Pracademics: just a clunky new word, or something more significant/substantial?

November 9, 2023

     By Duncan Green     

Pracademics. Horrible word, interesting concept: people who straddle, however uncomfortably, the worlds of practice and academia. This week, I spent an hour talking through pracademia with fellow pracs Tom Kirk (LSE) and Willem Elbers (Radboud University), who’s editing a Development in Practice double issue on the topic as part of a new initiative to promote pracademia (they were inundated with article proposals – turns out people love talking about themselves. Who knew?)

Some of the stuff we covered:

Personal journey: I’ve moved from activism on Latin America to research and writing on the region, then to the NGOs, working on trade and globalization at CAFOD, DFID and Oxfam, then into academia with my partial shift to LSE 8 years ago. Put another way, a transition from doing stuff, to thinking and writing about it, to teaching. Tom’s moved in the other direction, from a PhD to consultancy for a bunch of aid donors. That highlights the need to unpack the term – there should really be at least 3 blobs: academic, consultant and activist. It also highlights that, at least in our cases, this was never planned, but emerged as our careers developed (see personality flaws, below). It only looks like a deliberate strategy in the rear view mirror.

Theory of Change: Basically repetition + stamina. If you land a similar idea over and over and over again on social media, in talks etc, then it starts to drip feed in. Academics skim it; low level government officials and aid donors skim it. And it starts to be part of that conversation. And yes, it’s very hard to prove attribution. But over the years, I’ve had enough feedback to think that it can work as long as you’re consistent with the messages you’re dropping in.

Late vs early career pracademics: I’ve noticed with the REF impact case studies that a lot of academics become influencers in late career, simply by virtue of becoming better known, getting invited into various conversations etc. Networks take time to build. This seems to happen organically, although I guess you can always refuse to leave the ivory tower. What’s more interesting is early career pracademics, like Willem and Tom, who deliberately set out to live and work between the two worlds. There I would say the key is publishing in multiple different ways is key to gaining recognition and access. I still think books have a cachet other forms lack, but blogs and (increasingly) podcasts can be a short cut. I’ve personally never experienced any benefit from writing/co-authoring an academic paper, although Willem, as a proper academic, says different.

Platform: LSE credentials have opened doors for Tom and I (however unwarranted its reputation), and Oxfam too gets a lot of respect around the world (no, really). Working for both organizations can be exhausting, but there are definite benefits for pracademics in locating themselves somewhere prestigious.

Discomfort: activists are often sceptical of beard-stroking academics, and the feeling is often fully reciprocated. Academics who become ‘media dons’ definitely risk taking a career hit, especially if their discipline prizes research and peer-to-peer conversations over communicating with the great unwashed. It can be quite lonely, which is probably why Tom and I have teamed up and enjoy working together so much (as well as us having very complementary career paths and skill sets – he designs great seminars and can even do budgets 😉). It can also be disorienting, as you have to perform some kind of internal acrobatics as you move between the language and thinking of academia and practitioner

Necessity v Choice: Tom is regularly approached by young academics asking how to get onto the consultancy path, not because they feel a vocation to do so, but to pay the rent. Wages are low and insecure in academia for years after you have done your PhD and start clawing your way up the greasy pole – you need another source of income, especially to live somewhere like London.

Do we need a pracademic career path? Would the system benefit from greater recognition of what pracademics bring to the table? After all, research funders keep asking for proof of impact, which often means ‘send for the pracademics’. But I am sceptical about professionalization, if it means it becomes a less creative, more box-ticking approach (‘damn, got to get involved in another campaign if I want promotion at the end of the year’). I believe pracademia needs discomfort and ambiguity, which is seldom compatible with checklists. How to keep the magic, while supporting the mavericks?

Personality (flaws): Not sure about Tom, but I definitely suffer from some form of Groucho Marx syndrome – wouldn’t want to join any club that would have me as a member. If I get stuck in a conversation where everyone is agreeing with each other, I either switch off or, moth to a flame, feel driven to disagree. To be a pracademic is never to quite belong anywhere – it helps if you find that sort of discomfort stimulating, rather than draining.

And the stuff we should have covered, but didn’t? Is there a special responsibility of pracademics to promote decolonization both within academia and the aid system?

