How to go from black tie to bathing suit? Gendered reflections on conference processes that shape our careers

By Luzan Koster & Thijs Willems | Reading time: 8 minutes

For many scholars, summer time means conference time. In winter we write an engaging abstract or paper to get accepted for a relevant conference. In summer we present our work to our scientific community who can challenge our line of thought. We hop from conference room to conference room to attend the presentations of others and engage in stimulating conversations during breaks and social events. Indeed, participating in conferences entails learning how to become a scholar and includes network activities that help sharpening our paper’s argument. The process therefore is a valuable and vital part of our work. But is this process as easy breezy as it sounds?

Smart debating does not only take place in the formal setting of conference buildings. Participants meet in various foreign countries, where one location is even more exotic than the other. In fact, so we argue in this blog, the informal events during conferences may potentially mark how our careers unfold. During such events, the boundaries between the formal/informal and professional/personal become blurred. This should urge us to be more aware of our role and that of others during conferences. We address this issue from one specific perspective: we show how our gender may shape how informal events at conferences are experienced.

Sunny setting

The following story takes place with the beautiful emerald blue Ionian Sea as its background. Here, at a yearly symposium, scholars gather to overthink theory and methods based on the theme ‘Process Philosophy’. The protagonists of the story are two PhD students, one male and the other female, who try to find subtle and sometimes not so subtle ways to blend in with ‘the professionals’. The convenor opens with: “This is not just a conference but a symposium, emphasizing the importance of good food, drinks, and company”. Work goals and holiday moods might seem contradictory, but scholars widely agree that the open and relaxed atmosphere is inspiring. Yet, it may be hard to follow work ethics when you are invited to after curriculum activities…

Conference evening of a woman: “Gender trouble”!

Tonight is the conference dinner, so I do my hair and put on a black springy gown. The long dress has a closed neckline and small see-through at the back, nothing too revealing. There normally are no strict dress codes, but most women do their best and bring their party clothes. When my Dutch colleagues and I arrive at the open-air venue, almost all tables covered with white linen at the seaside are already taken. The last table is held by only one man, so we ask if we can join him. We start talking and laughing, and when his group of friends arrives, we mingle. It turns out, the man is a renowned professor, but hierarchical positions do not matter now.

We move to a beach club to have more drinks. Everyone gets a big summery cocktail and sits down at the luxurious lounge. One of our new friends starts chartering everyone to go for a dive in the sea under the moonlight. While our group of the evening seems to have no problem to take their suits off, the rest of the conference participants raise their eyebrows. I feel somewhere in between, which presents a dilemma. On one hand, I do not want to be a spoiler and break the newly forged bond with an interesting group of scholars. On the other hand, I wonder how the image of my half naked body could harm my reputation in this scientific community! I hear a splash; the professor has dived in.

Conference evening of a man: Free your mind

Getting back to my room after an exhausting conference day, I take a cold shower to cool off. I unpack my suitcase to select the most fitting attire for tonight’s conference dinner. But what to wear? Stay on the safe side and wear something formal and too warm for the Mediterranean summer nights? “They won’t dislike me because of my choice of clothes”, I convince myself, “and besides, I’m a man and they would probably respect my laissez-fair attitude”. I hop on my comfortable short and airy t-shirt, and a few minutes later I am sipping a lovely local white wine with colleagues. Once seated, I notice that, while most women are dressed in a similar style as the luxurious setting of the restaurant, the other men wear their shorts, sandals, and half open shirts too.

At our table, theoretical approaches are casually merged in dinnertime stories. A heated discussion arises on Judith Butler’s ideas of ‘gender performativity’, referring to the fact that our gender is not given by nature, but very much socially constructed; the meaning of gender is created by humans as we act according to socially accepted and desired behavior. We leave the issue and move to the seaside bar where waves rhythmically hit the shore. When my mojito is almost finished, some part of our crew has raised the idea of a midnight swim. I waver for a second, hesitant to the idea of taking off my clothes in front of future colleagues. But the crowd clearly expects me to show some bravery, and shouts: “Come on man, don’t worry too much”. We jump in.

