What is “Research” Beyond Academia? – Jackson #2

In the post-ac transition, academics have to jettison the habits of speech and thought that work in an academic setting, and replace them with habits appropriate to a business or professional setting.  Usually, this means–work faster, talk less.  Sarita Jackson demonstrates. Echoing Stephanie Day’s post on mobilizing her academic skills and competencies in the business world, going post-ac doesn’t have to mean an end to your research life. It does require you to change how you talk about your research, and the pace at which you do it.


by Sarita Jackson

Sarita Jackson

April 29, 2005 is a day that I remember vividly.  My stomach was tied in knots. Any suggestion to relax or break a smile was like asking me to complete an algebra problem on the spot. That was the day of my dissertation defense. Several questions swirled around in my head. What would become of my five years of graduate school where I was trained on how to conduct and explain my research? Would I be able to adequately show that my conclusions after years of interviews and data analyses are valid? Thank goodness the dissertation defense went well.

Nevertheless, another challenge still remained. Around the same time, I was offered a position as a trade policy consultant, a profession in which I did not have prior experience. However, the position would still allow me to apply my academic research. What does research mean for consultants?

Research has a different focus in a non-academic environment such as consulting. As a political scientist, research means to build upon existing theoretical knowledge. As a consultant, research means solving real world problems.

For example, my current research in the area of international trade approaches the Who cares? question differently depending on the context. Who cares?

As an academic, I would respond in this manner. My work challenges existing economic models arguing that: 1) importers behave rationally and 2) the market determines an exporting industry’s ability to compete in the global market. Rather, I use an alternative model–path dependency—to explain the behavior of importers in specific markets that give the exporting industry a competitive edge in that specific market.

If international political economy is not your area, I am sure the only response would be another profound question: Huh?!?

My response as a trade policy consultant would emphasize tangible, measurable results rather than the theoretical implications. Let me try again. My research findings provide business owners with the tools that they need to increase their bottom line in the global market by taking advantage of free trade agreements (FTAs).

The person listening to or reading the second response would immediately know who benefits, business owners; how that group benefits, an increased bottom line; and the solution to attaining those benefits, taking advantage of FTAs. My message is tweaked depending on the audience, which may include government officials seeking to grow their economies or policymakers devising relevant legislation.

Notice that this information is provided in one sentence instead of a laundry list of words and technical language that has meaning mainly for the academic.

In addition, the process of research varies. As academic researchers, we are trained to know and comprehend current literature, identify a problem (theoretical or methodological), test existing theories, and either refute or complement those theories. This takes years.

On the other hand, as a consultant, that time is cut down to as little as three weeks. In my consulting experience following graduate school, the process entailed interviewing numerous public and private sector officials, identifying the problem(s) on the ground, applying a select theory, looking at the success of that theory in other comparable cases, using that theory as a solution to the problem, drafting a report with a series of recommendations and assisting with the actual implementation of those recommendations. Often times, the select theory, one that I was very familiar with and evaluate in my own work, was already established beforehand. In other words, my recommendations were not based on years of individual research. Going back to my first point, the emphasis is on the tangible, measurable results rather than just the theory itself.

By understanding the different goals and processes of research in alternative settings, you can better explain your research in ways that are clear, concise and resonates with your audience.

The next step is to actually craft your message. Nine years after graduate school, I even continue to craft my message in my current role as founder of a think tank/consulting firm to reach a business and government audience. My next post will be on that.

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About Karen Kelsky

I am a former tenured professor at two institutions--University of Oregon and University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. I have trained numerous Ph.D. students, now gainfully employed in academia, and handled a number of successful tenure cases as Department Head. I've created this business, The Professor Is In, to guide graduate students and junior faculty through grad school, the job search, and tenure. I am the advisor they should already have, but probably don't.

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