Musings of recent graduate

Epilogue of my PhD thesis including my reflections on international management research

Some personal recommendations to improve the quality of (international) management research

Prof. Anne-Wil Harzing, University of Melbourne

© Copyright 1997 Anne-Wil Harzing. All rights reserved.

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The following is the epilogue of Anne-Wil's PhD thesis "Plans, Procedures and Bumble-bees: An international study of control mechanisms in multinational companies". It's reproduced here for the edification and perhaps amusement of current (and former) PhD students.

In this epilogue I would like to give some personal recommendations that could help to improve the quality of (international) management research. The first four recommendations are related to issues that I feel would have greatly facilitated my own research, had they been arranged in the way I suggest.

Practice makes perfect

When I completed my 4-year masters degree in Economics, Business Administration and International Management, the standard period reserved for writing a masters thesis at my university (Maastricht University) was six weeks, a period anyone will agree is too short to do any empirical research.

My master’s thesis therefore consisted of a literature review concerning the influence of national culture on organisational change and my PhD project was my first experience ever with doing empirical research. My masters thesis, on the other hand, was my first real experience in conducting a literature study.

Some years ago, the standard period has been extended to 13 weeks and many of the students I supervise in writing their masters thesis conduct their own piece of research, however small. After completion, every single one of them tells me how much they learnt from their mistakes (not in the least of course because I make them write an epilogue about this).

In most of my courses, I now have students writing papers in which they have to practice in formulating research questions, and have to search for additional literature themselves. Although I am happy to note that this type of academic skills training becomes more and more important at my university, I know only too well that it asks a lot from teaching staff. I would therefore like to plead for a continued attention to this type of teaching activities. Having had more practice in research skills during my masters study, would have definitively facilitated my PhD research.

Those horrible statistics

During my studies, statistics courses were something to take, pass, and forget as soon as possible. Personally, I never saw any relationship between the statistics courses I took, and those funny tables and figures in the academic articles we had to read. I usually skipped those parts of the article, as did nearly all of my co-students.

Only when doing my own research, I realised that you could actually do something with the things I forgot from my statistics course, and started to appreciate the statistics in the articles I read. But again, since practice makes perfect, I would have been happy to experience this at an earlier stage.

In my work for three different Dutch universities, I noticed that in this respect things have not changed much since I graduated: most students still hate statistics and consider it as something not of this world. Therefore, I now pay specific attention to the statistics in some of the articles we discuss in my own courses. And although most students continue to hate statistics, some of them actually become enthusiastic about it. I would therefore like to plead for an integration of statistics in at least some of the courses at universities, so that students stop thinking about statistics as something to be scared of.

Re-inventing the wheel

Although practising with small-scale (domestic) empirical research and statistics during a masters study might make the life of a PhD student easier, doing larger scale international research introduces some additional problems, as identified in Chapter 3 of this dissertation.

In my opinion too few of the existing PhD programs pay attention to these specific problems. This is not surprising, since many professors teaching at these programs do not have experience in doing international research themselves.

In my contacts with other doctoral students, I have encountered a lot that felt they were all alone at their university/department in paying attention to international issues. I would therefore recommend setting up a yearly workshop/seminar for doctoral students, that introduces them in the basic problems of doing international research.

Ideally, this should be conducted by one of the international professional organisations such as AIB (Academy of International Business) or EIBA (European International Business Academy). These yearly workshops would also be ideal opportunities for doctoral students to form the international networks that are so vital in doing international research.

Although I recently started a Young Academics Email Network (a discussion group of some 25 young academics from all over the world, working in the field of international management), I soon noticed that face-to-face contacts are vital in keeping such a network alive. Since not all students will be able to attend such workshops, the recently published “Handbook for International Management Research” (Punnett & Shenkar, 1996), could be supplemented with a handbook/textbook that discusses more practical issues in international management research.

Learning from (good or bad) examples

Although workshops that would give students a basic idea of the problems associated with international research might be very valuable, sometimes you learn more from good (or even bad) examples.

Unfortunately, most researchers are not very open about their research process, and are very unlikely to highlight any mistakes they made or deceptions they encountered. This can give junior researchers a very unrealistic picture of doing (international) research.

At the 22nd EIBA conference in Stockholm (1996), I presented a paper: “How to survive international mail surveys: an inside story”. I have never had more enthusiastic reactions to a paper! Everyone I spoke to about it commented that more people should write papers like that, so why don’t we just do it?

In general, why don’t we give the same openness about our research process as we do about our results? I have tried to be as open and explicit as possible about the considerations and choices made in this dissertation. As a further example - and because I was always curious about this when reading other people’s dissertations - Figure E-1 reproduces the timeline of my own research project.

A final issue other doctoral students might be curious about is the cost of the project. Out-of-pocket costs for the total project were about ƒ13,000. The bulk of this consisted of printing and mailing the questionnaires and the company report. These costs were advanced by Maastricht University, but most of them were recuperated by selling specific company reports and by using the knowledge gathered in the project to write professional articles and give lectures.

Figure E-1

Further recommendations

In addition to these four issues, that would have made my life as a doctoral researcher easier, I have three specific recommendations that follow mainly from my experiences in the literature study:

Cross language borders

During my literature study, I noticed that the academic community seems to be rather strictly divided into different language communities. It was not until reading a German dissertation that my eyes were opened to the vast amount of German literature in the field of both expatriate management and control mechanisms. None of the Anglo-Saxon articles I had read before referred to any of these publications. And although German authors do refer to their Anglo-Saxon colleagues occasionally, many of the German academics I encountered, admitted that they still prefer to write and read in German.