“Bodies that matter”: normative chains?

The work of Judith Butler (1990, 2011) shows that our gendered behavior is always to some extent prescribed by roles, gestures, clothing, and speech that are socially desired, depending on our male or female body. Our stories above indeed reflect how our body and gender influenced our thoughts, doubts, emotions, and choices for action. Whereas females usually ‘have to’ behave according to some undefined feminine standard, their scholarly male counterparts can break the rules as this portrays some undefined sense of ‘masculinity’. A woman may be frowned upon when dropping her dress, showing her body, to dive into the water, while a man may be applauded for having the guts to do so.

In no way, of course, we mean to say that women are determined to behave as women, and neither that there would only be one way that a man is expected to behave. The variations are endless and gender comes in many different shapes. However, what we want to address with this blog is that conferences are not some self-evident trips just for fun (in Dutch: ‘snoepreisjes’). When it comes to informal events at conferences, it matters ‘who we are’ and ‘how we are seen’. Especially so when we consider that there may be a difference, or tension even, between who we are as a scholar and who we are in private time. There are certain rules and expectations we should be aware of, which can play out differently for men and women.

In the process of becoming a scholar, PhD’s are often asked what kind of scholar we want to be. Seniors advise us to carefully think through our written work and to reflect on producing novel, exiting work as opposed to automatically following the main stream. However, what about informal factors? Who we meet at conferences affects our research perspectives and interests, opportunities for future projects and jobs. If conferences and informal networking are career changers, do we really have a choice to break conventions? What are the consequences if we do or don’t? How do these choices differ for men and women?

We hope this blog has inspired you to better reflect on your own role during informal events. For now: Happy conference season! 

Luzan Koster is a PhD candidate in the department of Organization Science. Her research focuses on ‘the interpretation of the new discourse by patients, professionals and informal caregivers and on the way this affects their identities‘.

Thijs Willems is a PhD candidate in the department of Organization Science. His research focuses on ‘The role of collaborative routines during disruptions in the Dutch railway system’. 


Butler, J. (1990). Gender trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity. New York: Routledge.

Butler, J. (2011). Bodies that matter: On the discursive limits of “sex.” London: Routledge.

Doing your first conference presentation – Tips and Tricks

By Jitske Both-Nwabuwe | reading time: 5 minutes

At one point in your PhD career you will most likely present some of your work at a conference. The first time can be scary. I know I was! It was pretty scary to fly halfway across the globe to present to people I did not know.

I had my first conference presentation at the 2nd Meaningful Work Symposium in Auckland, New-Zealand. In this blog I share my experiences and give you some tips and tricks on how to prepare and survive your first conference presentation.

Phase 1: Preparations before the conference

You got the acceptance e-mail: you are going to present at a conference!  I do not know about you, but for me – after the initial thrill – I started to worry: How am I going to pull this off? Well just follow these tips:

  • Contact your hero – fellow PhD student (if you have one)

Maybe be you have a fellow PhD student who can present very well. He or she is your hero concerning presentation skills. Well, find this fellow PhD student and ask for help.

  • Choose your key message

Usually your paper, which you are about to present, contains multiple key messages. However, you cannot tell them all! A general rule: for every key message you need 10 minutes. Try to find out how much time you will actually have and choose your key message wisely. I ended up choosing the ‘wrong’ key message. So make sure you know the reason why your article was accepted. Don’t worry if you can’t tell about everything that is important. People will ask you to share more during the round of questions. They did so after my presentation, so be prepared!

  • Use pictures

Ask yourself, what do you like to see: a picture or a sheet full of words? Right, the idiom “a picture is worth more than a thousand words” is also very true for your conference presentation. Try to use pictures instead of words. The slides are there to support your verbal message. Do not write down the whole story on your slides.

  • Make it fun

Your audience members are human beings. Human beings like to be entertained. So present your main message with some fun. This can be a story, an anecdote or a funny picture. In my case I used the anecdote of President Kennedy visiting NASA Space centre.

