Milda Zilinskaite, Senior Scientist, Vienna University of Economics and Business
Updated: Oct 25, 2021
"To me, impact is at the core of our job and why we exist as academics. It should be just a natural part of our job. It is a misunderstanding that we have to look out for impact or that it is something that others should define."
Milda Zilinskaite is a Senior Scientist at Vienna University of Economics and Business (WU) and manager at WU Competence Center for Sustainability Transformation and Responsibility (STaR). Her research interests encompass sustainable development and the SDGs, migration, cross-cultural management, and responsible global leadership.
Impact and the sand clock metaphor
When asked, "what do you think are the barriers for people to put impact at the core of their jobs?" Milda replied with a metaphor, "one of my Ph.D. committee advisors told me that our academic career is like a sand clock." While bachelor's and master's students have broad interests and are passionate about impact to start with, Ph.D. candidates are typically narrowing down to complete a dissertation on one specific topic. Although they are gaining vital skills and becoming more rigorous, the dissertation writing period is when people may start losing their sense of impact. Then as postdocs and professors, we have the opportunity to broaden our reach again, but we tend to forget about impact because life is demanding. We are then stuck in what we are good at and pushing for our careers to align with research 'microtribes' (to borrow from Mats Alvesson), while missing what actually may be more of interest to ourselves and matter more to the world we live in.
Engagement and Teaching
Holding a Ph.D. in comparative literature, Milda is now actively engaging with practitioners after changing her field. Milda explained, "I left literature partially because I lacked that direct contact with people." When Milda came to a business school, she initially taught languages, then transitioned into cross-cultural communication, and eventually sustainability (especially its social side). This is where she felt like she could reach out to practitioners, work with companies and start-ups, and engage with people from different countries. Among many of Milda's engagement activities is the co-establishment of Migration, Business & Society (MBS), together with colleagues from WU, Aida Hajro, Gunther Maier, and Wolfgang Mayrhofer. MBS is a global network of scholars, business practitioners, and human rights experts from the non-profit sector, dedicated to generating, exchanging, and disseminating knowledge on migration. This network is only one year old, but it has received numerous endorsements from academics and has a highly diversified Advisory Board. With the help of its members, MBS seeks to derive practice-informed, interdisciplinary research implications and teaching resources for business schools. Milda believes this type of practice-scholarship collaboration could be replicated across various sustainable development topics. If you are interested in joining the community, you can sign up as an endorser.
Besides engagement with practitioners, Milda believes that teaching is another important way of generating impact. She has teaching experience in five different countries and feels extremely grateful for the side of the profession that allows her to continuously co-learn with her students. "A lot of times, teaching gets overshadowed with research," Milda said, "but I think teaching matters immensely. It was through the inspiration of people who taught me as a young student that I have become who I am today." In her opinion, reaching out directly to people – from bachelor students to executives – is an excellent opportunity to influence others. Relating teaching back to research, with Aida and Paul Baldassari from the MBS, Milda recently published an article in AMLE on incorporating migration into the business classroom ("Addressing the Elephant in the Room"). She believes such interconnections are the most important aspect of our job, and this is what we should be doing as university lecturers and professors.
Advice for early-career scholars
Milda shares the following advice for junior scholars and Ph.D. students who want to have an impact through their research and academic work:
Just do it. Do not even doubt whether you should do it. There is no question about it as this should be your job. You will thank yourself years later when looking back, searching for meaning in your work. More and more journal editors and senior scholars have shown great interest in impact. Milda noted, "I think we just haven't pushed enough as a whole. The institutions may be slow, but they are made of individuals who seek to make an impact, so it is largely up to us whether the academic landscape will eventually change."
Don't victimize yourself. To a certain extent, we are our own boss with the freedom to function. The system is not an excuse for us not to think and create impact. Rather, we need to work toward changing the status quo ourselves because no one else will do it for us. "Do not fall into the victimization mode," Milda continued with her second piece of advice, "the institutions may be slow, but we academics manage our own schedule, as well as interests, and very few professions have as much freedom as we have."
Decide how broad or narrow you want to be. According to Milda, these are two different personality traits, and both can make an impact. We should mix both in academia. We need both the generalists, i.e., big-picture-system-thinking people, and we need specialists (of course, both with equal attention to rigor). For example, for people with broader interests who feel they cannot narrow themselves down too much, there is no need to force them to change, and as she said, "we need to make space for both."
Inspired by Milda's story and want to share yours with the Impact Scholar Community? If you would like to be featured, write to Suwen (Suwen.firstname.lastname@example.org).