From practice to academia – a personal conundrum

puzzle2This year, 2014, has been an interesting, inspiring and challenging year. It’s the year when I began the transition from manager and policy specialist in the practical world of business to enter the world of academia, as a student of policy. It’s not been an easy transition. The biggest struggle I have faced, and still do, is learning to think like an academic rather than a practitioner. My focus is still too much on identifying practical solutions and real answers to problems, on understanding things from the practitioners point of view and on reading about what’s actually going on in the world. I am beginning to realise my mistakes, but still find myself with an internal battle, between being practical and being academic. I know it’s not that clear cut, but it is how it feels sometimes!

The year started with me in the second term of an MSc in Public Policy and finished with me having completed my MSc and started out on a PhD (see my blog for Bristol University Doctoral College on PhD life). During the year I sat through 9 taught units, submitted 8 assignments (1 still to complete) and a dissertation – that’s a lot of writing, with a lot of reading to back it up! Some assignments worked better than others, some I spent a lot of time on, others less so – the marks frequently did not reflect the time spent writing them. The one consistent issue I found with my writing, which was probably highlighted most by my dissertation, was the battle I encountered every time when it came to focusing on theory. After 20 years of working in practice, focusing on issues and solutions, with theory a distant memory, I have found the relentless need to use theory as the basis of my work a real challenge. It’s just not the way I am used to thinking any more. So the conundrum for me is – can academic work be both academic and practical? In the field of public policy one would hope so, but the focus is still very much on developing or challenging theory.

If, for example, I was doing a phd on housing policy, do I need to know what is going on in the world of housing policy? Do I need to know what the different political parties are proposing, or what the latest think tank report is saying, or about the difficulties practitioners face when it comes to delivering new housing? Or, can I ignore all of that and focus entirely on theoretical developments, what other academics have written and how these models and theories can be challenged or developed further? In the academic world it appears to me that the latter is actually the norm in some disciplines, but is it right?

The obvious answer is perhaps that the theory is there to inform practice, that we need theoretical developments to help us understand what is going on in the real world. But surely that means we need to know what is actually happening in the real world as well? So the two worlds overlap and the battle begins as to where the focus really is. That’s my conundrum and challenge for 2015. In 2014 I had successes and failures with the concept – some assignments went well, whilst in others the battle was won by the practical side of my brain. As an example, I wrote my dissertation on barriers to affordable housing and found myself more interested in answering the question about what the actual barriers are and why they exist in practice, than exploring a particular area of the theory. So I used the research I did to actually answer the question, but largely without making full use of the beautifully crafted conceptual framework I developed at the beginning of the dissertation, which talked about Kingdon’s multiple streams framework coupled with central-local and local-local relations. Needless to say I didn’t quite achieve the mark I wanted and hoped for! But a valuable lesson was learnt the hard way – theory, theory, theory – the foundation of all academic work.

The challenge for me over the next year is to begin with the theory, to see theory as the foundation of my work and put the practical side of my brain into second gear for a while. Start with the reading on theories of the policy process, governance theory and housing policy, rather than political manifestos, think tank reports and actual government policy. Whilst also remembering that, for me at least, there has to be a point to my research, that it will have some purpose in the real world, as well as in the academic world – a tricky challenge indeed!!

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8 thoughts on “From practice to academia – a personal conundrum

  1. I’d be careful about the unintended consequences. Academics are being encouraged to engage with practitioners, which requires an academic language as free as possible from jargon. So, it would be weird if a practitioner’s focus on theory made them talk more like academics. Instead, I’d say two things about the initial focus on theory. First, the point of theory is to help us generalise from specific cases, in a language that we can all understand. So, for example, we all focus on separate cases but use the same theoretical language to exchange information and, if possible, accumulate knowledge (it can be lots of housing cases, or a chance to understand housing more by comparing with health, education, justice, etc). If so, the thing to avoid is a prolonged period in the wilderness, in which people go off to find themselves, and come back with a language that no one outside of academia can understand (and, if they take little bits of many theories and out them together, only one person can understand). Second, the point of theory is to generate a wider sense of perspective, which allows us to produce ambitious, but specific and meaningful, research questions. So, if it were me, I’d say ‘always begin with the *research question*, not the theory’. That question might be as simple as ‘what is UK policy on X, and how has it changed?’, which is harder to answer than people might think.

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  2. Thanks Paul, I do take your point, the problem I find is that if I start with a simple research question then I try to answer it from a practical point of view, ignoring the theory. Which is clearly not what is required in my life as a phd student – so I am trying to rebalance my instincts built up over many years out there in practice, by refocusing on theory as a starting point and a constant reminder that it needs to be part of what I do. I guess I am over exaggerating the point to a degree.

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  3. Hi Tessa, I have a couple of comments and a question for you. The first comment is that I can appreciate the value both in what you have asserted in your post and Paul’s response; theory can indeed alienate the general consumption of your work and progression of the subject if not as accessible as possible.

    The second is that I would not worry about being ‘that’ student with the practical background, the practical approach and the practical assignments/publications. I have noticed an unfortunate shift (at least amongst my own peers here in Ireland and the UK) that the only students actually managing to progress past an MA level are those who can dawdle around their family homes for a year if not longer, with the likes of subscriptions to dense academic journals, attendance to conferences, any books that spark an interest and so on, paid for and handed to them like excessive pocket money.

    It is this breed of academic, mid-twenties with soft palms from a solemn life without labour, which will dominate many departments and lecture halls in the next 10-12 years. Although I certainly do not begrudge them their success for to get a place on any PhD programme does require some talent, their lack of practical experience, dependence on theory and social advantage creates a scission between their work and grasping the real-life implications of academic research. This cannot but become a fault line on the investments (made by way of funding and publicity) into such investigations in the first place. I think your approach and hard earned experience will distinguish you and those in similar positions (for although I may seem to exaggerate above I know the groups I am talking about will never have an absolute monopoly).

    The question I have for you is how you plan to approach a research area for your PhD dissertation, given that theory is not your first preference? I am interested because I graduated from an MA myself a couple of years ago and find that a PhD is really what I need to keep going on the career path I’m in.

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    • Thanks Katie, I take your point about mature students with practical experience compared to those entering research straight from University! In terms of my research then I am trying to base it on my own areas of interest – politics, housing, policy – and using my local knowledge of these in Bristol to form the basis of the topic. I am then working my way through the idea of an ethnographic study, which is all about seeing things from the point of view of the actors at the centre of the phenomena you are researching. This provides an opportunity to theorise, around policy process and political change issues, whilst at the same time remaining true to my own practical leanings to see how things work in reality! Hope that makes some sense – I am still working up my research proposal and questions in detail, so might be a bit vague at the moment?

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  4. Your difficulties very much echo those we have in my field of urban planning, both with people from an “academic” and theoretical background working on policy issues, and from people coming in from “practice” to do PhDs. Your worries out produce a good fusion, I think, and I hope you can find a language which does not put “practitioners” off. You might really enjoy a recent book by my old friend Ines Newman who spent many years in and around local government and related bodies, then ended up writing a book about it from an academic position as she approached retirement. Newman, I. (2014). Reclaiming local democracy. Bristol, Policy Press. It’s not directly on housing but it is on local government and policy. Good luck. Michael Edwards, Planning, UCL

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