Tanja Collavo is a Skoll Centre Early Career Research Fellow, DPhil student at Oxford specialising in networking organisations operating in the social entrepreneurship sector. In the fall of 2017, Tanja spent an academic term at Stanford University to participate in PhD workshops in sociology and philanthropy and to discuss her working papers with Stanford Faculty. Here she gives her candid revelations after spending some time outside the ‘Oxford bubble’.
In the social impact world, people often discuss the importance of empathy and of putting yourself in the shoes of those people you’re trying to help. The truth is, when you live and work in the same place for a long period, and spend time with a like-minded crowd, it is extremely difficult to think outside the box. I have spent the last four years at Oxford University as a DPhil (PhD) student and, without noticing, I became entrenched in the ‘Oxford way’ of doing things, especially of interpreting the world of academia.
Only when I left Oxford to spend a term as a visiting scholar at Stanford University, did I realize how I had started to take for granted many things that were actually Oxford-specific: from small things like calling the final PhD examination a “viva”, to bigger things like the interpretation of a doctoral degree as a solitary challenge. Three months in a ‘different place’ suddenly showed me that to truly feel empathy or understand other people, cultures and ways of thinking, we should give ourselves at least some months in a new reality, in particular the reality of those we want to connect with, or help.
Besides this very general reflection – which seems obvious but we often forget when giving advice to social entrepreneurs, intrapreneurs and change-makers – I came away from California with several insights about practice in the context of academic research within the social impact world:
The study of social impact (and of organizations oriented towards producing it) should be a multi-disciplinary endeavor. The Stanford Centre on Philanthropy and Civil Society (Stanford PACS) organizes a termly workshop that gathers PhD students and post-docs from different departments such as the business school, sociology, economics, political economy or history, and allows them to discuss philanthropy or civil society organizations through multiple perspectives. The combination of these perspectives has provided me a more thorough understanding of the third sector and of its key components such as foundations, associations, social enterprises and non-profit-distribution organizations. Furthermore, it has generated new insights on their historical evolution and on how some of the third-sector’s current features have been the product of a cultural and historical shaping rather than something written in stone. These new insights have improved my ability to read the sector I am looking at ― social entrepreneurship in the U.K ― and have showed me how some of my data actually speak about broader phenomena that might even be more relevant and interesting than those I am analyzing. They also showed me that without understanding the broader context and arguments, research cannot be explanatory or complete.
Research advances more quickly and has more impact if it happens in teams rather than as an individual project. Working at Oxford, I got used to being alone in developing a research proposal, gathering data and figuring out how findings can be relevant for practitioners in the social impact space. At Stanford, I instead discovered that alongside their doctoral project, PhD students participate in several team projects, which are led by a member of faculty and to which researchers at different stages of their career contribute. The presence of a team increases the amount of data collected and analyzed and the chance of reaching conclusions that are well elaborated and developed. Indeed, working in a team where people have different backgrounds and levels of experience creates a constant feedback loop, as well as the feeling of being part of something that really matters, because it is far greater than a single individual and her interests or skills.
Identifying a community of practice helps with getting feedback and with remaining excited about a project or topic. Because of my work in relative isolation, I often had doubts about what I was working on, how I was approaching it, or whether my research was something that could actually help individuals and organizations to improve their practices in delivering social impact. By having multiple opportunities to connect with peers that were interested in my same field or theories, I received important feedback, had the opportunity to bounce ideas and to test what was interesting and relevant for people who were not as invested in my research project as I was. Most importantly, sharing my insights and data and discovering that other people were excited about them, made me excited again about what I was doing and about its potential to have some academic and practical relevance.
The frequent engagement of faculty with students and its genuine interest in learning about new projects and ideas fosters a productive research environment. I was really surprised by the ease with which I could interact with world-class faculty at Stanford. All the professors I contacted found at least thirty minutes to listen to my project, even if they had no obligation to, and some of them even invited me to join their workshops in order for me to meet other students, learn about their projects and get additional feedback on mine. Attending these workshops allowed me to appreciate the extent to which a close and frequent interaction between faculty and PhD students is extremely beneficial for both. Faculty remains on top of their game, gets new inspiration, and actively participates in the training of those who will become their future colleagues. Students feel supported, have a point of reference whenever they are in doubt, and learn quickly how to network in the academic environment.
Now that I am back, I am determined to bring some of the positive insights and practices that I experienced at Stanford back to my own community in Oxford. If I learnt something in these months at Stanford it is that we should all strive, whenever we have the opportunity, to leave our nest, get ready to learn and confront ourselves with different realities. Especially if the goal is to create real and lasting social impact, we cannot afford to be entrenched in a single community.