Implicit knowledge | Hendrik Erz

Abstract: A few days ago I had an inspiring video chat with three aspiring researchers. While talking to them, I realised that a lot of what I take for granted is actually heavily inaccessible knowledge that one only gets either through intensive research, or through a supportive supervisor. Here I ponder a little bit about this kind of implicit knowledge that makes up large parts of academia.

“Waffel oder Pappbecher?” – “Waffel, bitte!” That’s a pretty German conversation you can have that occurs thousands of times a day, now that the weather gets better. When ordering ice cream in Germany, you normally have the option to either have the ice served in a traditional waffle, or – especially when you order more than three balls of ice cream – a not-that-climate-friendly paper cup. Every German will respond to the question of what to choose instantly, without spending any second thinking about this.

Others, probably, will have to consciously think about that question. Even a person who speaks German fluently and understands the words perfectly well might at first prove baffled by the question – if they never in their life ordered ice cream before, or simply come from a country where this is not customary.

The magic words here are “implicit knowledge.” The ice cream vendor will expect you to understand what he means by this question. And by “meaning” I also include the implications this choice has. If you ordered more than three balls of ice cream, they might look bewildered while they spend a lot of effort building you the 21st century tower of Babel on the waffle you just ordered. I am not an ethnographer and have not that much knowledge of how this is done in other countries, but I bet that there are some places on this world where you simply don’t have this choice of container for your ice cream. You, however, will probably immediately know what to choose – maybe even in the beginning restricting yourself to no more than two balls of ice cream because you would like to have them in a waffle.

This implicit knowledge – in sociology of culture sometimes called “schemata” (DiMaggio 1997, p. 269), sometimes “System II” decisions with a more psychological leaning – is something we possess of many tasks and fields. In other words: implicit knowledge is always at work if we don’t have to think about some action; we just do it (insert a worn-out, silly Nike advertising joke here).

But obviously you don’t have this implicit knowledge in every aspect of society; just in those few bubbles you frequently visit. I, for instance, possess a lot of implicit knowledge with regard to sociology, software development, and a little bit with regard to the event industry (mainly concerts, because I volunteer in that area sometimes). However, I have no clue about how an actual lab works (a.k.a. where you deal with nifty chemicals or control a particle accelerator or something). If I ever were to enter such a lab and attempt to perform actual work there, I might hit the first roadblocks only seconds into the experience, let’s be honest (insert an also worn-out, years-old meme about a dog in a lab coat, captioned “I have no idea what I’m doing” here).

These roadblocks can be minor, a nuisance at first which you overcome after a few days working with those who have been there for much longer than you have. But they can also be used as gate-keepers; as mechanisms that keep you from entering certain fields in the first place. One such instance is science in general. I’m not talking about any labs or Labradors here (I think I just got the second part of that meme … oh gosh). I’m talking about: how to enter your postgraduate studies? How to submit to a journal? What do you need to look out for?

All those details that feel natural for people who’ve been long in the field can feel absolutely irritating for the uninitiated. You may feel well prepared for further academic research when you graduate from your master’s. But did you already learn how to cope with nasty comments by reviewer 2? Did you know that you have to pay like $2,000 to submit to an academic journal? Do you know how you request that money from your institute? And, do you know which way you should write in order to maximise your chances to avert desk rejection for your submission? Do you even know what “desk rejection” means?

If all of these questions have you wondering, then rest assured: You’re not alone. Almost everyone entering the academic realm has (had) the same questions. You don’t book courses on “How to cope with bad reviews” or “Submitting A to Z.” You either learn these implicitly, or you don’t. That’s also why – once you made it into academia – it gets much easier.1

Why am I telling you all of this? Today I had a meeting with a group of three aspiring researchers. They submitted a paper to a journal I work for and received a first batch of comments from me and another reviewer. Then, after a first phase of review, they received another batch of comments with the task to review their paper again before it will be accepted. Throughout the e-mail contact I had with them I realised they were “newbies” to the academic game, because they had very honest, but from my point of view very basic questions as to how they shall proceed. So before actually getting to work they asked for a short meeting in order to discuss these questions easier than via mail. During the meeting, my suspicion that they were not very experienced was confirmed, and I said a lot of things that I already take for granted – because it’s implicit knowledge for me.

