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  • Marleen Wierenga

Kim Ceulemans, Associate Professor, TBS Business School

Updated: Dec 1, 2021


“Impact can mean different things for different people. For me, impact is really about being somehow relevant for society and contributing to changing something for practice as well, rather than thinking 'I am doing research and making a theoretical contribution only’.”


Kim started her career as a staff sustainability coordinator in a management school that is currently part of KU Leuven, a university in Belgium. She worked with different people and stakeholders on various projects, trying to integrate sustainability into teaching, research and campus operations. Kim developed, for example, a teachers’ manual for integrating sustainability into disciplinary courses, helped design a business game on CSR, and started the sustainability reporting process using GRI. “I started working from a practice point of view, and I have always kept that, at least in part. In that position, impact was logical because I was on the other side.”


Now working as an Associate Professor at TBS Business School, for Kim, impact means making sure that a study does not end up on the shelf, gathering dust. “Since sustainability topics are very complex, for me there is no question that multiple perspectives need to be involved. The impact perspective is an important part of it.”


Drawing from experience as a practitioner

Kim's story brings a new perspective to our impact stories: She was a sustainability practitioner in higher education before becoming a sustainability academic. Because of the natural overlap, Kim was already engaged in faculty research projects while working in administration as a sustainability coordinator. Sustainability reporting in higher education seemed an interesting topic which required more research, and hence Kim started her PhD journey. “Naturally, I kept this link with practice. It is something that works for me because I started from that side. It is not that I am only doing projects like that, but the link has always been there.”


Kim is in a lucky position as she is working on topics such as sustainability in higher education and responsible management education, and the practitioners for whom the research is relevant are in close proximity. Her prior experience from the practitioner side is also helpful – she knows what is relevant for practitioners and what is concrete enough for practitioners to implement.


Different types of research projects with practical relevance

Kim’s impact related projects span from sustainability indicators, to multidisciplinary research, and conceptual work on engaged scholarship. In a research project with colleagues from KU Leuven, Kim was critically reflecting on sustainability indicators and their usage in higher education: What are the implications when indicators are used in a certain way? What are you measuring and why? What is the effect on the assessment? The research was tested in a Belgian university, but Kim’s current institution also wants to use the research. “We are using some of the findings of that article to further develop and evaluate the presence of sustainability in our curricula, to develop indicators, to make an inventory to monitor what are we teaching on sustainability, make it more visible for the students, and see what we can improve. So we are applying my research to our faculty to embed sustainability further into the school.”


In another project, Kim and a colleague studied art as a way to foster systems thinking and to see sustainability topics differently. Kim and her colleague were asked to write a blog post about the project by EconomistsTalkArt.org, which was reposted on the website of the business school. The blog post triggered a lot of interest from other schools who reached out on how to implement the findings or start new projects together. Kim is currently engaged in a follow-up project with ISC Paris, KU Leuven, a French guesthouse and Van Gogh Europe to further study how art can help students learn about sustainability.


Kim also has a recent methodological paper on engaged scholarship sharing her and her colleagues’ challenges during the PhD journey on trying to navigate research-practice tensions. In this paper, they discuss the position of a researcher in a setting, and how a researcher can be reflexive and critical even in one’s own setting. Kim reflects, “What is my position? How does it affect the setting? … It is important to consider that experience as a positive thing, rather than forcing yourself to keep a distance. As long as you're critical and reflexive, you can use previous experience, but also of course the knowledge of others.”


Advice for early-career scholars

  • Being guided by the things that you are passionate about. When you work with topics you care about, it might be easier to take your research and impact work a step further. When you find the topic important, you may also want to contribute in your own way to practice. “That is something I have noticed and comes naturally to me.”

  • Talking to people and networking is important if you want to have impact. Kim advises to collaborate, be open to different perspectives, and to work with different types of stakeholders – be it academic or non-academic. Formal networks can be a good place to meet people working on the same topic. For example, Kim is a steering group member of the PRME Chapter France-Benelux and an external advisor of the Copernicus Alliance, a European network for sustainability in higher education. “The networks are not homogenous and some also include practitioners, so that makes it easier to connect with them. Sometimes it can be difficult to connect with practitioners and that’s also where these networks are helpful.”

  • Surround yourself with people who are experienced in navigating potential research-practice tensions. The rigor-relevance tension is a struggle for many scholars. Hence, it is good to have an example of someone who sees value in both sides and manages to strike that balance. “Have someone who inspires you and from whom you can learn, someone who can help you how to find a balance between different identities you may have as an academic.”

  • Applying for academic jobs, showing your impact activities can make you stand out from the rest. Universities are seeking good research published in highly-ranked journals and good teaching evaluations, but schools are also interested in who you are, how can you contribute to the life of the school, and how are you different from other people. “That is also where previous professional experience can come in or activities that are different from what other people are doing. That can always help, and for me, impact can be an added value. Of course it depends on the school, but this is becoming more important than before.”


Are you inspired by Kim’s story and want to share yours with the Impact Scholar Community? If you would like to be featured, write to Marleen Wierenga (marleen.wierenga@ru.nl)


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