Trying to have an impact on the world can be challenging emotionally. Academic researchers offer advice.
Haitao Yu is a postdoctoral fellow at Emlyon Business School.
Six years ago, I wrote in the cover letter for my Ph.D. application, “I’m determined to contribute to a sustainable world through conducting research that can change organizations and the world.” Earlier this year, I defended my Ph.D. thesis in sustainability.
Over the years, I have learned that pursuing an academic career is hard. Caring about having an impact outside academia can make it more complicated. In this article, I share my reflections and the insights from a panel organized by the Impact Scholar Community (ISC), a group dedicated to supporting early-career scholars interested in impact.
While I’m writing about the academic experience, I’ve seen the same challenges for practitioners, in my previous role as a social entrepreneur.
Focusing on impact can energize or fatigue us
Academics, especially Ph.D. students, face mental and emotional challenges. A recent article in Nature described the career pressures. The drive to “publish or perish” can be especially difficult.
One possible way to address the challenges is to connect our research to real-world impacts on issues we care about. Psychologist Adam Grant argues that we gain energy in moments of improving the world. Impact research could bring us energy to maintain ourselves in a difficult career and increase our well-being.
Yet, the desire to have an impact on our world can have its own challenges. The recent ISC event focused on “The emotional impact of impact work.” Speakers including Drs. Juliane Reinecke (King’s College London), Bryant Hudson (IESSEG) and Vanya Rusinova (Matter) shared their experiences with such work.
Here are insights from the conversation.
Impact work can bring guilt and questions about self-efficacy
The ISC panelists and audience identified several emotional challenges when doing impact work. I highlight two: feelings of guilt and questions about self-efficacy.
Guilt comes from our obligation to people in the field
Juliane Reinecke described feeling guilty in doing fieldwork in Bangladesh. The fieldwork dynamic can feel unequal. Researchers benefit from time and knowledge provided by contacts – people we interview or observe, or who otherwise help us. These can eventually contribute to publications for the researchers, which help advance an academic career. But publications and career advancement might have limited or no impact on the people who provided time and knowledge.
Similarly, researchers are skilled at crafting rigorous and insightful studies to build generalizable knowledge. Yet, contacts in our research sites might hope our research will help them solve specific, real-life problems they face in their lives and work. There’s a disconnect between generalizable knowledge valuable to the researchers and specific knowledge valuable to the practitioners.
Researchers can feel like there is no way to repay contacts and their communities. Juliane wonders, “How can I discharge the debt I owe to people and contexts I study? Can I ever give back something equal to what I received?” Anthropologist Marilyn Strathern’s A Tale of Two Letters details this dynamic. The feeling of guilt can be magnified when we come from wealthy, privileged positions and study people and contexts with less wealth, fewer privileges, and greater economic and personal insecurity.
Self-efficacy questions come from the slow nature of academic work
Self-efficacy is our belief in our ability to act and achieve (Bandura, 1977). Working without visible achievement can reduce our feeling of efficacy in our work and contribute to dissatisfaction and burnout. Publishing academic research often takes years, and is not guaranteed regardless of how much work has gone into a project. Connecting research to impact raises other efficacy issues, because problems like climate change or economic inequality resist straightforward, visible progress.
As a junior researcher, panelist Vanya Rusinova compared the fast speed of real-world issues and the comparatively slow speed of academic research. Working on climate change, Vanya felt that the climate crisis demanded a more rapid response. She decided to join a sustainable finance start-up, where the speed of problem-solving felt better matched to the problems she wanted to impact. “I feel sustainable development changes are happening outside of academia,” she said during the ISC event. “I felt I could continue writing about things that have already happened or work on things that are happening now.”
Other session participants shared these feelings. Concerns about guilt and questions of self-efficacy led to a discussion of strategies to maintain career momentum despite the emotional challenges of impact work.
Four strategies can maintain career momentum
Session participants identified ways to keep motivated in our work, in the face of our doubts or concerns.
1. Appreciate small wins.
Panelist Bryant Hudson suggested we remember our limitations as humans. Given the limited time, attention, resources, and life priorities at different professional stages, we cannot do everything and solve all problems. Instead, we might think of our impact work as plants. A seed doesn’t turn into a tree overnight. For the trees to eventually demonstrate visible impact, it can take years of invisible but indispensable small cultivating efforts.
