For almost a year now I have been working at the Faculty of Graduate Studies at York University and have come in contact with many Masters and PhD students, some of their supervisors, faculty members, Grad Program Directors and Assistants, and others who help our grad students with the process of their research. Apart from my own personal research experience working in a Health Psychology Lab – garnering a deeper understanding of the research process from literature review, to grant applications to peer-review publications, as well as working in York’s Knowledge Mobilization Unit, I see eager grad students still working toward an end point and counting the days to the home stretch of simply doing research as a means of degree completion rather than somehow making their research useful beyond the degree process.
The final thesis or dissertation defence is the culmination of years of labour but hopefully not simply the end of putting all of that research to good use.
It may seem obvious, most academic pursuits towards a graduate degree are not simply to achieve the degree itself but towards greater accomplishment. On the surface, some students realize the research they do will have some value beyond their own individual academic interests. Yet, in my own experience (particularly in the field of knowledge mobilization), today’s research pursuits – including those of graduate students – need to be carefully thought out to include how such research may have practical applications and are useful beyond the academy to society in general.
As I wrote about in an earlier blog, graduate students must now see themselves as boundary spanners undertaking research that has the potential to cross over several disciplines. On the one hand, it may simply be traditional academic research in the pursuit of a graduate degree. On the other, it may create engagement with community stakeholders, business entrepreneurs, and policy makers.
York University grad student Bart Danko is a recent and outstanding example of a student presenting his research with broader social and economic impact. Bart has not only pursued his interests in the interdisciplinary subjects of Environmental Studies and Law through York’s unique MES/JD program (the only program of its kind in Canada), he has also harnessed the power of social media by creating a film and website about his research. Like Bart, current and future students need to become more collaborative and networked in the knowledge and innovation society in which we now live by presenting research in broader and technological ways. It’s what is referred to as doing research with collective impact over isolated impact.
It may seem a daunting challenge to think about and involve a broader field of stakeholders in the grad research process, especially trying to reconcile how to bring together sectors who speak different languages and may use the research in different contexts. Couple that with the necessity of explaining to these various stakeholders composed of community, business and government organizations or agencies why this research makes sense, what it’s saying, and how this research is useful to society.
This is where knowledge mobilization and institutional knowledge brokers come in.
Planning your graduate research is already a daunting task.
Graduate students need to starting thinking about pursuing research interests that may also overlap with something not necessarily “in your field” that may have both an academic and applied purpose. Yet I would argue most graduate students have never even heard of a knowledge broker and what they do for making community/university connections.
Knowledge brokers can distill multiple sources from multiple areas into compelling and clear reasons for making graduate research useful to society. Knowledge brokers can build a case quickly and persuasively and learn to incorporate interdisciplinary and multi-sector voices into a coherent conversation about creating value in the research process – not just about the value in receiving the degree itself. Knowledge brokers can help community stakeholders learn to get the gist of the research quickly and be able to distill the applications in a way that will be understandable even to someone who is totally unfamiliar with a research topic.
Most importantly, knowledge brokers help to create a quality product working as a liaison between researcher and community interests: making research useful to society. In an age of an academic research paradigm shift, graduate students must now learn to think about community engagement over and over again, week after week from research to research.
Not only are current graduate student researchers expected to hone their ability to think, research, analyze, and write – core skills that have always been required to complete a thesis or dissertation – graduate research students can now be expected to start thinking about knowledge mobilization to make their research useful beyond the academy. And with the use of knowledge brokers, I would argue, in a far more effective manner than they would ever be able to do were they to keep to a more traditional academia-only research path.
If graduate student researchers stay in a traditionally-defined academic mode, research will be confined to papers for grant applications and scholarly publications with little more than the personal value – (dare I say) even more selfish value of a degree only for the sake of getting a degree. While the university creates space and rightly celebrates traditional scholarship, those grad students who take time, particularly those in the social sciences can create broader application value of their research results. Working with other researchers and community members to work out new ideas and think about interesting questions that may not be directly related to your field of research, taking the time to wonder about other areas beyond the university, and having the flexibility to work with other stakeholders to pursue broader research application can have extremely rewarding results as well as that of the goal of receiving your degree.
Not only will this broader type of thinking and research enhance your ability to complete your thesis or dissertation in a timely and comprehensive fashion, it will allow you to connect your research beyond the academy by linking to and enabling social benefit.
Knowledge mobilization teaches researchers to research broadly, looking at seemingly unrelated areas.
I doubt that former York University graduate student Tanya Gulliver initially thought that her research about heat and vulnerable citizens would lead to Toronto adopting Canada’s first heat registry without the use of York University’s knowledge brokers and Knowledge Mobilization Unit. It was because Tanya broadened her graduate research as part of a community-university research project with Parkdale Activity and Recreation Centre using knowledge mobilization methods. The impact of this collaborative, graduate student research was covered by The Toronto Star. More often than not, academic disciplines do not talk to one another from the research silos that continue to exist. As a result, researchers miss important and potentially relevant opportunities for collaboration and research impact beyond the university.
To me, as a participant in the graduate student life-cycle and as a knowledge mobilization blogger, this is standard practice in wanting to push researchers – now particularly graduate students – to think about their research in broader terms. Whenever I write a new blog post I look for ways to include anything that may potentially be helpful to graduate students and help facilitate dialogue in areas that most graduate students wouldn’t normally cross into – such as community/university engagement. I don’t feel compelled to tell grad students to stay within traditional academic boundaries and want graduate students to see the potential they have to be boundary spanners. I want to help graduate students (and other researchers) to make their research useful to society through knowledge mobilization.
Academia as a whole is starting to embrace knowledge mobilization and knowledge brokers more into the research process. Particularly in Canada, these include developing institutional knowledge mobilization capacity with designated knowledge brokers with great success.
It’s a shame it’s taking a bit longer elsewhere – and it’s counterproductive in creating broader value and social benefit. Instead of merely acknowledging the benefits of greater community-university engagement, particularly for graduate students, wouldn’t it make sense for academia to embrace it further – and embrace it more enthusiastically as adding greater value to the graduate student experience? Like York’s Faculty of Graduate Studies did with the Graduate Professional Skills Launch that included a knowledge mobilization workshop.
I would argue that the best thing academia can do for its graduate students is to encourage such pursuits to the greatest extent possible. In fact, I’d go a step further – provide students with opportunities to connect with knowledge brokers and community stakeholders, as York University and other members of the ResearchImpact network have done. It gets graduate student thinking and engaging beyond their own traditional research process.
In following this strategy, we can teach our graduate students skills that will make the process of thesis or dissertation research more fulfilling knowing there is also an aspect of value for improving society and not just for getting a degree in higher education.
Researchers who cross disciplines and involve community in the research process through institutional knowledge brokers are still rare – particularly in graduate studies. But don’t we need this type of valuable broader research to keep graduate studies thriving? Some of the greatest and brightest graduate students have been those who bring fresh thinking and perspectives from a variety of disciplines and from other sectors. Such graduate students (and grad supervisors) are less likely to be narrowly-focused and constrained by lines of thinking that are discipline-specific, and more likely to be open to connections with the use of knowledge brokers that are not always obvious to many academics.
The single best training and preparation we can offer graduate student researchers is make their research useful to society. Perhaps in the future, the graduate student path will include knowledge mobilization strategies as the rule rather than the exception in the pursuit of a graduate degree.