The Impact Story: A Dilemma of an Early Career Researcher

In social sciences, most research questions are asked because of a problem that exists in real life, something that we are trying to understand, explore or explain. So, if the questions we are interested in answering are fundamentally coming from different areas of human life, then why do we (as researchers) continuously feel like we have little impact and that we have to make an effort to create impact? Impact has recently become an important point of discussion in many areas, including my field, which is business and management studies.

Many young academics experience a dilemma with the impact story, unfortunately. It is as though the world of practice and the world of theories are two distinct forces that pull us apart. This particular tension is especially felt when one is within applied social sciences and going through job applications and interviews. A while ago, I had an interview experience for an early career role at a prestigious university. The role was designed as a ‘high impact’ role; whereby there was no expectation of publishing.

On the contrary, the expectation was to act as a consultant in a project that contains company-sensitive information. During the interview, I was asked if I would feel comfortable spending this time in this exciting role but have no publication as a result of it. I was puzzled. I would have loved to be involved in such a ‘high impact’ project. Nevertheless, I knew the moment that particular contract ends, I would be asked by future potential employers something else: publications. I think the interviewers easily sensed the dilemma I have experienced.

Since I started my PhD four years ago, many people have been asking me if I want to stay in academia. My usual response to this question, for a long time, was ‘I do not know what I want to be when I grow up’. It sounds childish, I know… That is exactly why I love it! We are asked this question, because it is assumed that if we are doing a PhD, then we are motivated to have a career in academia. I find this assumption somewhat problematic.

I have done a PhD in Business and Management. I study environmental and social sustainability in the context of business organisations and particularly focus on how business actors respond to various sustainability challenges by building collaborations with other organisations. I decided to study this topic, not because I found it ‘theoretically’ interesting or I have spotted a gap in theory. In reality, I have been involved in collaborative multi-stakeholder initiatives that are built to tackle environmental challenges, and personally experienced the little power games, the clash of worldviews and the distinct ways of thinking when various stakeholders like state officials and business players interact. I had the first-hand experience of the difficulties practitioners may face when managing such initiatives. So, my motivation to do a PhD was driven by the world of practice. Therefore, I always thought that if I wanted to return to the practice world, the boundaries are not (and should not be) ‘rigid’ but rather ‘elastic’.

I thought that one would only perceive these boundaries so rigid when they have spent a considerable amount of time in one of these fields and have not managed to cross these boundaries. To my surprise, though, I realised I might be wrong. More so, I was not aware of how much I was becoming embedded in the world of theories in the course of my PhD.

To wake up, I needed a friendly wake up call. At a little weekend trip, I met a friend whom I perceived as a boundary spanner since she managed to write a thesis while working full time as an engineer in the FMCG sector. Being one of my closest friends over the last decade, she was aware I was doing a PhD in Business and Management. However, after a glass of wine or two, she told me: “you do not understand the business world”… It came as a shock to me, of course. At first, I felt a little offended and hence I even became a little defensive. So, I have reminded her that I am doing a PhD in “business”. What followed was a second shock to my system. She said: “you have spent too much time with your theories, and you are away from what goes on in practice, it can happen even if you do a PhD in business”… There we go… I did not know how to respond to her, indeed. Such shocks are necessary and much better when they come from good friends over a glass of wine :)

Since this conversation, I am thinking about how one would become an impactful researcher. Perhaps even beyond, I am thinking about how one leads an impactful life. Since it is a dilemma, and we may conceptualise it as a paradox. So, I want to turn to the ‘paradox approach’.

There are different cognitive responses we give to the tensions we experience. One may be simply denying or opposing the tension. However, this gets us nowhere. Other responses are thought-provoking, though: separation and integration. We can separate our attention using time, space or both. Let us make it easier to follow with an example. I can apply some time management strategies or negotiate how I utilise my time with my institution as an early career researcher and dedicate time, specifically to ‘impact’ generation. I may equally get involved with the work of various organisations, outside academia and interact with the practice world by personally becoming a boundary spanner myself voluntarily. Alternatively, I may integrate or synthesise. Meaning, I can research while creating an impact. While ideal, this is not always the case for many young scholars. I am about to start a new postdoc role, and the role itself is integrative. I consider myself lucky. Because this time, different from my PhD, I get to do research, but the research design will be collective, and input will come from practice with a potential output to serve practitioners directly while being able to produce publications, hopefully.

I can hear some of you asking already: how or why does something that has no practical relevance get research funding? Or even why would one be interested in doing such research? While I understand these questions, and I seek impact creation myself, I am also not sure if I want to debate whether research always should be driven by practical motivations either. To me, it is a little bit like the debate of “Art for Art’s Sake”, or “Art for Society’s Sake”? Though, being honest, I do not understand why these have to be “either/or” choices; actually, I never did… Potentially, that is the reason why I find the paradox approach as a helpful lens.

I guess there are different ways to apply a paradoxical lens to this particular dilemma. I want to note the following, in any case. I am aware that research is not the only area of impact, and teaching is a crucial impact area for many academics. Nevertheless, for an early career researcher, teaching may not always be the primary activity, but rather a secondary responsibility or even optional. During my PhD, teaching was optional, for instance. That is why I only wanted to think about how can this tension be addressed in the research design process. Let us consider different phases of conducting research (coming up with a research question, designing data collection and analysis, communication of findings) if we are conducting this with three different lenses: “Research for Theory’s Sake”, “Research for Practice’s Sake”, and with an “Integrative (or Paradoxical) Mindset”.

  • With each of these distinct ways of approaching research, there is a way to create an impact. But, possibly, the impact is located in different areas. Also, the process or questions that guide us would differ.

Thinking about these three different ways of conceptualising impact and looking at it through the paradox lens can be helpful. So, at least for me, this writing exercise fulfilled its purpose. We can and we need to ask many more questions about the tension we face regarding ‘impact’. Of course, I will be missing many other important questions about this impact issue and I agree with you on that. This is only a beginning of an ideation process, and one way of conceptualising the tension between theory and practice and meeting the best of both worlds with impactful research.

I owe a thank you to my friend who provoked me to think about impact and helped me reflect on my position regarding this tension. She helped me reflect on the topic and here is my AHA moment, thanks to my interaction with a practitioner :)

We need good friends who are honest without giving up kindness; so that they help us reflect without engaging in defensiveness. After all, we are as much emotional beings, and one needs to find a balance between tactless honesty and dishonest kindness when giving feedback. So, I dedicate this piece of writing to my friend who managed to create that balance somehow😊

A final note. I have found some new answers to the question of “so, are you going to stay in academia?”.

  1. Do I have to choose? If so, can I choose to stay in academia while considering myself as a practitioner or a form of a boundary spanner? Why can’t I have both?
  2. To challenge the person who asks me this question, where does the boundary of academia start and the boundary of practice world end?
  3. To further challenge this question, is ‘staying in academia’ like ‘settling down’ or ‘choosing a home’? If so, in the last seven years, I had seven different cities I called ‘home’, so can I not do the same with ‘staying in academia’?

#academia #research #impact #managementresearch #reflections #paradox

Life long learner