Build yourself a network of people that you trust: An interview with Beth Bechky
Beth A. Bechky, Jacob B. Melnick Term Professor, Professor of Management and Organizations and Professor of Sociology; NYU Stern
Apologies for this long silence! It has been an eventful year, time was tight and sadly, try as I may, I was not able to post new interviews on the site for a long while. But I’m thrilled to be back with this great interview with Beth Bechky. I first met Beth back in 2009 at an AOM annual meeting. At the time, I was a freshly minted PhD graduate, attending the very popular “Being There/Being Them” ethnography PDW (Professional Development Workshop) at the meeting and it happened that I was assigned to Beth’s table. I was experimenting with video-ethnography at the time and was fishing for ideas. Beth could not have been more helpful and encouraging. In fact, to this date, Beth stands out as one of the friendliest and most genuine persons I came across as a graduate student, a time where most of us are very much under the radar. She’s generously gave time for this no-nonsense interview – read it, I’m sure you’ll learn a lot!
Where do your ideas for writing papers come from?
I actually gave a talk on that not so long ago. I attended a workshop at Boston College where they put a bunch of us on a panel and asked everybody to talk about how they picked research projects. Each of us had eight minutes, no slides, and it had to be about one project.
What did you say?
I began by saying that when it comes to research, I’m not somebody who has strong priors or is driven by theory. Because I’m an ethnographer, I don’t have these burning theoretical questions a priori – it’s more about what I find that is interesting in my data. So my approach is pretty much straight ethnography. It’s not that I have no idea. I’m interested in work, and I have a sense that work is accomplished through action and practice. So a sort of theoretical approach and background does comes through in most of my projects. But I don’t have burning questions that I want to answer. I basically go with whatever I think is most interesting in the setting that I’m in. So for example with my crime lab project, I initially thought there might be all these different types of scientists who had to collaborate to do analysis, but it turns out that it doesn’t happen that way. They don’t collaborate to do analysis. They’re in different departments. They can’t even get into each other’s labs, the labs are locked. So somebody else is doing the division of labour required for this work, they’re super specialized. So I thought that was interesting.
How do you go from those ideas and observations to actually writing about them?
Well, it starts with writing memo, which is pretty standard with ethnography. I know some people who write really good memos which they then use as actual writing. I don’t do that though. My memos are written in a tone that can’t really serve as a basis for writing, but still, you are writing memos and that’s a start. Also, if I’m doing a project by myself, I typically do presentations before I write. So my memos lead me into writing a presentation. I commit to doing presentations – often when people ask me to do a talk, I’ll ask them, “Is it okay if I do a talk without a paper?” So, my early process is to create PowerPoint slides, with a script, and that’s how I start framing a paper. And it’s only after I’ve given the presentation a couple of times and I’ve gotten some feedback that I will turn it into an actual paper. So for me the data comes first and it’s only later that I start to think about framing. And it’s only once I have a general sense of where the study is going and where it is likely to contribute that I can start to write. So my process definitely starts with me asking myself, “What are my findings?” Once I have my findings nailed, or rather, once I know what my story is, then I’ll start to think about how to frame that story so that it can get it into a journal.
So you’re at the point where you know what you want to write about. How do you get started?
I don’t know. Some people are really great about that – they’ll sit down every single morning between 6h00 and 9h00am and just write. I have friends who are like that but that’s not me. I don’t think my style is something people should emulate. I have a tendency to just procrastinate, procrastinate, procrastinate and then I’ll start writing outlines. The outline doesn’t have to be very elaborate, but it does have to block out where I’m going. And when I finally sit down to write the paper – I have all my papers and books around me – I’ll just sit and power through. Not so much anymore because I have a child, but it used to be very much a process of me keeping at it until I finish this section or as long as I’m thinking and it’s working, I’ll just keep writing. And this is why I find it totally frustrating with teaching to not get five days in a row. Because to really get something done, I need five days in a row: the first days I’ll probably be procrastinating, trying to figure out what I want to do, asking myself, “Where am I?”, and so on. And then it’s like day three and maybe I’ll write a little. It’s going to take a couple of days, you know?
Is it the same with editing?
Editing on the other hand is much easier. I can edit pretty much anywhere – once I have a draft I can edit on the subway. I’m a paper person still, which a lot of my co-authors find annoying because it takes me twice as long to give them feedback since I have to edit on paper before I do it on the computer. But once I’ve got something that’s editable, I can do that anywhere.
