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!!