Doctoral Cynicism

June Cotte, Associate Professor of Marketing at the Richard Ivey School of Business, wrote an interesting piece for the MarketingAcademics@AMA Newsletter, in which she addresses the cynicism frequently seen in doctoral students as they progress through their programs:

Many first-year students are remarkably curious, wanting to test new ideas every day to see if they are any good. They often possess open minds, a willingness to entertain both sides of an issue … and a tendency to avoid entrenched opinions. They are (mainly) not cynical.

… [T]hese students look so different from how they will be four or five years from now. Why? Often because the system, which I admittedly am a part of, teaches students the skills they need to critically evaluate research but not the skills to appreciate the inherent craziness and difficulty of publishing in top journals. I’ve seen students in seminars trash the work of some of marketing’s finest scholars. Why? Because there were trade-offs made during the research process (of course), and these students do not yet understand that this is inevitable. It’s easy to see flaws (it’s one of the first skills PhD students learn) but much harder to master the breadth of knowledge necessary to be able to locate a piece of work in the field and know whether it is innovative and important, even with its flaws (that’s one of the last skills most of us develop).

So, first-year doctoral students, as you read the papers … that you will discuss in your seminars, take a few minutes to appreciate what the authors have to say, in the context of what others have had to say about the issue, before you head to the meat of the paper looking for methodological flaws to bring up in class. Be wary of the path of the chronic “but-they-didn’t-do…” reader, for that way lies the sarcastic reviewer and the cynical professor.

In my first year as a doctoral student, I heard a similar sentiment expressed by an editor of one of the marketing journals: doctoral students tend to be poor company, because they’ve been trained to think critically but haven’t yet learned to turn this ability on and off. He said it often takes years for newly minted Ph.D.s to master this and start enjoying life again.

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