Do you ever get writer’s block?
I was just reading a book on writing by Ann Patchett called “The Story for a Happy Marriage” in which she basically says that there is no such thing as writer’s block. And I kind of agree with that. Even when I hit a wall, I’ve never felt as if what I had was writer’s block. It’s just that I haven’t worked out what I want to say yet. To me, that’s not writer’s block. It’s just that you’ve got to think more, read more, talk to people more. You’ve got to figure out what you want to say.
So when you reach a point where you feel you can’t write because you haven’t figured out what it is that you want to say…
I make phone calls.
I have a couple of close colleagues who are very good at telling me what I’m actually talking about. And I will call them and say, “Look, I’m really stuck, I’m not sure if this is really interesting. This is where I am,” and then I’ll see what they say.
How did that get started though? How did you get that little network going?
In graduate school, I guess. I mean most of the people that I call on for editing, who help me with my papers, who read my papers and give me feedback and who I will call are colleagues who went to Stanford with me. I’m the PhD Program co-ordinator at NYU now and it’s what I tell our students. I think it’s super important to develop a network as soon as possible, because it’s not that easy to find people you feel comfortable with and who can comment on your work in a meaningful way.
Build yourself a network of friendly reviewers basically.
Yes. And as an editor, one of the things that is problematic is the number of papers that I receive that clearly have not seen a lot of friendly readers before they came to the journal. If they had, they would have been a lot better.
Some people feel that getting friendly reviews can be counterproductive though –everybody is going to read the paper differently, and send you in different directions, which will probably be different again from what the reviewers you eventually end up with think. So they feel it isn’t worth it.
I completely disagree with that. The people that I have as friendly reviewers are also people who know and are sympathetic to my approach and interests, and so are able to comment in constructive ways. You need to figure out who your audience is and have a couple of representative members of that audience who can point you in the right direction. This is not a job you can do yourself. You need to have people say, “You totally missed the boat here” or “Have you seen this entire body of literature?” or “Your introduction doesn’t have an argument in it, put that in there.” There’s a lot of stuff that friendly reviewers can do. If you’re in the middle of a review process, then no, I might not ask friendly readers for advice. Once I have an R&R, I don’t start getting a lot of feedback from other people. But before an initial submission it’s super valuable because it can really help shape the paper in directions that other people care about. There are a lot of benefits from help at the late stage of writing. Like before you submit, if somebody says to you, “You haven’t really given me enough data to understand what you’re saying,” that’s important. Or, “You haven’t really worked out what the relationship is between these two categories.” That kind of feedback is really helpful.
When do you feel that a paper is ready to go?
I can sit on a paper just because I don’t think it’s saying what I want it to say, or I’m not sure 100% of what I want to say. So until I really feel like a paper flows and is well written, I don’t send it out. I don’t want to send a paper out that isn’t pretty well polished. I’ve had colleagues who would be like, “Oh! I just throw stuff against the wall and see what sticks.” But that’s not me. And as an editor, when people do that, it’s like, “Oh my God! You’re killing us!” Because it’s not the reviewers’ job to write your paper for you. You should be writing it for yourself and if you write it yourself, it’s less likely to get rejected all the time. I don’t understand people. Why do your papers get rejected? Well, there are a few reasons. If it’s a qualitative paper – part of it is probably that you haven’t done enough analysis yet and you haven’t figured out what it is you want to say. And part of it is you haven’t given it out to enough people who can look at it and say, “Hey! This doesn’t make any sense.” It’s your job as a scholar to send something in that people can understand.
I’ve heard people say that reviewers give so much feedback and direction, it’s almost as if they become co-authors of the paper they are reviewing. And because of this, these authors don’t see the point of spending a huge amount of time fine-tuning an argument, as the reviewers are going to ask them to completely change everything anyway.
I disagree. I do think it’s true that reviewers need to back off. But that’s also the editor’s job. Personally, if I look at all my prior work and think honestly about which papers I thought were really good papers and which I was less happy with, the papers that I did the most work on ahead of time are the papers that didn’t get as much interference from reviewers and got into the journals where I submitted them. I’m not saying that’s everybody’s strategy but I do think it’s an excuse to say that I’m not going to do the work because the reviewers are going to mess with it. If you do more work, the reviewers will have less to mess with and your paper will be stronger when they get it.
