This post might be a bit random but there are some thoughts mulling in the back of my head and I figure if I get them out of my head where other people can engage with them, they might grow into something more coherent.
Please treat what follows as preliminary thinking. Thinking aloud. An invitation to dialogue.
I actively welcome comments.
There seem to be be two debates going on separately in relation to academic research.
One is about “relevance”: speaking to an audience beyond academia, knowledge mobilization, knowledge transfer, research utilization.
The other is about “the PhD problem”: overproduction of PhDs, or underproduction (depending on your perspective), the lack of academic career opportunities for doctoral graduates, the lack of preparation for non-academic careers, the needs for Highly Qualified Personnel in the New Knowledge Economy.
The value of academic knowledge to society
Both of these debates turn on the question of the value of academic knowledge and academic training to society, broadly conceived.
Sometimes the value seems obvious but the connections are in need of some work. Incentives. New skills. Different dissemination strategies. Building relationships.
Sometimes it is the value that is in question. This seems to be a particular problem in the humanities but I suspect it lurks in all disciplines.
Certainly in both debates the ability of academics (i.e. professors working in universities) to either articulate the value of their research to those beyond their academic circles or to adequately prepare their graduate students to work in jobs unlike their own appears as a problem.
Some hints that these issues might be aspects of the same issue
Back in 2005, I heard an executive from RIM (was it Jim Balsillie? EDIT I bow to the expertise and better memory of Phipps and Charbonneau in the comments and agree that it was likely Mike Lazaridis) speak to a conference addressing these issues. Whoever it was, his take on knowledge mobilization was that “the knowledge walks off your campus into my labs” in the form of graduate students.
He seemed to be saying that he didn’t care if professors themselves did anything to “transfer” their knowledge to non-academics like himself. He cared that they trained graduate students, involved them in their cutting edge research, and then sent them out to be employed outside academia where they could apply what they learned to the practical problems that a company like RIM wanted to solve.
But that image of the knowledge walking across campus really stuck out.
Some things we know about Knowledge Mobilization/Knowledge Transfer
We know that it is not (or not just) about writing in plain language for a broader audience. Writing might be the primary way academics communicate with each other but it might not be the best way to reach non-academic audiences.
We know that it works better if the people who need the knowledge are involved in the research process early and consistently.
We know that the vast majority of research utilization is not instrumental. In other words, very rarely does anyone take one set of research results and apply them directly to a particular situation they are facing. More often than not, research utilization is about changing the way people think about the problem and thus how they approach solving it.
We know that trust is important. Those who need the knowledge need to trust the source. That isn’t just about prestige or authority, it is often about knowing them well enough to know that they understand what the needs are and that their research really addresses them.
Some things we know about PhDs and non-academic careers
Students need to be able to articulate how their knowledge meets the needs of potential employers.
Students need to network with potential employers. Informational interviewing. Learning more about how different employment sectors work. Etc.
How these things might fit together
Academics need to build relationships with non-academic audiences as a foundation for successful knowledge mobilization/transfer/utilization.
Academics who are actively involved in knowledge mobilization/transfer are more likely to be able to articulate how their research is useful to potential non-academic employers of their graduate students. They are thus more likely to be able to help their graduate students present themselves well to non-academic employers.
Academics who are actively involved in knowledge mobilization/transfer are more likely to be able to offer their graduate students opportunities to learn about potential non-academic employers through attending relevant non-academic conferences and working with non-academic research users on aspects of the research, dissemination, or application.
Academics who have relationships with non-academic audiences are more likely to be able to arrange internships for their graduate students, which would give them valuable knowledge of potential non-academic employers and work experience in non-academic settings.
Academics who are actively involved in knowledge mobilization/transfer are more likely to value non-academic career paths for their students, not least because they understand and value the work that their non-academic partners are doing and the importance of academic research to that work.
Having former students working for research partners (or potential research partners) is likely to strengthen the relationships that enable the academic researcher to do more of this type of work.
Having students who go on to work in non-academic settings that use their research is likely to be an important indicator of an academic’s ability to successfully mobilize/transfer knowledge.
Academics who want to provide better career preparation for their graduate students might find that the relationships built through their students leads to opportunities for collaborative research with non-academic partners and/or knowledge mobilization/transfer opportunities.
Now you know what’s been going on in my head. How does it land with you?
Am I making any sense at all?
How can we take this insight further to improve both graduate education, career opportunities for graduates, and knowledge mobilization/transfer/utilization?
How might this apply to those in the humanities, where the most pressing issue seems to be articulating the value of humanities knowledge beyond academia? In particular, what does it mean for the humanities to know that conceptual utilization is more common than instrumental utilization?
If you are reading this in a feed reader or an e-mail, please click through and leave your thoughts in the comments section.
Be polite. Treat all contributions at thinking aloud. We’re all intelligent. Some of us have thought about some of this more than others but we can all learn something.