  • Practice for a variety of audiences

This includes practicing in front of yourself in the mirror.  Then, practice in front of your family. Most likely your family will listen and nod friendly. They will, however, not understand the message. But they can give you great feedback on the speed of your words, pronunciations, jokes etc. Also try to practice in front of your supervisors. And finally, practice in front of yourself in the mirror again. Especially when you are not a native speaker it is good to practice with pronunciations. The general rule is: practice at least three times and one time more than you think is necessary.

Phase 2: During the conference and presentation

So it is your time to present. Whether you are first or last, it does not matter. This is your moment and you should grab it. If you have practiced your presentation, you will do fine.  Here are some tips if:

  • The computer/beamer is failing.

If your presentation does not start (like mine), do not panic. Just ask for help.

  • You get difficult questions

When your presentation is finished and you get a question you cannot answer: do not panic. It is a good sign if you get questions.  People relate to your story and you made them think. Difficult questions are a good sign as well: you made them think deeply! If you do not know the answer, no problem, just ask a question in return. Can you explain?  What do you mean? And make it interactive. You are here to exchange ideas and to get feedback on your work to improve it.

Phase 3: After the presentation

Be proud (no matter how it went). You have survived and made your introduction to the scientific community! Enjoy the rest of the conference and the pub later. Connect with the people who asked questions and the other presenters. In the end this is the main purpose of presenting at conferences; getting to know colleagues in your field of expertise.

Veni, vidi, vici

So I survived my first conference presentation. Although it did not go perfectly, I had fun, got thought-provoking questions, learnt a lot, and met interesting colleagues. I hope my experiences, tips and tricks will help you to prepare and survive your first conference presentation.

For more tips on tricks on presentations you can also read the blog: ‘how to make a successful research poster‘.

Jitske Both-Nwabuwe is a PhD candidate in the Organizational Science department. Her research focuses on ‘The role of meaningful work in the sustainable employability of nurses‘.

N.B. trip was partially funded by the VU Graduate School of Social Sciences (VU-GSSS), for which I was really grateful

Social information: using the crowd to crowdfund a project

claire_teunenbroekBy Claire van Teunenbroek / Reading Time: 4 Minutes

In figure 1 you can see the famous Cloud Gate of Chicago designed by Anish Kapoor, or as it is more commonly referred to ‘the Kidney Bean’ at the Millennium Park. I took this picture during my conferences-attending in Chicago and I was personally quite impressed by this picture. It looks really ‘arty’, doesn’t it? At first, I felt really foolish taking a picture of a giant bean while trying to maneuver the camera is such a way that you could see me in the reflection of the bean. You could also say that I felt uncertain if it was appropriate to be so self-centered. However, when I looked around I concluded that it was more than ok since everyone was doing it. In other words, the behavior of others decreased my uncertainty and I, therefore, felt more comfortable with my one behavior.  Essentially, this is a very practical explanation of the effect of ‘social information’.


Figure 1

Social information is simply described as any information concerning the behaviour of other individuals and tells you about what is normal in a given situation. For example, think again about the situation of the Kidney Bean. The individuals around me were also taking selfies, which informed me that it was normal to do so. The Kidney Bean has served a nice example which will help us move onto the main theme of this blog: philanthropic crowdfunding. Philanthropic crowdfunding is a funding method that uses an online context, meaning that donors can make their donations online. Crowdfunding is more that this, but for now we will keep  this description and explain it in more details below. Philanthropic crowdfunding is not as successful in assembling money as it should and could potentially be. My goal is that of using social information ton increase the success of philanthropic crowdfunding. I have opted to focus  on one specific type of social information: the donation behaviour of previous donors.

Before I explain more about social information, I will first define what I mean with philanthropic crowdfunding. Philanthropic crowdfunding is a way of assembling money online using an open call, meaning that anyone can make a donation. Crowdfunding builds on a large group of individuals, who each make a small donation, ultimately contributing to assembling a larger amount. If you make a donation at a philanthropic crowdfunding platform like Voordekunst, you will not receive a financial return. However, you might receive a small token of appreciation, but the value of the token is smaller than your donation. Meaning that you give more (in money terms) than you receive. In other words: it is philanthropic. But ultimately, can we increase the donations by adding social information?

