The venture capital approach to being an academic

Traditional VCs seek stable returns on investments with little risk of failure. However, venture capitalists invest in a range of risky but high-return projects. Similarly, traditional academics look for safe and recognized lines of research that attract academic research committees and book publishers. On the other hand, enterprising academics are looking for an entirely new line of inquiry with a high potential for impact, but also a high risk of failure.

An enterprising academic is someone who might write every peer-reviewed paper on a topic entirely new to them. They will probably have a spare area of ​​research where they know everything and feel at home, but there is a good chance that this area of ​​research will be dry from time to time, and it makes sense not to continue plowing in the same area, but invest time and effort elsewhere. Adventurous academics have a more demanding approach to work, in part because they understand the value of time and the trade-offs of working on multiple lines of research.

Entering a completely new line of research, the researcher needs to read the relevant literature, learn the standard methods and techniques of the topic. The enterprising academic sees an advantage in the challenge of learning new or different methods. The cross-pollination of ideas often leads to new insights, and sometimes to easy fliers. Even in failure, enterprising academics see benefit in this work, knowing that what they have learned about a different field and a different method may be useful on another project later.

An enterprising academic might, now and then, consider writing a review of an unknown book from a lesser known publishing house. The world does not need 51Street I published a review about the flashy new book from a famous professor at a large university. A book review by an unknown scientist, published by a small press, may disappear into the ether, but it is also possible, if this is the only review of this book, that many people will take a look at the book. Once upon a time when I, and no one else, reviewed a book that had been set aside for a number of college classes. Every September and October, when the book is set, hundreds of students find these chapters reviewed on my blog. By reviewing the work of a lesser known researcher, that researcher will inevitably find your review and, if it is positive, print it out and put it in his fridge. He may also call you and befriend you. In the long run, while you occasionally review the work of lesser-known scholars, one or two of them may rise in the field and remember the help you gave them. Meanwhile, your review of the book of a famous scientist will sink into the ocean, and the famous scientist will never contact you and will not care, one way or another, what you have to say about his book.

It’s also possible to be academically adventurous in the classroom. Instead of repeating that old set of lesson plans from last year, add a new lecture or two, a discussion day, a workshop, or a field trip that’s a little out of the ordinary. The new assignment is likely to backfire, but if even one out of ten innovations in a classroom is successful, over time, you will have built a unique and successful classroom. The enterprising academic seeks ways to use the combined strength of his students in productive research projects, integrating research and teaching.

Failure is a major part of being an academic venture capitalist, just as it is with being a venture capitalist. Failure or rejection in a project does not kill enterprising academics, because they are able to absorb the loss and move on to other projects. This is a strategy for many eggs in many baskets, in the hope that some will hatch. This is particularly useful for academics who do not earn degrees at higher institutions. The academic placement rate for graduates from non-elite universities is very poor. What do you do to become an academic project? Simply put, it gives you more opportunities, expands your network, and makes your academic experience more interesting.

One interesting irony of enterprising academics is that they spread academic risk by immersing themselves in new areas of research, providing a buffer against the complete collapse of their career. The enterprising academic is more prepared for the job market than the traditional academic because he has more options when things go wrong. A traditional academic who writes, researches, and teaches on only one subject, Civil War history says, can only compete for academic positions for teaching Civil War. However, the enterprising academic, who writes a dissertation on the Civil War but also publishes an essay on the economic history of the Progressive Era and teaches a chapter on the history of China, has more options open when he discovers that there are only three vacancies in the history of the Civil War in a year, Approximately four hundred eligible candidates for it.

The bias for survival in academia is strong, and it’s easy for a graduate student to think that everyone who publishes a decent biographer of Thomas Jefferson will get a steady job, because, after all, everyone he’s ever met has been a steady professor. . Most permanent professors today have taken a traditional, low-stakes approach in academia, but so have most failed academics, and what differentiates the two is rarely just an advantage, but can be a combination of things from luck to distinction.

The Academic Risk Approach is not for all academics. It requires much more effort than the traditional route. Early-stage academics who have not yet published, or who have not published much, need to first establish themselves in one field, before they can work on projects in a variety of fields. Also, people rarely take risks in comfortable positions. Risk-averse professors may not have the motivation to inquire about new lines of research when they can publish on the same old topic they have been writing about for years. Why work so hard if you’re already at the top, or if you don’t see any hope of progress?

What percentage of academics today are academic entrepreneurs? I would say less than 10 percent, but the number is growing, especially as competition in certain areas intensifies, and more posts and credentials are essential to success. For those in almost any other profession, academics are inherently risk-averse, even as they promote the ideals of radical, world-changing research. Colleges and universities are also more stable than most other companies, rarely out of business, and almost never without a long fight. But academia remains a game of risk and reward.

Like any wise investor, enterprising academics cannot invest in research projects for nothing, with only a prayer that one will succeed. But, by diversifying their research, and working on multiple projects on new and different topics, enterprising academics have a chance to make a greater research contribution than if they were to work with traditional methods.

Michael J. Douma

Michael J. Dumas is an Assistant Research Professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, where he also serves as Director of the Georgetown Institute for the Study of Markets and Ethics. He is co-author of What is classic liberal history? (Lexington Books, 2017) and author creative historical thinking (Routledge, 2018).

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