Over to you

November 9, 2023
Duncan Green


  1. Especially from your vantage point at LSE, it’s worth pointing out the political economy of “pracademics” in higher education contexts (see also “Professor of Practice” in the US): Bringing practitioners into higher education is a win-win: Many universities need to increase their share of (overseas) MA students and luring them into programs with a promise of “practical skills” is good marketing. Many “pracademics” are also relatively cheap and since many enjoy teaching they can take teaching responsibilities off researchers’ shoulders who can then enjoy writing funding applications and REF-research publications. I think we need to have a much more critical debate on how “pracademics” fit into the stratified, often precarious and exploitative, ecosystem of higher education. Another interesting issue you are already hinting at is the “influencer culture”-I would probably go a bit further and call it “cherry-picking culture”-don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong towards the end of a career to take on only the gigs you like, but I’m still feeling a bit ambivalent when I have to sit through faculty meetings and design a course document over 6 months and then the pracademic walks in, delivers a great lecture and goes home. I guess this is similar to a lot of consultant work where the beauty lies in the fact that you can “speak truth to power” and then leave an organization with the pesky challenges of implementing the real work. So from my inside position of one of the pracademic “bubbles” there’s definitely more to discuss-despite the great additions that many pracademics are for development research and teaching

  2. How interesting! Last month I was the keynote speaker at the Latin America conference of the International Society for Third Sector Research (ISTR). There was a session focused solely on Pracademics and the conversation was really interesting (they mentioned the D&P forthcoming issue). Comparing my personal journey to yours (making the necessary adjustments for race and origin, i.e., Global South), I’d say I flirted with Academia but never really had the option to move seamlessly between it and practice. I’ve known people in Brazil who managed to do so for a while, but at some point the person had to make a choice and show allegiance to one, becoming less present on the other. I guess one could say Academia in Brazil is demanding of its members and punish those who do not fully “commit”. On the other hand, sometimes social movements and CSOs (at least in Brazil) are extremely critical of Academia’s true intentions and harshly refuse being pigeoholed as research subjects (an item for the decolonizing agenda?), which suggests to me that one side (Academia) can be more interested in this conversation than the other.

    1. This is such an important point Athayde. My unease with the extractive nature of research only increases with my age and experience, even when spending much time investing in long-term relationships with particular relationships i and my department have over the years. Much of what I do now is not about ‘research’ but about building those relationships in what I hope are mutually beneficial ways. But I still recognise I can never ‘pay back’ when people and communities are sharing their lives, their struggles and their hopes and futures.

      I feel now, 10 years into my career I’ve worked out why I’ve been put into this world as an academic. I recently launched a social enterprise that I hope can start to change the system and join and support these struggles. And while in his blog Duncan has suggested that the reason there’s been such a prolific response to the Special Issue because we academics like talking to each other, it is so much more than that. We feel so strongly about it because it’s only by sharing those journeys that we can push the academic system in the right direction to recognise the importance of these new relationships and practices that begin to give back to society rather than privilege individual careers.

      Here’s what we’re trying to build…

  3. Yes, horrible word, but that’s what I became with science applied to development problems. It started in a gentle way but finished in a rush as climate change kicked in and few seemed to know what was happening/what to do.

    I prefer to think of it in military terms, we are the combat engineers (sappers, pioniere, pontoniers) who try to fix things so the ‘grunts’ can do the work and get the credit.

    It can be a miserable position because you tend to get criticism/cold-shoulder from both sides. I believe it should be a discipline – too many of the grunts joining dev orgs (yes that includes you Oxfam!) just don’t have the understanding and we, the engineers, don’t have the status (and we never would, but I think the engineer concept stirs motivation/esprit).

    Maybe consult sapper teachers and examine field manuals to see how they are trained? They are a lot smarter than are given credit for. (At school I was in the corps for a time – actually had a lesson on how to blow up bridges – happy days!)

    And as societies collapse under the weight of global overshoot, such people will be needed as never before.