I would like to live-test my idea with you! So, let’s see how you would react to social information on the donation behaviour of previous donors. Please imagine the following situation: after looking at my inspiring picture and description of the Kidney Bean art sculpture you are persuaded to make a donation to an art project. You have heard about a site called Voordekunst, which assembles money for art projects. On this site you find an interesting art project and start reading the project description.

Screen Shot 2016-05-23 at 11.50.44

You notice that the project’s information mentions that the average donation amount of this project is 80 euros (depicted in figure 2). Based on previous research, (e.g. Shang & Croson, 2009, Martin & Randal, 2008) we expect you to increase your donation amount, to more closely resemble the social information the website has provided you with (mention of 80 euros). What do you think, would you be persuaded by the crowd? Be honest, would you have changed your donation amount?

Screen Shot 2016-05-23 at 11.51.05

By using social information I would then use the social power of the crowd to increase the success of crowdfunding. Researchers have also found that if you are a woman you are likely to be more influenced by social information, while men are less affected (Klinowski, 2015). Additionally, if you are a new donor you are also more likely to be affected by social information (Shang & Croson, 2009), since they are assumed to be more uncertain about the amount they should/would donate. However, the effect of social information is not unlimited. What I mean by this is that if the amount mentioned (in our example it was 80 euros) is too high (for example 300 euros), you would most likely not be influenced by this amount (Croson & Shang, 2013; Shang & Croson, 2006).

To sum it up, I want to use social information to increase the donations individuals donate at a philanthropic crowdfunding platform. I expect that confronting (potential) donors with the donation behaviour of previous donors increases the success of crowdfunding projects.

What do you think, is adding such a small amount of extra information enough to increase one’s donation amount?

Claire van van Teunenbroek MSc is a PhD Candidate at the Department of Organization Sciences and works closely together with the Department of Philanthropy. Her research project is about developing and testing multiple techniques to increase the success of philanthropic crowdfunding. 


Croson, R., & Shang, J. (2013). Limits of the effect of social information on the voluntary provision of public goods: Evidence from field experiments. Economic Inquiry, 51(1), 473–477. doi:10.1111/j.1465-7295.2012.00468.x

Klinowski, D. (2015). Reluctant donors and their reactions to social information. Retrieved from

Shang, J., & Croson, R. (2006). The impact of social comparisons on nonprofit fund raising. Research in Experimental Economics, 11, 143–156.

Shang, J., & Croson, R. (2009). A Field Experiment in Charitable Contribution: The Impact of Social Information on the Voluntary Provision of Public Goods. The Economic Journal, 119(540), 1422–1439.


Congratulations to Dr. Adina Nerghes!!

By Socializing Science / Watching Time: 10 Minutes

On March 29, 2016 Adina Nerghes successfully defended her Phd thesis entitled “Words in Crisis: A relational perspective of emergent meanings and roles in text.. In her own words, Adina explains her research: Can we infer rich information from `big text data’? And how can we use text-analytical methods to infer such rich information from large text collections with different characteristics? These are some of the questions that guided the aims and outcomes of her research.

For more information on Adina Nerghes, visit her website   at :

Socializing Science would like to congratulate her and invite you all to watch her defense in this clip.

A plea for boring research (and how to make it interesting)

Thijs WillemsBy Thijs Willems / Reading Time: 8 minutes


A widely cited article from 1971 by Murray Davis starts as follows:

“It has long been thought that a theorist is considered great, not because his theories are true, but because they are interesting[1] (p. 309).

Although Davis’ claim might be provocative to some, I will not throw down this gauntlet here in this blog. Instead, I want to show how I discovered in my research that the interesting stuff is sometimes found in what at first sight may seem utterly boring or mundane. By means of pursue and persistence, the interesting can be found in the boring.

