Strategies for developing academic identity
“Listen to Jacqueline", was what I told my LinkedIn followers, who might be considering making the transition from business practice to academia.
Unfortunately, Jacqueline’s advice came 3 years too late for me.
Jacqueline Baxter’s recent Chartered ABS blog, Using Pedagogical Research to Help Develop Academic Identity, argues that those, like me, who make the transition from business practice to academia can find their place in the academic world through conducting pedagogical research or the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL). Such research, she argues, allows individuals to create credible narratives, for themselves and for others, about their function and usefulness in their new role and thereby aid the formation of a new academic professional identity. Conducting SoTL provides opportunities for the new academic to ‘learn new research skills’ or ‘engage with theories and concepts of teaching and learning’, which they would, probably, not have encountered in business. Through this work they are able to reflect upon and develop their own teaching practice, produce a better learning experience and perhaps achieve better learning outcomes for their students.
Jacqueline’s advice is sound; not least because it aligns the new academic’s identity construction project, their growing sense of expertise and that sense of joining a community of scholarly practice, with business schools’ need for capable and credible teachers.
Puzzles from Practice as Research Questions
But what about those who come back into academia with a clutch of puzzles - or research questions - that they’ve formulated through their years of business practice? What should they do with these often complex and knotty problems which require theory, deliberation and time to work through? Whilst you might think that such individuals are a rarity, the global ideas discourse signalled by the success of forums such as ‘TED Talks’ might suggest otherwise. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting any equivalence between TED Talks and academic research; simply that there’s an interest in developing and wrestling with ideas. Moreover, all those PhDs that business schools are so keen to recruit and train have to go somewhere and perhaps, one day, they might just want to come back into the business school?
At first glance the boundary-spanning capabilities and competencies (Levina and Vaast 2005) of the practitioner-turned-academic are attractive for business schools, especially for those researchers committed to the coproduction of knowledge between and amongst researchers and practitioners (Van De Ven and Johnson 2006). Such individuals, whilst still in practice, are a valuable research collaborator, for example: surfacing the nuances of practice; translating between domains; illuminating new perspectives or ways of seeing, and negotiating access or vouching for academic impact. Problems however arise when they come into the business school.
Perhaps they’re best out, just dipping in - as in the case of Professors of Practice?
Renouncing Practice in the Research Intensive Business School
Whilst some professional schools, such as medicine or dentistry, value clinicians/scholars trained in both sets of roles and skills (Schein 1987), separating scholarship from practice has been “crucial to producing the success [US] business schools now enjoy” (Deighton, Mela et al. 2021: 5), or so some claim. Get too close to practice and business schools risk a return to the pre-1960s era when they ‘favoured teaching institutional detail over theory’ (Deighton, Mela et al. 2021: 5).
Combined with the ‘twin track’ approach to career management now common in UK research intensive universities (teaching and scholarship contracts vs teaching and research contracts) this effectively means the experience, knowledge, insight, ways of seeing etc of the practitioner-turned-academic is of no value to the substantive or discipline based academic research activities within the business school. Just look at academic job adverts. Whilst occasionally ‘practice experience’ is mentioned as ‘desirable’ (never ‘essential’) to teaching and scholarship posts, it is uniformly absent from teaching and research posts.
The practitioner-turned-academic therefore has to renounce their practitioner identity if they want to participate in discipline based academic research. For those who haven’t already done so, this is most commonly achieved through completing a PhD. Alternatively, as Jacqueline suggests, the practitioner turned academic can renounce disciplinary research and claim an academic identity through conducting SoTL. Alternatively, because of their presumed skills in management they might be encouraged to pursue internally-oriented administrative roles. Currently, these are the only routes available and to do otherwise risks identity failure. Not being able to find a way to ‘be’ in HE can be costly, as Jacqueline details, and is likely to result in the practitioner returning to practice, to recover a sense of ‘self’, autonomy or status outside of the business school and renouncing a thwarted academic identity.