  4. I wonder in all this debate what happens to the person whose life is supposed to change because of it. When the activist moved out to change millions of lives in the communities he asked a simple question: “What is the need?” and weaved a programme around it. Ten years later came with the question: How are you related to one another and set out to dismantle it. Could we not move beyond pracademism and find a way of reaching him better and changing his life.

    1. I love this comment Masood. It has really resonated with me. Moving in that direction has certainly what has made me recognise my role in the world as an academic – you might like my comment above.

  5. I always have lots to say on this subject, it’s a passion of mine. However I actually can’t get past this Duncan…

    “Beard-stroking academics” – WE ARE NOT ALL MEN.

    1. I lost a lot of respect for the author as soon as I read this – no option of beard stroking for most female academics – although I enjoyed the piece and relate strongly to all of the personality (flaws) needed to be comfortable in this position.

      1. Post

        My bad, apologies. The phrase was used about me in my role as Oxfam’s head of research by its (female) head of advocacy, none other than Jo Cox. But I should have made that clear in the text. Lazy and wrong.

  6. I had once been invited at a university to research, develop, and manage a novel international involvement for the institution, over and above scouring the globe for international students–which was already being done by other staff.
    This new initiative was to seek projects abroad in as many faculties as possible, with the intent to involve faculty who, upon return to our campus after varying lengths of time abroad, would have increased understanding of other countries, more sensitive to different cultures, be better equipped to understand and teach international students, and thus complementarily raise the profile of our institution.
    The effort was most successful for 12 years, in 12+ countries, 30+ faculty participants and 25+ projects later. But because of desperation by the university to pay for a new building, it was ‘wisely’ decided to scuttle project initiatives and focus on absorbing as many international students as possible.
    This excercise showed that improvement of academicians by structured involvement of field opportunities begat enhanced pracademic efforts for both students and instructors. My point is that an institution has to continue to believe in and facilitate such a manner of augmenting the knowledge and quality of pracademics.

  7. That empty square in the bottom left of the practice-theory matrix got me wondering – how should we fill it? ‘Bureaucrat’ maybe, or ‘development tourist’ – or insert the name of any mega-‘development’ bilateral or multilateral agency?

    1. Post
  8. I used to be a ‘pracademic’ for about 15 years, although now I am just a plain old consultant/coach. I resonated with so much in the article, too much to respond to. In my case, I entered pracademia (in the US) mid-career. I found it very rewarding to play that bridging role, and the internal gymnastics needed was a good challenge to have, analytically and to keep your mind open towards both ‘sides’. What was not a good challenge to have was the ‘second class citizenship’ that I endured in academia, vis-a-vis ‘real academics’. That was infuriating, to be frank. Being a co-author on a book about NGOs helped. Being a podcast host helped too. Being a co-author on two peer reviewed articles did not. Having your sources of knowledge being cast aside as ‘anecdotal’ by academic peer reviewers for a book chapter, when you have interviewed hundreds of INGO leaders throughout 15+ years and led 20+ senior leadership training programs where you observed such leaders reflect on their experiences, is also not too great a feeling. But what has been the most rewarding experience of all: the enduring connection with, and respect received from, students from all over the world who still want to stay in touch because they valued your teaching. That – the realization that you probably can have no bigger impact than influencing the thinking or perspectives of a single person — was the greatest reward for me. And the question about our role in decolonizing either academia and/or the aid system: keep asking the question what types of knowledge are privileged over others, whose knowledge counts. And keep asking the question: what sources of knowledge are globally resonant?