Can you tell me about a paper you had high hopes for, one that you worked really hard at, which you really liked a lot, but somehow bombed when it got through the review process?
Yes. I have a paper that I’m working on now actually. One that I’ve been working on, on and off, for a decade. I don’t know if you’ve read my paper on co-ordination?
The one in the Academy of Management Annals?
Yeah. Before I wrote that piece, I was working on a grounded theory paper that compared two settings, and which was all about co-ordination. That paper got rejected at a sociology journal. I think it was American Sociological Review, I don’t remember. And then it got a reject and re-submit at Sociological Quarterly. The reviewers didn’t understand it at all. It might have been a tiny bit before its time, I don’t know. So I put it aside. For years it turns out, but now I’m working on it again. It’s been totally re-analyzed and it’s totally different from what it was. It’s now a very interesting paper about occupational communities and division of labour and how that relates to co-ordination, but yeah it was super frustrating!
Do you think the Annals piece paved the way for this new piece to get more traction this time around?
Possibly. I think that since the Annals piece we’ve talked a lot more about emergent forms of co-ordination. So in that sense, perhaps it did pave the way, but I don’t really know.
On that, to what extent do you think authors should try to pick up on trends? You know, approaches and theories that are popular now?
I think it’s important to be aware of what the literature is saying on your topic. So, if there’s a body of literature that seems relevant to my empirical story then I absolutely want to address it. But if it’s not, I wouldn’t frame my empirics around something only because it is a trendy topic. So I would ask myself – is whatever particular trend valuable or not? If you think that institutional logics is totally valuable for understanding the world and you want to talk to those people, then absolutely. Go for it. But if you’re only thinking about it because it happens to be popular now, then no. If you don’t fully understand what it’s about and you’re just thinking of it strategically, it’s going to give you problems.
Let’s talk about the review process a little. So you’ve submitted something to a journal, and now the editor’s letter is in your inbox and it’s a reject. Then what?
I re-write the paper. When my papers get rejected I put them aside, take a break, and then pick them up a month or two later and see what I think. As I was saying about that paper that I recently picked up again after a long, long time. The first rejection was on initial submission and I just picked up the paper and I said, “Okay what did these people say? Can I work with some of their feedback?” I think it’s really important to always remember that even when a paper is rejected, somebody, who doesn’t know who you are, put a lot time into reading it and their feedback is valuable. They explain to you what they thought you were trying to say. And a lot of times it helps you realize, “Oh my God! I said this so poorly that this person doesn’t understand at all what I’m trying to say!” So even when a paper I’ve submitted is rejected, I take the feedback really seriously. I revise my paper and then send it somewhere else.
Do you find that reviewers are always as constructive as you’re making it sound right now?
No. But I do try, as much as possible, to give people the benefit of the doubt. I do think taking a month off helps because then you can approach your paper a little more objectively. Sometimes it’s just that they’re assholes and that’s why, but most of the time that isn’t the case. And even if they are being a jerk, you have to ask yourself, “Did I say something that might have turned them into being a jerk? Did something I say trigger something?
What would be the worst comment a reviewer has ever made to you that you can remember?
Recently, I did have somebody tell me that I was trying to make my setting seem much more interesting than it actually is. And sometimes, you do get people who are just like… For example, my film paper, the one that came out in Organization Science, was first rejected by ASQ. One of the reviewers had said, “You know, film directors are like blah, blah, blah and I don’t see any of that in your paper.” And I was like, “Oh! So you know my setting better than I do?” So that was kind of annoying. And ultimately in that paper, I ended up with a footnote that said, “Sure some directors can get angry but I didn’t see it in my setting, ever.”
Interesting. But you did feel you had to put that in?
Yes, because people see it in movies about movies, and they see it in reality shows, and they think everybody is like that. And also because I do think it affected my credibility with that particular person. Nowadays, I can read a review and say, “I’m not going to be able to convince this person.” Or, “What they want is not what I have.”
What do you do then?
Usually I am very straightforward about that, “This is not what this paper is about.” I might say, “I think you could be right” or “Yes, this is what I would do if that was the paper I was writing but that isn’t the paper that I’m writing.”
In your response letter to reviewers?