A strong predictor of work engagement is a sense of daily progress. Issues like climate change or inequality might be too big for any individual or organization to address. But every small action that aligns with our values matters for impact.
The focus on actions that are achievable in service to a larger impact reminds me of a quote by Jeff Wilson from Buddhism of the Heart:
There is one advantage to realizing that you’re never going to get it right: you begin to stop expecting everyone else to get it right too, which makes for less frustration when other people turn out to be just as human as you are.
2. Recognize the value of academic work
I’ve encountered many fellow researchers who felt frustrated that academic articles were rarely read by practitioners. The feeling of being neglected by industry often contributes to a sense of irrelevance, which reduces self-efficacy. But academic work has real value. We may want to focus on our contribution, rather than what we have not done.
Vanya’s experience offers encouragement. Now working in industry, she noted, “Whenever I need to solve a problem or find an answer, I [go] to academic articles first. Without the Ph.D., I would not have the same level of critical thinking. So, the academic training has an essential role in my current job.”
Recognizing our impact, given the constraints of our resources and capabilities, can put us in a state of love and appreciation. As John Lennon said:
There are two basic motivating forces: fear and love. When we are afraid, we pull back from life. When we are in love, we open to all that life has to offer with passion, excitement, and acceptance.
3. Increase impact during the research process
There are ways to make the academic research process better for those we work with, our research “contacts” and even colleagues. Listening to people with full attention and whole heart can be the best way for us to give back in our fieldwork. Session participant Douglas Creed found that his interviews with executives helped their leadership development. “When you talk to people and listen to them with attention and curiosity, they sometimes say they develop new skills and abilities,” he explained, “Managers told me the questions that I created encouraged them to reflect. It’s one of the things that keeps me motivated in this profession.”
Bryant agreed: “You never know what your impact could be. For example, our research has allowed LGBT junior researchers to feel safer to research this topic in our field.”
Every interaction has a trace, but it is often difficult to know the exact nature of the impact. Bryant might not know this, but his leadership and work in the LGBT community encouraged my social media coming-out post, which served as my effort to continuing paving the way for workplace diversity and inclusion.
Juliane offered additional strategies for creating positive impact during the research process, to benefit research contacts. Researchers can contribute to local research capacity by working with students from local universities, and co-create knowledge that serves the local community’s aspirations. They can share the research results more widely and creatively, so that more people are able to learn from them. To acknowledge and navigate positions of privilege, researchers should also become aware of colonization history and respect Indigenous worldviews.
4. Surround yourself with the right people
Momentum and motivation can come from our connections with others. Bryant encouraged impact scholars to find their community of like-minded and supportive people. After all, it’s likely that “my work” alone does not have an impact, but that “our work” does have impact.
In academia, it is especially important to find other academics who understand the hardships you might experience. Seek mentorship and support from people with a similar background, who have faced similar career barriers in their career. Feeling supported can reduce the isolation and loneliness that can be part of the work.
The management research community increasingly values impact research. There’s more support for engaging with and writing for audiences outside academia. The community is more open to those who study sensitive topics and use innovative methods for engagement. Journals offer a path to address important problems in a faster and more meaningful way. These are hopeful signs of an increase in mutual support.
What this conversation means for me
On my way home after the ISC event, I wrote a short memo, which I use to end this reflection:
The ISC event helped me to reflect on how I got here and how I see myself each day. I was glad I felt more content than confused about my work after the event, despite not yet publishing my thesis and not yet changing the world the way I had hoped at the beginning of my Ph.D. I have shown up on most days with honesty and kindness. I know that the job is difficult, but I have kept making it work for me. I’ve learned to embrace my days more with love and have shared the love when it’s appropriate. I see that people around me are better off because of my existence. That’s it!
About the Author
Haitao Yu is a post-doctoral researcher at emlyon business school. Haitao conducts research on organizations and sustainable development through the lens of place and space, using ethnographic and visual methods. He has conducted fieldwork with a luxury enterprise in a Tibetan nomadic village and a natural heritage organization in an Indigenous community on the border between Ontario and Michigan.
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