Making a Difference Beyond Academia

Jun 13 '13

Today’s dispatch from the Bridging the Gap project is from James Goldgeier.  Earlier posts are here, here, and here.


Thanks to John and Henry for participating in our annual International Policy Summer Institute (IPSI) and for allowing us to share some of the main takeaways from our sessions.  We had a great group of scholars attend this week, all of whom seek to translate their academic expertise for a broader policy and public audience.

It is important to remember that whether it is a journalist calling for a quote, a producer deciding whom to put on the air, or a policy journal or newspaper considering a pitch or submission, a scholar is deemed relevant through his or her academic expertise.  Media venues seeking a politician or pundit will find one. But if they are looking for someone with deep knowledge of a subject or region, someone who has developed a theory based on methodologically rigorous work, then a scholar is their go-to person.

But the scholar should also understand the broader policy context or public audience. If the goal is to reach decision-makers, then it’s important to understand that decision-makers make decisions. Not only do they want to understand what is happening and why it is happening, but they want to know what they should do about it.  And so the key takeaway from our week at IPSI is thinking about how to take an academic project and carve out segments of the research for different venues.  It’s great that you wrote a Princeton University Press book or published an article in International Organization.  However, since policymakers are unlikely to read these publications, think about how to take the main arguments of your work, apply the lessons learned, and write something specific and concrete for the policymaking community in a venue it will access.

If you have a good, clear op-ed that makes an impressive argument, don’t just submit it to The New York Times, get rejected and quit. Find the right outlet. Getting a piece in Foreign Affairs is tough, but there are a lot of policy journals that are looking for smart, informed articles that will succeed in promoting your work.  See if Foreign Policy (or the Monkey Cage!) will post a guest blog entry from you.

We talked a lot this week about how much time junior scholars should dedicate to these activities. An untenured scholar first and foremost must complete the requisite academic work to obtain a positive evaluation from external reviewers as well as university faculty committees, deans and provosts. With that said, as long as the policy-relevant work is not instead of, but in addition to, the peer-reviewed work, the scholar should be okay. Certainly top-level administrators and members of the University Board of Trustees are delighted to see their faculty getting broader public and policy visibility.

A great way to connect to the policy community is through policy-oriented fellowships such as those offered by institutions including the Council on Foreign Relations and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, as well as more generally through affiliations with think tanks. Build a network that includes think tank scholars, participate in their activities (which do not require one to live in Washington or New York), offer to present your research at brown-bag discussions of their scholars, or spend a sabbatical in residence at one of them. Once a scholar has attained some visibility, non-residential appointments at think tanks can open doors to getting policy writings in front of a broader community.

We’ve learned through the years running our Bridging the Gap project that there are a lot of scholars who want to make a difference beyond academia.  The best way to do that is to take each scholarly project you have and think about the full range of publications that you can pursue to reach different audiences, thereby raising your visibility not only among your academic peers but the national and international policy audiences you believe would benefit from your message.  And as a media producer said to the group this morning, “Remember that you are the master of your own brand.”