How to make academic research more impactful

I have worked in ‘both worlds’ and all I can say is that they are very different. My current job as a startup co-founder/CEO differs so much from my former academic jobs.  These are some of my reflections on a panel discussion we had during the yearly PhD symposium of the faculty of engineering and architecture at Ghent University. Next to me were a science communicator, two professors, a research policy advisor and a university business developer.

The skills you are not taught at the university

“Wim, tell me about the skills you lacked when leaving the university”, asked the moderator. My reply was a list of ‘soft skills’ that are essential for a productive career (both inside and outside academia). The policy advisor agreed with this lack of soft skill development.

  • Professional people management skills: as a PhD student you are proud to do everything on your own: from building a lab-scale reactor, cleaning the lab, to publish your paper. It makes you think you work hard, and lack of budgets and leadership will stimulate it. However, people should realise that you don’t develop the superpower of delegation. If you can obtain spectacular results without doing everything yourself, that’s way more spectacular. It is because succesful delegation is cognitively pretty complex and teamwork makes you happy. Further, good management means good feedback. People typically have to guess whether their performance is good. In academic environments, I think positive feedback is often forgotten (especially important for starters and hardworking professors), negative feedback is not provided and if provided, unnecessarily diluted with non-sincere postive feedback.
  • Professional project management skills: I told that every PhD researcher needs a research plan, regardless how fundamental the research is. A plan consists of an objective and a strategy to reach that objective. The objective should describe the (potential) impact on society. The plan is a tool that keeps you on track and holds you accountable.

A plan is mostly used to secure funding, hardly used to get results. How can you ever think about valorization without a research plan?

Get rid of ‘PhD student’. Use PhD researcher

If you ask me, part of the definition of ‘student’ is ‘I’m not yet taking responsibilities’. Researchers should be aware of their societal responsibilities. It’s a very bad strategy to use the term ‘PhD student’ in that respect. They are being paid by someone, and they are capable to deliver. So instead of just ‘training people some research skills’, we should be ‘training people research skills that can potentially deliver’. It’s really a big difference: doing research and publishing some papers, or making things work. The latter is related to responsibility. And responsibility is heavy. It’s what’s in the paper that should be taken further. The end goal of many PhDs is the papers. There should be vision, outlook.

Are papers a good KPI for impact?

What impact are we talking about. Advancing science or advancing society? Probably there is a difference. I have not seen too many efforts trying to quantify the societal impact of what is written. I was also wondering ‘who is reading those papers?’. It’s a difficult discussion, and many people have thought about it. What’s the alternative?

I think papers are good, it’s easy to measure. However, I strongly feel that impact factor is not in direct relation to societal impact.

If researchers and their professors are aware of this, it would already help a lot.


If you’re a PhD student, postdoc, professor. Realise that someone is paying you to help society. Many are aware of this. But too many are not. Please, take the opportunity to change the world. It will advance your career automatically. Much more than the number of papers, which are short term KPIs. Impact is hard to quantify, but you’ll sense it.

I’m glad to hear your opinion!

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