn’t mean you need to pursue completely different topics of study in this immediate moment, but I will offer some advice:

  • You should actively work on improving and protecting your 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 if they feel their work is not important. There also might be anxiety over a lack of jobs available in the coming years. These feelings are understandable and can cloud your judgment, but give yourself time to process individually and with others. You may conclude that the world needs more people to step back and try to answer fundamental questions that we previously ignored, or theories that are woefully incomplete.
  • If you had a good research project for your dissertation before COVID-19, it’s still a good topic! Don’t make the mistake of pursuing 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.
  • Keep thinking about what’s going on and constantly interrogate with the conceptual, methodological, and empirical tools you have. This 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. Don’t just listen to those in the academic community or just to business and policy leaders. Listen to the barista, police officer, flight attendant, caregiver, small-business owner, the unemployed individual, the delivery person, etc. Listen and take notes. There may be fertile ground for transformative ideas to emerge in the coming months and years.

I have faith in your generation of scholars. 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 is that I am one of many scholars who are invested in your success. So, when you hit those difficult moments, know that there is a host of (imperfect) angels around to help you succeed.

Thanks and take care,

Damon J. Phillips

A version of this article originally appeared on Medium.com.

About the researcher

Damon 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...

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