This blog post aims to summarise the 12 tips provided for early career scholars on having policy impact on our policy page. That page distils the genius of three impactful social psychologists and includes links to lengthy interviews with them on a range of topics. The featured researchers are: community and clinical psychologist Eleanor Wertheim (LaTrobe university), environmental psychologist Kelly Fielding (University of Queensland), and cross-cultural psychologist James Liu (Massey University). The short version is:
1. Join Networks and Teams
A central point that all three scholars made is not to imagine you can do it alone - teams are more impactful. Try to find people with like-minded passions, and try to find people with an established track record as mentors, Eleanor Wertheim advises. In general, international collaborations are more impactful. James Liu adds: seek to be part of a team or system – e.g., look for internships – you can't be out there alone.
In an ideal world you might even consider policy networking before you choose your PhD advisor. Have they a record of making a difference, of disseminating research? Don't just look for publications. But even if your PhD research ends up as part of a narrower discovery-oriented vision, you can also start to look around for additional role models and mentors during your PhD and as an Early Career Researcher.
Opportunities come up to join networks and teams on professional e-lists and as you start to make yourself known at conferences and through publications. A critical point is that if you see an invitation to a meeting, as Kelly Fielding advises, turn up! Go to the meetings, sit down, be friendly, be open, and be excited - show enthusiasm. This is how you signal to others that you are a like-minded person that could be part of an ongoing network.
2. Plan and Learn
A closely related point is that like “doing great research”, “having policy impact” requires planning and lots of acquired skills and knowledge. Think about what difference you want to make in the world - aside from career and reputation, what difference will you make? If you already know a general area you want to contribute to, plan for this. Research and join organisations and interest groups. You should also be aware of who is working in the field and approach them to introduce yourself and explain your interests. Think of being in a global network: follow people on Twitter, follow them on google scholar, and join the e-lists of the major NGOs and Institutes that work on the issues you care about.
3. Seize opportunities
While research has a long term horizon and discovery (blue sky) research is slow, policy changes happen in fits and starts. Often opportunities only open for change in a country for a window or moment. You will need to learn from your mentors what the state of play is in your area, and what part of the policy cycle people are in. It is a lot easier to spot chances for leverage or learn about needs as part of a network than on your own.
Relatedly, you will need to look not just at what you’re interested in, but what government and funding bodies and inquiries and policy-makers are interested in. Think of how you can find common ground. But don’t just think alone – as James Liu says, get advice from your mentors about how to position your research. You will want to practice with mentors how to frame a pitch in terms of what you can bring to particular industry, NGO, or government audiences.
Policy impact is not a metric that feeds into getting a job in academia, and it doesn’t help you to get promoted or tenured. It is possible that a policy focus during your PhD could help you to get a job in industry or government, but seek advice if this is your aim – often times that type of job is few and far between. Winnifred Louis advises, to reduce risks in your academic career, you might aim for one line of work that is more predictable, mainstream, and published using methods other high status people in your department/ discipline recognise and value, and in journals people recognise and value. Ticking the boxes in that mainstream area allows you to take on policy work, which has uncertain timelines, controversial topics, mixed methods or under-valued methods, and may go to under-valued journals, or be disseminated in totally different formats (e.g., like websites or workshops) that others discount or see as ‘unscientific’.
So, with that caveat in mind, if you’re interested in policy work, ignore the advice to focus narrowly during your PhD. That advice is designed to make sure you get publications and finish, but you will take responsibility to do the former while also jumping at the chance to work with people from different disciplines and outside of academia. Seek to develop pluralistic methods – learn both qualitative and quantitative approaches, etc..
Dealing with conflict and negative feedback
Search for impact can bring you into contact with difficult personalities, and into arenas of passionate, bitter conflict between parties with different interests and values. There is no easy solution to this, but you can seek to become self-reflective about your own interests and values, and to upskill on conflict and change for individuals, groups, and societies.
Another important point is that much like research and academia in general, in policy work you generally encounter a very high rate of negative feedback. This is especially true early on in your career. You’ll want to practice getting used to the heat of the kitchen – people telling you what you are doing wrong is not a sign that you are failing, it’s a sign that you’re doing challenging work that not everyone values or understands, plus you have a steep learning curve to climb. Mentoring and peer support can help to get over the heavy ground when it all seems too much.
Manage your expectations and sustain your motivation
A related point is that policy changes happen in fits and starts, and like research, a lot of projects fizzle and fail. So go in with low expectations – outreach increases your chance of impact, but there are no guarantees. James Liu adds, it’s important to understand that you can't control a situation when you are out there in the field – the rigor of the research can be compromised, but this may open you up for insight. You have to be flexible, and be responsive to community needs. Community-engaged and policy-relevant research rarely goes as you planned. It’s a great adventure that keeps you growing as a person.
In summary, advice to keep your motivation during times of crushing disappointment includes having a long-term focus, sharing social support with like-minded people, having a growth mindset where you focus on learning and progress not outcomes alone, and having a values mindset where your focus is on how you can do what you can to enact your values with the opportunities that are available. And finally, recognising with humility that there are many factors that you do not control: you’ll need this skill repeatedly, and it will greatly improve your well-being.
- By Winnifred Louis
All researchers in the Social Change Lab contribute to the "Do Good" blog. Click the author's name at the bottom of any post to learn more about their research or get in touch.