Responsibility | Hendrik Erz

Abstract: A PhD is many things at once: an experience, an academic title, and an education, for example. But it also is a bearer of responsibility of a different quality than what your undergraduate studies would have you believe. In this article I want to share first thoughts on the kind of responsibility attached to a PhD.

Week three is over, and I enjoy studying at the IAS more and more. The people are very forthcoming, supportive and a great spirit of collaboration runs through the whole institute. The atmosphere here is much better than what shines through other accounts of rather grim graduate programs.

In fact, I have prepared myself meticulously for this part of my life. As much as I knew I would do a PhD, I was also prepared that a PhD is a hefty commitment that will also have its dark moments. Not after three weeks, to be sure, but I am prepared for some dimly lit hours in the next four years (pun with regard to the daylight in Swedish winter intended).

However, as always, it’s quite a different thing to know things, and to experience things. This is an insight I gained as early as in school, when we read Hermann Hesse’s “Unterm Rad” in German literature class. Hesse spoke of “totes Wissen” and “lebendiges Wissen.”

“Totes Wissen,” or dead knowledge is something you acquire just by hearing or reading something. Dead knowledge are the countless stories of PhD students who’ve thankfully shared their experiences with others like me so that we had an idea of what to prepare for. “Lebendiges Wissen,” or living knowledge, on the other hand, is such knowledge you don’t just possess based on reading, but your own experience as well. It is knowledge that has reified itself. You just know when “dead” knowledge has become “alive.”

One instance where this has happened this week is with responsibility. Responsibility can have many different meanings, but I am referring here to the responsibility of myself as a PhD student for the success of my studies. I knew that I would be given a whole lot of responsibility, but actually experiencing this responsibility is something quite different.

Throughout my life, I have become a very efficient worker. Just give me a task, some actionable items and I will fulfil the task at hand qualitatively and quantitatively superb. However, I always knew that I am at the same time pretty bad at setting goals for myself. Especially being embedded in an institutional context, it is difficult for me to say “I will do this now!” Not because I couldn’t do that, but rather because I am very insecure with regard to the decision of what I am allowed to do fully on my own, and what I have to discuss with other people prior.

This means that I always ask for almost anything to an extent that I fear other people may grow uneasy with me. I am approaching self-reliance bottom-up, so to speak. In the past three weeks I have asked my fellow PhD students, instructors and my supervisor over and over for almost anything, and many questions revolved around the big meta-question of “How much of this should I be doing by myself, and what should I discuss beforehand?”

As many things in an academic context are handled through social convention rather than formalities, that is, unwritten rules instead of extensive guidelines, it is difficult to navigate the space of responsibility. Where there is no manual you need to trust your gut. And even if you ask a lot of questions, this still doesn’t free you from having to trust your own feelings.

However, there are numerous tiny clues littered across the discussions with your fellow researchers that help you guide your gut feeling. The one small remark that made me much more secure happened yesterday when I met my supervisor by chance, and, after explaining him my plans for the next weeks, he said “Oh, that’s good, you’re making deadlines so you can finish your tasks!”

This gave me the final hint I personally needed to fully embrace the kind of responsibility I have towards my own studies, and has pushed me one step further towards a successful conclusion of my research. This clue will certainly be something else for you, but it will come. And when you receive it, you’ll know it.

It is as Erving Goffman has once said: The whole world is a stage, and we all are but actors performing roles. The only difference to the theatre is that there is no script and you have to learn to fulfil your role all by your own.

Suggested Citation

Erz, Hendrik (2020). “Responsibility”., 20 Nov 2020,

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