The impact you can generate when doing your PhD on the job

Publishing impact according to Tessa Coffeng

 Tessa Coffeng
@Froukje Vernooij Fotografie

Dr. Tessa Coffeng studied social and organisational psychology and works as postdoc at Utrecht University (UU) research group Organisational Behaviour. She conducted her PhD research at UU and at the Dutch Authority for the Financial Markets (AFM). An interview with an early career researcher about doing research with one foot in academia and the other in the world of financial markets, and the resulting impact it generates.

How did you come to work at the AFM?

I owe this to UU and the AFM, and in particular to Distinguished Professor Naomi Ellemers and Professor Femke de Vries, at the time Board member of AFM. They came up with the idea of entering into a collaboration and to formalise it by creating a PhD position. In 2016, I started my PhD research both at UU and the AFM. In addition I worked on various projects in a behavioural team as part of AFM’s mission to contribute to fair and transparent financial markets.

By now this collaboration has been formalised further by the introduction of the ‘Psychology of Supervision’ chair, held by Professor Elianne van Steenbergen, who also works parttime for AFM. And recently a new PhD candidate has started. Moreover, each year we have UU master’s students working as trainees for  the AFM and writing their master’s thesis, and we teach part of a master’s course. I am proud of the fact that other organisations have shown their interest in such collaborations. For instance, there are now PhD candidates working at the Netherlands Authority for Consumers and Markets and at De Nederlandsche Bank, the Dutch central bank.

What do you see as the advantages of working for the AFM?

I think that working both inside and outside the university leads to the sharing of more information. This may result in improving and enhancing research. For example, I performed research into the decision-making of supervisors and directors. Usually very busy people who will not participate readily in scholarly research, let alone experiments. So you need to think about other ways to get into contact and collect data among this target group. You could think of organising workshops or network meetings. Because I myself worked in supervision, opportunities quickly came my way. This provided me with unique data for my research. It also gave me the opportunity during my research to generate impact among these professionals by introducing them to new insights.

Working with professionals allows you to identify new and relevant research questions. For instance: in psychology good decision-making is often associated with researching assumptions and alternatives. In supervision it is sometimes very important to go right ahead. The combination of the thoughtful and decisive side of decision-making led to new questions. As a result, I succeeded in publishing an article in Regulation & Governance as a psychologist. After the completion of my research, the Dutch financial newspaper, Het Financieele Dagblad, wrote a piece about my dissertation. As a consequence responses and requests from other supervisors came my way. Then I knew that my story had reached the right audience.

Working with professionals allows you to identify new and relevant research questions.

How do you select the journals in which you want to publish?

Because it is quite unusual that we as psychologists are involved in the work of supervisors, I had to figure out myself which journals to choose. I went looking for interdisciplinary journals in which my story would get the right sort of attention. The journals in which I eventually published were primarily focused on management, governance and law. The psychological perspective I added was met with appreciation. At the same time, our research group is not necessarily after publishing in international journals with the highest impact factor. More important is the match with the journal: what is the purpose of the journal and who are its readers? Then publishing becomes a means to an end instead of an end in itself.

My first article appeared in Management Decision, an academic journal in the field of management studies. The second was published in Regulation & Governance that focuses more on the governance side of things and so falls outside the scope of my own discipline, but is read by the target group I want to reach. The last article I wanted to write for a Dutch audience, so I published it in the Dutch journal Tijdschrift voor Toezicht. The journal has no impact factor, but is read by the Dutch supervisors. For instance, my colleagues at AFM are more likely to read this journal: also a way of generating impact.

Did you check if these journals were open access journals?

Yes I did, because I preferred our research to be openly available after publication. Management Decision and Regulation & Governance are part of the open access deals the UU entered into with publishers. I really think it is a good thing that the UU closes such deals to increase the impact of our research. I also liked the fact that the whole process went automatically; I did not have to worry about a thing.

Opponents of the new system of Recognition and Awards fear that early career researchers will miss (international) opportunities because the focus will be less on publishing.

If you want to pursue a career in academia, publishing in journals with a high impact factor could be a way. But I do not think this is the only road, or the only major one. At this moment I try to increase our research impact and our expertise within the Dutch government institutions and the Dutch business world. To really understand what is happening there is complicated enough as it is. Besides, I stay in touch with the international community by visiting conferences abroad and by publishing in international journals. But should that necessarily have to be in top journals?

I have noticed that it is always about that one road to reach the top of the academic hill. That also struck me during the Round table discussion of February where I was one of the speakers. The discussion focused mainly on metrics and the frustrations that go with it, whereas I think other discussions are going on among young researchers. That is why it is a good thing that a theme discussion is organised for this target group on 27 September. Hopefully this will lead to a broader conversation about matters like publishing and impact.

As for me: I think that there is too little attention for entering into a formal collaboration with an organization. This option does not enter the minds of many researchers. If PhD candidates have almost finished writing their dissertation they often wonder: do I stay within the walls of the university or will I apply for a job elsewhere? In or out? But you could also start a conversation about continuing your research partly at the university and at another organization. Such a construction could yield a lot of impact.

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