Five ways to make a difference

Sticky notes listing impacts of climate change.
Impacts, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

We aren’t here just to generate papers, people.

We’re here to make a difference, to improve things.

Heaven knows, there are enough issues out there that need our help!

If your research sits within the academy, being cited by other researchers, then you might get a promotion. But you probably won’t make a difference.

Here are five ways you can get out there and help put your research into action.

1. Don’t be shy

Making a difference involves talking to people and, more importantly, listening, engaging, and understanding them, and having them understand you. For some of us, this is harder than others. It is hard to start a conversation if you don’t know where to begin.

There are three ways that I use to think about who I want to talk to:

  • Personal learning networks: I don’t need to say much about this idea because I can point you to Rellypops’ excellent post about it. Suffice to say that it is a coherent way to think about all the people you get inspiration from, and give energy to.
  • Professional networks: Just about everybody has a professional network – they are the people you work with. Some people extend that network by keeping in touch with past colleagues. Others speak at conferences, engage with LinkedIn or Facebook groups; in other words, they cultivate their networks strategically.
  • The media: The media is a network of a different sort, and requires careful handling. I just want to point you to one good resource: The Conversation. The Conversation is an excellent way for academics to get their ideas into the media space with a bit more control and professional journalistic assistance.

All of this talking and listening, this engaging, is important because it tests your ideas. It tests them outside of the walls of the academy. It means you are talking to people who don’t care about you, and don’t necessarily care about the world of ideas, but might care about your topic. They might give you excellent (but hard) feedback, and they might carry your ideas further, into their own networks.

2. Work with the people who implement

Some of these people might even want to work with you. Talking to people is fine, but working with people is better.

It is very easy for researchers to work in a bubble, where we are only talking, and listening, to people just like us. I don’t mean people who agree with us – I mean people who are researching the same broad topic within a university structure. They might be shredding our articles in review, buttonholing us at conferences or funding our research but, fundamentally, they share the same world view.

Ignoring the hype from your university for a minute, it is very rare that a research group develops an idea and takes it all the way to market. I don’t care if that idea is a new widget, cure, policy or School of Art. If you want your research to be adopted by others, you need to work with other people along the way. People who, by their very nature, will have different ideas to you.

These people might be industrialists, government policy makers, community leaders or (shock, horror) the population you are researching. Ordinary people implement too, you know.

Whoever they are, their requirements will be completely different from yours. Their timelines will be shorter, their world view may be at odds with yours, they will have different pressures and different needs. They won’t care about stuff that you think is fundamental, and they will get hung up on things that you don’t care about at all.

These differences will often be hard to cope with, but if you can find a way forward, they will generally make your research stronger.

3. Join your industry body

Most of these ‘people who implement’ will belong to some sort of industry or professional body. This might be a highly organised international group like the International Council of Museums, or it might be a smaller group like the Museums Australia (Victoria) (the Victorian chapter of the peak body for Australian museums).

‘Industry’ is an interesting word. I’m using it in the broadest context, in the sense of the group that probably employ your graduates. It might be an easily identifiably group like the aerospace industry, if you teach rocket science. It might be a loose coalition of largely self-employed people like writers, if you teach creative writing.

Or it might be a sector of the government, if you teach…I was thinking of finance and economics here, though graduates from many disciplines move into the civil service. That is, in part, because there is some part of government that is administering legislation related to every facet of society. That means that, for most research problems, there is a government department that will be interested in it. They may not be looking at it directly, but they will be coping with the overall impact or dealing with it at the edges or desperately trying to understand something coming at them from the future.

It is very difficult to talk to government as a lone researcher. You might write a submission to a government enquiry, or be asked to present on a particular issue. Either way, you risk being a lone voice. As a recognised expert speaking on behalf of an industry body, however, you carry much more weight.

First of all, the government is taking less of a risk because you have already been ‘vetted’ by the industry group. Second, it is much harder to ignore a group that represents a whole sector of society.

4. Set standards

During the Tech Boom, Wired asked what the key inventions of the 20th Century were. One of the most cogent answers talked about the ability to reach worldwide consensus, across political, cultural and language differences, about matters of common interest. That is, the ability to set standards.

If you want to make a fundamental, long-term change in an area, then contribute to the development of standards for that issue.

This might be a formal, technical standard, such as Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (ISO/IEC 40500). It might be an international law, such as the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. It might be a national guideline that ends up having international impact, such as the Section 508 Amendment to the United States Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

Whatever level it works at, a formal standard puts a stake in the ground. It says that this is the minimum acceptable level for whatever you are trying to implement.

Standards work is, in some ways, ideal for academics. It requires a high level of expertise in the specified area, and involves a lot of talking, reading and writing. It is a very formal form of polite (and some not so polite) arguing. And, sometimes, international travel!

5. Mold the future

The most lasting impact that most academics have is not through their research at all. It is through the students that they teach. Be inspiring! Feed the future. Shape the next cohort of professionals in your industry. Your teaching, supervision and mentoring has the capacity to improve a substantial cohort of professionals. Your course development work has the ability to shape the fundamental ideas that flow through to that industry. Your teaching can help to inspire the next generation.

To my mind, that is the best impact of all.

These are not the only ways to make a difference, by any means. They are just some techniques that I have seen used to powerful effect. I’m hoping that you can suggest others.


  1. Hi Jonathan

    Great post on an interesting topic. I was going to add a couple of ideas to your first point (‘Don’t be shy’):

    1. Give talks to the general public who are interested in your topic (say patient groups if you work on a particular disease or environmental groups etc.). I used to speak to recreational fishermen (since I work on fish eyes and vision) and it was such fun and a great way to learn to communicate outside my area. And yes there were good and tough questions, somehow there was always an ophthalmologist in the audience who would grill me on things I knew nothing about! Schools are great too, a lot of them have ‘researchers in residence’ programs and you get to enthuse kids at an early age.

    2. Write articles about your work in industry publications such as magazines or newsletters. Again I found it a great way to reach a much broader audience and think about a broader application of my work. For example, for those ‘down-under’ Australasian Science takes articles from scientists about their work

    All the best, Kerstin


    • Thanks, Kerstin

      I absolutely agree. Sometimes, I think that you get more interest and better questions from general audiences than you do from presenting conference papers.


    • I encourage every academic to do the same. The Conversation is excellent!

      Like your blog – I was a classic procrastinator when I was a student.


      • Hi Jonathan, thanks, I am very new to blogging but reading the research and thesis whisperer blogs inspired me to start one for undergraduate students. I look forward to reading all of your posts in the future 🙂


  2. […] We aren’t here just to generate papers, people. We’re here to make a difference, to improve things. Heaven knows, there are enough issues out there that need our help! If your research …   We aren’t here just to generate papers, people. We’re here to make a difference, to improve things. Heaven knows, there are enough issues out there that need our help! If your research sits within the academy, being cited by other researchers, then you might get a promotion. But you probably won’t make a difference. Here are five ways you can get out there and help put your research into action.  […]


  3. Reblogged this on Learning Analytics and You! and commented:
    Academic research can be an arduous and daunting task. Just like a drunkard who itches constantly to relinquish its thirst, I think a budding researcher needs to come back to this wonderful article time and again to keep up his research morale soaring high.


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