Yeah. I address every single reviewer comment. When I write back to my reviewers, I answer everything they say. But also, and I’ll be nice about it, but I’ll also say, “No, I disagree. This is what I’m trying to do, hopefully it makes sense to you, but this is why I’m not doing what you’re suggesting.” Has it worked? There might be reviewers out there who see my paper come out and say, “Ah” as if they’re surprised or disappointed or something. I have no idea. But I think that for the most part, it has worked. I think that’s why you have to treat it like you’re in a dialogue, right? So, “No, I’m not going to do that in the paper, but I am going to tell you why I didn’t do it.”
Isn’t it the editor’s job to give you a sense of direction on that though? Because again, if the reviewers weren’t as careful as they could be or needed to be, shouldn’t some of that filtering be the editor’s job?
Yes. But it’s still going to go back to that person. And that person may or may not be reading the editor’s letter carefully too. So, I feel like I have a responsibility – the responsibility is with me in my response to reviewers to tell them why I did what I did, because the editor doesn’t have the bandwidth to do that.
Have you ever called an editor to address an issue that you felt was a bit touchy?
Yes. Sometimes you just don’t know what direction to take – you have two reviewers asking you to do opposite things and you’re not sure what to do. You have an idea about what you want to do, but you want to ask the editor, “Hey! This is what I’m thinking, does it make sense to you?” Some editors are open to that, and others aren’t. Regardless, I always recommend checking in if you’re confused. Some people view editors as gatekeepers, which at one level, they are. But as an editor, I want as many good papers as I can get. And if I can help an author make their paper better, I will.
Let’s talk about tables a bit. This is obviously the new trend in how to present qualitative data. How do you view that? You had a strong position about it when you visited here and I’m curious to hear you elaborate a little more on that.
I think that there are tabular ways to present data that work, but only if you explain them in your text. You have to explain them in a way that a reader can look at your table and understand what it is that you’re saying. I look at tables and half the time I have no idea what they’re supposed to be representing. What is the use of a table like that? Some people understand how to do coding tables, and do it in a way that is meaningful, but I think that a good number of times the first order/second order table is nonsense. I read it and I have no idea how the author got from this to that. You have to have a compelling story. So your energy has to be directed towards understanding how your codes relate to each other. What are the causes and consequences of these different categories and events? It not just about drawing a list of what the categories are. So to me, explaining how you got to your categories and how you theorized about the relationships between them is more important than just producing a table with quotes in it. I’ve seen some papers where it’s just a pile of quotes with labels, and you’re thinking so what? So yes, there seems to be a gut reaction that you need to have tables, but they need to be useful. Don’t just put them in there because people said they have to be there.
How does one achieve good writing? Do you have any insight about that?
For me, I think what my personal strength in my writing is that I’m pretty good at “showing” (as opposed to telling) stuff. My approach is to give a lot of examples in the text and explain what they mean. To tell a story that’s compelling for a reader. You can’t just put a bunch of stuff in there; you have to explain how it makes sense. Active voice helps. If you can’t be active you need to start asking yourself why. It’s probably because you haven’t figured out who’s doing what. In this kind of work, we’re talking about process, so if you can’t say who did what, you’re going to get stuck.
To what do you attribute your success?
I was very well trained. And I follow my interests. I’m not thick skinned unfortunately, but I’m strong willed. So, even if people criticize me, I’m still going to stick to my guns about what I care about. I think the stuff I care about and find interesting is important and if other people don’t share that view, well screw them. Good data is also important. If you don’t spend a really long time in the field, you won’t have good data. And good data is everything. Yes, you have to know how to analyze it and you have to have good ideas to start with, but if you don’t have good data and you’re doing grounded theory, it’s not going to be good.
Any advice for early career researchers?
I think that many of the things you asked me about are really important. So, develop a network of people that you trust, who will read your work and ask you questions that make you think. Friends who will push you. Because if you don’t push yourself, and you don’t have friends who push you, you will skate through in a very shallow way and that’s not going to produce good work.
How can people reconcile growing pressure to perform and the reality that collecting good data and doing good work takes time?
I have no idea what the answer to that is. I really don’t. It’s actually something that I worry about a lot.
Gerardo A. Okhuysen & Beth A. Bechky (2009) Coordination in Organizations: An Integrative Perspective, The Academy of Management Annals, 3 (1); 463-502.
Patchett, Ann (2013) This is a Story of a Happy Marriage; Harper Collins: NY.