The result is that academics from different countries sometimes reinvent the wheel, and do not profit from the large amount of previous literature in their field. I certainly do not want to plead for a complete conformance to Anglophone research practices. Diversity in this respect could lead to increased creativity, and enhances the chance of complementary knowledge creation. However, I fear that researchers from non-English speaking countries will have to accept that their results will not reach a large audience unless they publish in English. On the other hand, native English speakers could be more tolerant and more appreciative of the efforts of non-native speakers to write (and present) in English.

Cross discipline borders

As a product of a university that explicitly promotes inter- or at least multi-disciplinary thinking, I have been surprised at the apparently strict division between disciplines. I was even more surprised to note how small some of these disciplinary areas are.

I realise that to achieve a certain depth in knowledge, you have to compromise in breath. I feel, however, that a larger amount of interaction between various disciplines could lead to improved model building, if only because it makes you realise your own limitations.

For my part, I only truly recognised the limitations of the organisational level of analysis by discussing my research with psychologists, economists and sociologists. By looking outside the traditionally cited journals, I discovered the vast amount of literature available about conducting mail surveys in the field of marketing and public opinion surveying.

Just before finishing the manuscript, a discussion with researchers in the field of migration studies, revealed another - potentially very interesting - angle to expatriate management (see e.g. Hillman & Rudolph, 1996; Tzeng, 1995). These are just examples of events I encountered, and other researchers have undoubtedly experienced many more themselves. I would therefore like to plead for a larger openness to and a greater appreciation of multi- or even interdisciplinary research.

Be critical

This last recommendation is aimed especially at doctoral and masters students. During the first stages of my project, I regularly encountered articles that contained results that puzzled me in relation to what I knew from other articles or my own experience.

Although during my studies at Maastricht University I had been trained to a certain extent in dealing with contradictory articles, I was not prepared for articles that I later realised simply contained sloppy research. At the moment itself, I naively assumed that there should be some truth in the authors’ claims, otherwise they wouldn’t have been published, would they?

One issue in the field of expatriate management struck me in particular: the consistent reference to high expatriate failure rates, which as far as I could judge had no empirical foundations. A systematic back-tracking of references (see Section 1.3 of Chapter 1 and Harzing, 1995a) proved that high expatriate failure rates could indeed considered to be a myth, created by continuous cross-referencing. Although I have not yet become cynical about this, I have no doubts that similar myths exist in many other fields of research.

This year I experimented for the first time in discussing examples of sloppy research in both my courses and during the regular meetings I have with a group of master’s students that write their thesis in the field of expatriate management. As one of my master’s students excellently summarised: If you see a good example, you read it and think: “Well, I would have done exactly the same” and just go on with what you were doing, if you see a bad example, you think: “Oh dear, perhaps I would have done exactly the same”, and learn from it.


  1. Harzing, A.W. (1995a) “The persistent myth of high expatriate failure rates”, The International Journal of Human Resource Management, vol. 6, May, pp. 457-475.
  2. Harzing, A.W. (1995b) “Research Note: an International Bibliography”, European Journal of Industrial Relations, vol 1 (3), pp. 405-412.
  3. Borg, M.; Harzing, A.W. (1996) “Karrierepfade und Effektivität internationaler Führungskräfte - Profile und Erfolgspotentiale”, in: Macharzina, K.; Wolf, J. (Hrsg.), Handbuch Internationales Führungskräfte-Management, Stuttgart: RAABE Verlag, pp. 267-278.
  4. Harzing, A.W., Hofstede, G. (1996): Planned change in organizations: the influence of national culture, in Bacharach, S.B., Bamberger, P.A., Erez, M.: Research in the Sociology of Organizations: Cross-cultural analysis of organizations, vol. 14, pp. 297-340, Greenwich: JAI Press.
  5. Harzing, A.W. (1996a): Environment, Strategy, Structure, Control Mechanisms, and Human Resource Management, Company report of doctoral research project, Maastricht: University of Limburg.
  6. Harzing, A.W. (1996b): How to survive international mail surveys: an inside story, Innovation and International Business, Proceedings of the 22nd EIBA conference, vol. 1, pp. 313-339, Stockholm: Stockholm School of Economics, IIB.
  7. Harzing, A.W. (1997a): Research note: about the paucity of empirical research in IHRM: A test of Downes framework of staffing foreign subsidiaries, Journal of International Management, vol. 3 no. 2, pp. 153-167.
  8. Harzing, A.W. (1997b): Response rates in international mail surveys: Results of a 22 country study, International Business Review, vol. 6 no. 6, pp. 641-665.
  9. Harzing, A.W. (1998): MNC staffing policies for the CEO position in foreign subsidiaries: the results of an innovative research method, in: Brewster, C., Harris, H.: International HRM: Contemporary issues in Europe, London: Routledge. [The article listed as under review at MIR in Figure E-1].
  10. Hillman, F., Rudolph, H. (1996): Jenseits des brain drain, WZB Discussion Paper no. FS I 96-103.
  11. Punnett, B.J., Shenkar, O. (1996): Handbook for international management research, Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.
  12. Tzeng, R. (1995): International Labor Migration through Multinational Enterprises, International Migration Review, vol. 29 no. 1, pp. 139-145.

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