For instance, they argued that they didn’t completely understand what some of the comments are supposed to mean with regard to them reviewing the paper. If you are unfamiliar, you should know here that such comments rarely contain explicit calls to action. Rather, a lot is being kept implicit (e.g., “The connection between argument A and B is not very explicit” or “Did you know there was a paper by XY that already did that slightly differently?”) and it’s supposedly your job to translate those implicit tasks into explicit, actionable items. How are you supposed to know how?

All of that can make academia a very gated community where only those receive access that already know how to play the game. I have some acquaintances who are three years younger than me and already have their PhD. Two of my colleagues who started at the same time are much younger than me. One shouldn’t generalise from these anecdotes, but it does highlight the fact that “science” is as much a theatre play as it is about facts. And this also highlights why a lot of PoC correctly state that the term “ivory tower” stands as much for the encapsulation of the academic realm as it stands for the skin colour of the majority group in there. In short: Like in any bigger company, academia has a lot of “open secrets” and you either learn them or become a roadkill on the way to science.

This leads me to a final point: that of supervision. Almost ten years ago, a short time after I started studying, one of my friends became a student assistant at the institute where I studied history in our first year. Oh, I was so jealous, because I wanted to be a student assistant myself! What I didn’t realise back then is that I implicitly knew that becoming a student assistant quickly is a good indicator that you know the basic rules of the game and learn all the other ones. That’s because you get to know those dirty little secrets from behind the courtain of the class room early on and can prepare for how it will be once you enter those sacred halls en-par with your current teachers.

The story ended with me becoming a student assistent at his current employer a few weeks later, and from then on never experienced even one month of unemployment: After two years there I switched to an external research institute before coming back to my institute, and I’ve been in university ever since. And I’ve always occupied those positions that others didn’t necessarily want to occupy – system’s administration, admissions, general administration. All positions where some have looked upon me with suspicion (insert a meme of a well-known character saying “Pathetic.” here2). But what I learned there is what some others still struggle with when actually starting their PhD. I didn’t learn how to play the game of getting into a PhD program, just to be sure – it took me three years to get my dream PhD position –, but I learned all the administrative stuff that is also necessary behind the curtain.

Today, that ratio is more or less still the same: I’m still struggling with the “traditional” areas of academic implicit knowledge – I am slow to register for summer schools, not well-versed in “reading the room” and I’m a little bit frightened to submit my very first “real” paper. But I always have all the formalities sorted out ahead of time – even though I switched countries (right in a pandemic, yeah, I know).

So where does supervision come into play here? Well, the more you get, the better. Starting an academic career in the first year of undergraduate studies prepares you well if your employers (a.k.a. your profs) care at least a little bit about you and teach you the ways of academia. But even when you only receive guidance when starting your PhD, this is worth so much more than any salary in the world. My supervisor is one of the most helpful people I know and from him I learn all the remaining little secrets of academia I didn’t (and/or couldn’t) figure out for myself over the years.

I don’t really know how to finalise this article, because there’s so much more to say about the day-to-day business of academia I could go on for hundreds of pages. I guess, if you want to know more, there’s this one book by Pierre Bourdieu that deals with implicit knowledge and tells you what your over-consumption of sparkling wine has to do with your occupation, called Distinction. Additionally, it really helps to get into science bubbles on Twitter and Facebook where you can absorb a lot of this implicit knowledge over time in lieu of actual university courses on … well – universities. In the end, what helps most to get to know that implicit knowledge is to befriend people who are already in academia and can help you with navigating these treacherous waters.

  1. Please bear in mind that “much easier” here only includes formalities. Every PhD student knows that a PhD will prove to be an existential crisis at some point or another. I didn’t have such a moment until now, but I’m well aware these exist and will experience one myself some day. By the way, that’s also a form of implicit knowledge: Footnotes are important, because there’s where you hide the small print! 

  2. By the way: It might seem as if these notes in braces are things I forgot to do before publishing the article – inserting GIFs and memes. But in fact, I never intended to actually insert these pictures into the article; both because I’m too lazy and I enjoy writing much more, and because this way this whole article would’ve looked suspiciously like a Medium article. That’s also implicit knowledge: if you don’t want to look like Medium, don’t use GIFs! 

Suggested Citation

Erz, Hendrik (2021). “Implicit knowledge”., 26 Feb 2021,

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