During the pandemic, I, along with everyone else, have been binge-watching television. My binge show has been Shark Tank, a dorkily endearing series where entrepreneurs pitch their business ideas to a panel of successful investors, or sharks. These sharks — who include business boffins like Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and Virgin Group’s Richard Branson — pummel fledgling owners with questions about business models, profit margins and product specs, and after about 10 minutes of interrogation, they can choose to offer an investment in the firm in exchange for an ownership stake. Often, however, no deal is made because the sharks have swiftly identified unforeseen but fatal deficiencies in the new product ideas.
How fabulous would it be, I thought midbinge, if each of us had an academic shark around to tell us some hard truths about how to build a valued and sustained research program. Most graduate programs do an excellent job in nurturing our pie-in-the-sky scholarly ambitions and disciplinary intellectual competencies. Where they fail stunningly, however, is in cultivating the strategic and operational acumen needed for students to turn great ideas into meaningful papers and, ultimately, enduring academic careers.
I don’t mean lessons in how to play academic politics. Political machinations fail to capture aspects of academe that have somewhat more constructive businesslike features, like building a good product, convincing people that you’ve created something that they will find useful and finding ways to finance your enterprise. While academe is (mostly) not a business, a little less emphasis on Machiavelli and a little more attention to shark smarts could help scholars focus their efforts on building a research program that is productive, valued and sustainable.
As it happens, I have not let my hours of watching pitches for bacon-frying alarm clocks go to waste. Herewith is a list of academically curated insights from my tireless binge-viewing.
Build a moat. Just as businesses can’t make money if they have an idea that others can easily copy — they don’t have a moat protecting their most valued assets — your academic enterprise needs to have something that is particular to you that someone can’t rip off. Usually that’s the generative creativity that’s inside your head, but this can and should be buttressed by special skills that are hard for other people to acquire or by a distinct combination of data sources that you’ve put together.
What specific mix of skills and knowledge can you bring to this topic that no one else has and can’t easily replicate? What special angle can you bring to your paper that no one has combined in this particular way? Creating a moat is not simply about originality, although that’s a crucial part of it. It is about you being one of the few people who will ever be able to write the paper that you wrote.
Put in the (focused) hours. No one is going to bet on getting a lot of returns from a scattered, flighty entrepreneur. A real but underappreciated challenge for those of us who choose the academic enterprise is we are easily distracted by shiny new objects: unusual ideas we read about, novel methods we see presented at seminars, potential collaborative projects with interesting colleagues. As a result, we commit to too many things and have the time to engage in each of them only shallowly. Although a few scholars can be prodigiously productive across multiple domains, scholarly success for most of us will come from diligently building an intellectual and professional foundation in a well-defined area.
Of course, reading widely, speaking with colleagues and trying new things are indispensable to the intellectual endeavor, but the danger for most of us lies in doing too much of this rather than too little. So whatever amount of time in your week you are spending on not writing or not working on your core papers, cut back by 20 percent and repurpose that time to focus intensely on the literature and methods at the foundation of your research program.
Pivot when you need to. As a business, YouTube began as an online dating service. Faced with too few dating videos, however, the firm relaxed its rules to accept any video upload, shifting the use of its existing technology to a different business focus that spiraled into viral popularity. Many of us start our projects focused on intellectual problems that engage us, unfettered by whether anyone else gives a flying fart. And that should be at the core of what motivates you.
But remember that great, influential work solves important problems — problems that others think are important, too. So start with an idea that drives you, but pay attention to people’s objections and, yes, indifference, and consider tweaking your focus if necessary. Could your scholarship solve a bigger conceptual or empirical problem? Does your work relate to some beloved literature? We conduct research to make a difference in how others think and approach an idea. If people are reacting to your work with a “meh,” let that guide you to thinking about how you can use it to solve bigger, related problems.
Recognize it’s OK to not have a shark. Despite the popularization of mentorship as a means for professional success, successful entrepreneurs are mixed about whether you need this kind of booster. (See here, for example.) The entrepreneur who created the video doorbell Ring got his idea roundly rejected by all of the sharks before going on to create a multibillion-dollar company. (He even got invited back to be a shark.)
So while it would be glorious to have a fantasy life coach-parent investing in your success, most of us may have to make our own way, and you are not doomed to failure if you don’t have one. We can take our knowledge where we can find it: from watching others, talking among our peers and, yes, reading helpful books and articles like this one. We can become our own sharks.
As scholars, we are privileged to be able to work in an environment that supports our intellectual autonomy. But in this oasis of scholastic freedom, we should not kid ourselves that toiling on our intellectual obsessions is enough. If we believe that what we think and write about matter, and it is not just university-subsidized self-indulgence, then we should endeavor to develop a substantive, enduring body of work. And that involves, at least every once in a while, thinking like a shark.