My research is about collaboration between the different railway organizations in the Netherlands. These organizations have had a rather turbulent history (see, for just one example out of many: and with all the current media-attention and public opinions about the performance of NS and ProRail, it is hard to see what exactly is boring about my research. Nonetheless, not long after I started my fieldwork I took interest in the work of train dispatchers, who are responsible for the safe and efficient coordination of trains through stations. In practice, however, most of their work is automatized and dispatchers are mostly busy with the task of monitoring. Monitoring means: lean back in your chair and watch the computer systems do your work.

this3At first sight, I hardly considered to study these monitoring practices into more detail. It was difficult for me to believe that it would be of any significance for my research. However, after observing the dispatchers for quite some time and hearing them talk about their own work, I soon realized that perhaps it is exactly these apparently boring practices that may reveal  a very interesting world of railway employees. In the end, monitoring actually became one of the topics of my research*.
Instead of ‘doing nothing’, monitoring revealed how dispatchers, by means of their computer screens, ‘see and sense’ the railways. Whereas I saw dots, numbers and lines that apparently supposed to represent the actual train service, dispatchers saw an actual, concrete railway world.

This seeing and sensing is based on the fact that many dispatchers have been working for the railways for decades and gained a massive amount of practical knowledge. This may be knowledge ranging from how railway switches work to contextual details of the landscape adjacent to the tracks. John, one of the dispatchers I studied, told me how he once guided  the police (by phone) to a location very close to the tracks where one train driver saw a group of children playing with a ball. At first instance, the police could not find the exact location, but John was able to tell them that “they had to approach the area from the other side, just in front of the sawmill, as there’s a big viaduct blocking easy access”.

Claire, another dispatcher, told me stories about her previous work as a train driver,and how this helped her in being a good dispatcher. Every other day, someone in the Netherlands commits suicide by jumping in front of a train. This can have a tremendous impact on train drivers. The dispatchers are a drivers’ first point of communication after witnessing such a horrible situation. According to Claire, she is capable of having this conversation with the driver in an efficient way (to reduce the impact of this incident for other trains) because she does so emphatically. In other words, her experience as a train driver and witnessing what it means to see someone ‘jump’, is of great influence how she does her job. These stories that lay beneath the ‘boring’ practice of monitoring, taught me how collaboration between the different organizations during disruptions is much more than what I would ever read in handbooks or manuals.

Boring stuff may make you yawn in the first instance.But, there are several strategies through which you can possibly make the boring more interesting:

  • Persist! Whenever you notice something boring, don’t walk away. It may take some time before you can appreciate your observations as more than dull. Always remember the saying: ‘Ambition is the path to success, persistence is the vehicle you arrive in’.
  • Zoom in! From a distance, boring stuff is boring. Make it more interesting by getting up and close. I can guarantee you that even the 50 most boring things in the world will eventually reveal some very unexpected insights.
  • Breach! There have been numerous scholars studying the boring and mundane after Garfinkel’s Studies in Ethnomethodology (1967), ranging from how people queue in supermarkets to how people greet each other on the streets. One of the ways these scholars reveal the interesting in the mundane, is by breaching the social norms and implicit rules to which these actions are organized. So, the next time someone asks you ‘How are you doing?’, do not reply with the standard ‘Great’ but try the following: ‘What do you mean, how am I doing? Do you mean mentally? Physically?’. I can assure you an interesting conversation will emerge.

Here you have it, my plea for boring research. I highly recommend Davis’ somewhat provocative article and hope that you will value the generation of ‘interesting’ new theory as much as the testing or verification of ‘uninteresting’ existing ones.


Garfinkel, H. (1967). Studies in Ethnomethodology. Prentice-Hall.

Davis, M. S. (1971). That’s interesting. Philosophy of the social sciences, 1(2), 309.

[1] Garfinkel, H. (1967). Studies in Ethnomethodology. Prentice-Hall.

* The paper I wrote about monitoring was presented at the Process Symposium on Kos, Greece. I would like to thank the Graduate Fund for the financial support to go there.


Thijs Willems is a Phd candidate in the Organizational Science department. His research projects focuses on ‘The role of collaborative routines during disruptions in the Dutch railway system’.




How not to drown at conferences: go out and run!

