Being an international researcher

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Centre for Enterprise and Entrepreneurship Studies

Nick Williams is a Professor at the Centre for Enterprise and Entrepreneurship Studies and Deputy Director of Postgraduate Research Studies. His research mainly focuses on entrepreneurship and economic development, and he has particular interests in transition and post-conflict economies, as well as enterprise policy.

Lots of flags of different colours against a bright blue sky

How following genuine interests can open unexpected doors and research opportunities abroad

One of the most enjoyable things about being an academic is undertaking research on topics that you are genuinely interested in. Research interests are not prescribed. They represent the individual interests of the scholar, or group of scholars coming together to work on what they see as important or interesting topics. In this sense, scholarship is what scholars do.

Within this, the scope of opportunities has widened considerably. Barriers to being an international academic have been broken down. Academics now collaborate with people all around the world, exploring topics that would previously not have been open to them. Academics now focus on global issues rather than solely their own locality. They can also better follow their genuine interests.

My research on post-conflict economies is a case in point. I didn’t come at the topic with a distinct research gap in mind. Rather, I was curious about these places. I wanted to understand the impacts of conflict and how reconstruction and development is aided or prevented after the cessation of violence. I also wanted to visit places that I had only ever seen on the TV, often being portrayed in a negative way.

My research has mainly focused on the Balkan economies, which saw widespread violence caused by the collapse of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. I began by supervising two Kosovar PhD students, which provided me with the initial opportunity to visit Kosovo and neighbouring countries, and my interest expanded from there.

I was fortunate enough to be awarded a Leverhulme Trust Research Fellowship which allowed me to explore these economies in significant depth. I am also currently developing new funding bids related to this topic, for example the Global Challenges Research Fund which has a distinct element of conflict and development within it.

In doing this research, I have had many adventures. I have been lost in the mountains of Bosnia & Herzegovina; had meetings in concrete factories in Kosovo; and interviewed people who had been part of the leadership structures in the wars as well as the victims of it.

These experiences have expanded my horizons in terms of my understanding of the world, but also led (importantly for scholarly reputation of course) to numerous publications and presentations on the topic of post-conflict development. I have a book forthcoming with Oxford University Press which examines the return of people who were forced to flee war-affected Bosnia & Herzegovina, Kosovo and Montenegro and are now returning to invest and live.

The research has expanded my collaborative opportunities more widely. I have been invited to present my research on post-conflict economies at Harvard, universities in Europe as well as the Balkans, and to supranational organisations such as the United Nations. Such activity is important to my own job satisfaction, as communicating the research outside the scope of traditional academic outputs leads to greater impact.

My research fits into other broad areas of study being undertaken by colleagues at the University of Leeds. Much of the research activity is around entrepreneurship in challenging contexts, be that issues of poverty, entrepreneurial activity in transition economies, or social entrepreneurship in Africa. This research brings together scholars at the University of Leeds to develop ideas collaboratively, challenging inconvenient truths regarding entrepreneurship where necessary. The research overlaps and informs further work, including ideas on topics as well as methodologies.  

I am not very good at receiving advice so err on the side of caution when giving it. But if I could offer advice to early career researchers, I would say that following your real interests is of the utmost importance. Doing research on topics that you find genuinely interesting can provide a high level of job satisfaction, and this research can in turn inform your teaching and leadership practice. So don’t necessarily look for the current buzz words or emerging research topics unless they truly overlap with your interests. Through following your interests, it is possible to develop lasting and exciting collaborations with academics from around the world who share your passions.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author and may not reflect the views of Leeds University business school or the University of Leeds.