Renouncing at Work
Bardon et al’s (2023) recent paper is helpful in understanding ‘renouncing at work’. Renouncing is ‘the act or practice of giving up or rejecting something once enjoyed or desired’. They identify two types of renouncing within organisations.
- First is renouncing to conform to organisational demands. For example the practitioner-turned-academic might have to renounce their claim to disciplinary knowledge and expertise and instead switch to SoTL.
- Second is renouncing organisational expectations and demands and thereby maintain meaning and a sense of self. For example, the practitioner-turned-academic whose commitment to the pursuit of disciplinary research is thwarted by the organisation, might seek to refuse or reject roles associated with the teaching of practice (industrial placement co-ordinator etc), or inward facing bureaucratic roles.
Bardon et al (2023) further develop their theorising of renouncing at work to include:
- suffered renouncing (e.g. when individuals feel like they have no other choice)
- accepted renouncing (e.g. when individuals renounce to comply with norms)
- chosen renouncing (e.g. when individuals renounce for instrumental reasons).
This helpfully surfaces different renouncing strategies for the practitioner-turned-academic as well as implications for the business school.
|Suffered renouncing||Accepted renouncing||Chosen renouncing|
|Renounce to conform (and therefore succeed within the organisation)||Renouncing as sacrifice |
Forget practice background and start again with a(another) PhD.
|Renouncing as self-discipline |
Actively join in SoTL, do scholarship, weaving in practice experience when possible. Take on senior admin roles
|Renouncing as a challenge |
Determination to demonstrate value to research community - ‘against the odds’
|Renounce organisational expectations (and therefore deviate from organisational norms)||Renouncing as resignation |
|Renouncing as a means to self preservation |
Minimal SoTL, focus on outside activities, work/life balance - with perhaps a spot of consulting?
|Renouncing as a means of emancipation |
Leave academia and pursue ‘intellectual’ interests outside of academia
Researching not Renouncing
Renouncing is not unique to the practitioner-turned-academic. Far from it. But the practitioner-turned-academic may be more likely to renounce the organisational expectations of the business school (rather than renounce to conform) given their pathway into academia, likely levels of experience, sense of autonomy and agency and possible lack of investment in an ‘academic career’. Their comfort with renouncing might challenge the current toolbox of strategies and tactics used to encourage organisational compliance.
The current focus on research impact and engagement may prompt business schools to find ways to value and recognise the practitioner-turned-academic for who they are and what they bring. Without organisational innovation within research intensive business schools, which allows the practitioner-turned-academic to participate in and contribute to disciplinary research, it is however only likely to intensify and increase renouncing. A starting point for such innovation might be our colleagues within medical schools and their familiarity with blending research and practice. The principles and practice of ‘engaged research’ might also be fruitful; for example working to the dual mandate of applied use and advancing fundamental understanding, simultaneously.
I look forward to the day when our Early Career Researchers (ECRs) are joined by an equally talented and passionate community of practitioner-turned-academic researchers or SCRs (Second Career Researchers).
Dr Simon Blyth is Senior Lecturer in Marketing at University of Bristol Business School. Before that he worked in industry (Unilever, IDEO etc) for nearly 20 years.
Bardon, T., S. Frémeaux, C. Letierce and T. Roulet (2023). "Making sense of renouncing: A typology of types, motives, and approaches to renouncing at work." European Management Review: 1.
Deighton, J. A., C. F. Mela and C. Moorman (2021). "Marketing Thinking and Doing." Journal of Marketing 85(1): 1-6.
Levina, N. and E. Vaast (2005). "The Emergence of Boundary Spanning Competence in Practice: Implications for Implementation and Use of Information Systems." MIS Quarterly 29(2): 335-363.
Schein, E. H. (1987). The clinical perspective in fieldwork. Newbury Park, Calif., Sage Publications.
Van De Ven, A. H. and P. E. Johnson (2006). "Knowledge for Theory and Practice." The Academy of Management Review 31(4): 802-821.