Marieke van WieringenBy Marieke van Wieringen /Reading Time: 8 Minutes

Conferences may be a one-day event, or last two or three days. When you include pre-conference workshops, which are common in some fields, conferences may even cover 5 full days. Sounds tiring? It is, in a way. Still, conferences are actually quite useful (as described by Anouk van Leeuwen in ” Is participating in academic conferences worth the time and money?“). That is, if you do not drown in the overwhelming amount of sessions, lunches, dinners, drinks and/or other social events. The question is: how? How not to drown at conferences? The simple answer: chose your sessions wisely ahead of the conference’ start.

Obviously, I have learned this the hard way myself. As a fourth year PhD student, I have attended quite some conferences. Fanatically attending every single round of sessions, I oftentimes found my attention slowly but steadily decreasing, sometimes already on the first day. Yet, this would generally not hamper me to continue in the same vein the next conference day(s). The consequence: when someone would ask me which sessions I had attended, I generally had difficulty remembering their content. Of course, I nonetheless also did learn from those sessions. However, I always needed the notes that I had made during the sessions to remember what I learned and liked exactly.

During my most recent conference visit, I decided to go about it differently. After two days of pre-conference workshops, I attended only one (to be honest, actually only half a) paper session on the third day. After that, I went for a run. Why? First of all, because I felt like it. Second, because the weather was way too good to stay inside. Third, because I was in the beautiful city of Vancouver, which is surrounded by water, ‘beaches’ and mountains, and because I was staying close to the marvelous Stanley park. From all of this, I basically had seen nothing yet. My run came with some spectacular views indeed (see below)! Fourth, and most importantly, I went for a run because there were no sessions in the program that afternoon that were of much interest to me. So why stay?


I know why you might stay, and will tell you why do not have to. To start, you may be afraid to miss out on a session that potentially could turn out to be of interest to your research after all. I know I was. However, I learned that sessions that did not grapple my intention in the program in the first place, never turned out to be interesting; on the contrary. You may also feel you have to stay because your university, graduate school, or may be even your own supervisor is paying for your visit to the conference. No worries, they will not be angry or, worse, disappointed if you wisely decide to take some time off to relax and re-energize so you can gain more from the sessions to come. If you are afraid to be caught skipping sessions by your supervisor, remember that when your supervisor finds you not attending a session, s/he is not attending either. More importantly, your supervisor has better things to do than checking on you, like enjoying the city themselves. (Make sure, though, that they come and attend the session in which you present your work!)

marieke2After my run and the afternoon off, I felt re-energized, and ready for two more days of ‘conferencing’. During these two days, I met a range of interesting people and got inspired by the sessions that I attended. Why? Because I attended the sessions that were of interest to me.

Yes, I had come prepared this time: before flying to the other side of the world, I had ploughed the program and made a selection of sessions that appealed to me. You can do the latter, for example, based on the (famous) people who will be presenting. If available, you could also have a quick reading of the papers that are presented. This will help you make informed choices, and also increase your involvement in the discussions during the sessions. Given that conference presentations generally only last 10-15 minutes there is only so much presenters can tell, and you oftentimes end up with only a hint of what a paper is actually about.

When you read the paper in advance, or have a look at previous work of the presenter, you are able to (publicly!) give intelligent comments or ask questions, which is always good at conferences, or so they say. Moreover, it will help you to get in touch with the presenters afterwards.


So, instead of attending each and every session, my humble advice is to skip some, to choose your sessions wisely, prepare for those sessions, and join the discussions. To be honest, I have not actually joined in many plenary discussions at previous conferences. However, I will definitely (try again) next time… I will keep you posted!


Marieke van Wieringen is a PhD candidate at the department of Organization Science. Her research focuses on how actors within home care organizations perceive and act upon different institutional demands in their day-to-day work.

Doubting with the stars – why doubt is actually constructive for your project

Thijs WillemsBy Thijs Willems / Reading Time: 8 minutes


It is on rainy days like today that I tend to dream away and drown in memories of past summer. While the leaves are dramatically glowing red and yellow, and I slowly but surely replace the shorts and shirts in my wardrobe with shawls and sweaters, I still see beaches, sun and cocktails. This summer was a special one for me, as I had the chance to visit a symposium in Rhodes, Greece, and a summer school in Warwick, England. These two work trips were partially funded by the VU Graduate School of Social Sciences (VU-GSSS) and offered me the great opportunity to get up close and personal with my academic ‘heroes’. You can call me naïve, but I found it very intriguing to learn that these scholars you usually only refer to in the papers you write, actually are real human beings, with a face and a personality.

I noticed one common character trait while meeting my heroes in both Rhodes and Warwick that might seem unexpected for renowned academics: They doubt a lot! This observation was particularly noteworthy in light of their academic work in peer-reviewed journals, where they appear to argue with strong convinction to the highest degree. In real life, however, they seriously dare to doubt. This revelation was a bit troubling for me. For how can we claim to be ‘doing science’ if even those scholars who are cited a mere 10,000+ times tend to doubt about their concepts and theories? However, having carefully observed my heroes during these two events I had to conclude that an attitude of doubt might actually be at the very core of academic research. Related topics have already been raised, here on Socializingscience  and other popular media, as well as by scholars critically reflecting on the status of the field of management and organization studies (Alvesson & Sandberg, 2012; Hambrick, 2007). The article by Locke, Golden-Biddle and Feldman (2008) put things in perspective by discussing three strategic principles how we scholars can 1) recognize doubt, and 2) how we can use it constructively in a research project.

jjjj  Principle 1: Embrace not knowing

 We work in an environment where, in trying to get published, we are forced  to convince readers, to rationalize and legitimize our research process, and to strip away our text from any insecurity or imperfections that are in fact part and parcel of engaging in a PhD project. We thus have to unlearn how we typically respond to doubt in the first place: instead of resisting not knowing, embrace it; instead of turning away from doubt, turn towards it. In fact, doubt can be generative as long as you interpret it as a signal there is some work to do!


Principle 2: Nurture hunches

Hunches are unscientific. A hunch is a vague feeling or intuition about something that cannot be clearly discriminated or put into words. As such, they are of little scientific relevance or value. Although a hunch often makes no sense at this point in time, it might make a lot of sense in retrospect. Hunches sometimes constitute the beginnings of a great scientific discovery! More often than not, however, hunches are more like blind alleys. Typically, we try to avoid wasting time and, so we argue, hunches are unproductive. Blind alleys as well as great discoveries are inherent to doing research. Even Albert Einstein himself, perhaps the greatest hero of modern science, prioritized imagination over knowledge, and mistakes over success.

Principle 3: Disrupt the order

Once you know how to embrace not knowing and nurture your hunches, doubting is not automatically and potentially generative. A natural human reaction is to solve doubts and puzzles. However, this often implies that we start explaining things through rationalization, attempting to ‘box’ the problem in the categories of facts we already know or understand. In this way, puzzles or doubts rarely stimulate discoveries or stir up academic debate, as more often than not you end up with what you already knew in the first place. Order can even be disrupted on purpose, so the authors explain, in order to stimulate doubt; for example, by haphazardly rearranging your data set to foster doubt and, perhaps, come up with creative new solutions and understandings.

There you have it: three strategic principles, obviously extremely simplified, to foster doubt and to make it potentially generative. I have to admit that I myself doubted a great deal whether I should write this blog for an academic audience. I do not know if scientists are open to the non-factual. I have the hunch this blog might be an interesting read, but I do not know. But perhaps, at least I tickle the order of my audience a little bit, by showing how ‘unscientific’ doubting might in fact help our scientific work.

Good luck and lots of doubt!




Alvesson, M. and Sandberg, J. (2012), Has Management Studies Lost Its Way? Ideas for More Imaginative and Innovative Research. Journal of Management Studies, 50 (1), 128-152.

Hambrick, D.C., “The field of management’s devotion to theory: Too much of a good thing?”, Academy of Management Journal, 2007, 50 (6), 1346-1352.

Locke, K., Golden-Biddle, K., Feldman, M. S. (2008). Making doubt generative: Rethinking the role of doubt in the research process. Organization Science, 19(6), 907-918.


Thijs Willems is a Phd candidate in the Organizational Science department. His research projects focuses on ‘The role of collaborative routines during disruptions in the Dutch railway system’.