  9. A choice or an “unexpected journey”? Definitely the latter for me….When I finished my Ph.D. in Urban and Regional Planning, I wasn’t certain where I was headed, but was more interested in practice. After a dreadful interim period, I became Director for Policy and Planning at World Vision International (or my preferred term, with affection, Blurred Vision) in 1990. My dissertation chair who was also chair of Urban Planning at UCLA immediately asked if I would teach one or two classes each academic year “because we need someone with a day job” since the Masters in Urban Planning primarily leads to professional, not academic, positions.
    During the 1990s, the Urban Planning department had a commitment to “PracFac”, i.e. Practitioner Faculty, and there were four of us (I was the only ‘global’ practitioner’) who had long term positions. “Long term” was a challenge, because U.S. universities are two tier operations, tenured and the rest of us, and while each department chair was supportive of the PracFac, the UC system in general had little support for those not on tenure track. And, over time, as the other three Prac Fac retired or moved along, they weren’t replaced—yes, various visiting lecturers have ‘day jobs’, but the overall commitment was lost (not least due to budget constraints and the preference of the UC system for tenure track positions).
    I think that Ivan’s comment is telling—-budgets and changing fads will change and institutions may toss out good and successful programs all too quickly.
    The concept of a ‘Professor of Practice” is rare in most universities, and as noted by previous commentators, it is very much a ‘second class’ citizenship in the US academic system. I don’t know about the UK, but at UCLA, the largest contingent of Pracademics is in the medical school, where most of the faculty who teach also have clinical responsibilities. When I worked at the World Bank from 1998-2005, I taught at UCLA on Monday mornings and at George Washington’s Elliott School on Wednesday evenings, so I was a double Pracademic. Of note in terms of pracademics, is that this pathway is easiest in the Washington, DC, area because GW, Georgetown and Johns Hopkins have evolved their curriculum to provide space for the array of international professionals employed in the area.
    What I have most enjoyed is being able to bring the narrative of practice into the classroom and to have avoided the ‘publish or perish’ syndrome for tenure steps, and the endless committees. But P S Baker is also correct about the ‘status’—-on many occasions I have had colleagues make comments about some area of development practice when they have never managed any project other than academic research—-the trade offs, the power relations, the demands of donors, the obstacles on the ground—are all outside of their experience.
    The Luskin School’s Dean (Urban Planning’s home) asked a tenured colleague and me in 2013 to create a small program that would provide the entire School with more professional grounding in international careers, hence we created “Global Public Affairs”. Within the program we focus on our alumni who now work for foundations, NGOs, advocacy organizations, social enterprises and the mainstream agencies (World Bank, USAID, etc.) This has allowed our students to learn directly from their peers who can give much better career advice (since they have graduated in the past year to 15 years) than I possibly could.
    I wouldn’t give up anything of the juggling, though it had its precarity after I left the World Bank in 2005, and, as Niki has noted, ongoing issues of power imbalances, even when a project has ‘local leadership’ remain unresolved and increasingly challenging (rightly so)….it’s also not a career path that I can easily recommend in the US context, it’s still the unexpected journey.
    And I still resent that Duncan labeled my LinkedIn identity as clunky!

  10. My question is – is there a difference, and if so does it matter?

    Whilst I am very much a fledging in the sector – having only recently landed a role in a large reputable INGO – my first impression on the work is that from top to bottom it seems all academic.

    I wanted to work in ID because I did actually want to make a difference. I guess that makes me inherently more activist leaning.

    But I have found that trying to get into the sector forced me into the academic fold as the primary – and seemingly only path in. I felt backed into a corner to undertake a masters as every job ad seemed to list it as a minimum requirement – exemplifying the seemingly, and increasingly, indistinguishable difference between practitioners and academics.

    During my programme I grabbled with discomfort at the out-of-touch theorising of world problems discussed in overpriced seminars with over-privileged people. (I wrote a blog about it that the university refused to let me publish which I think speaks for itself).

    My desire to work in the sector from a genuine place of wanting to do some good in the world (driven by my own troubled and violent upbringing) got stripped away and corrupted by the indoctrinating messaging of the need for academic credentials and prestige in order to become successful and to make a difference in the industry. All of which infiltrated my mind and inflated my ambition to an ego driven version of its previously altruistic self.

    Unable to get a job after the MSc I volunteered in front line refugee services in Europe where I encountered more of the same – which I wrote in my own blog this site earlier this year. The startling comparison of overprivileged academics ‘helping’ and ‘supporting’ displaced people actually grappling with life or death choices right in front of them was often difficult to stomach.

    And now having landed my first job in the MEAL team of one of the biggest INGO’s in the world – I have not been filled with any excitement at the pay-off from my academic work – having ended up on the ideal career path sold to me for £15k and a piece of paper. I have instead entered it feel immediately disengaged because all I see is more of the same academic and insubstantial talk of the need for rigorous research studies to demonstrate impact. An overinflated focus on outputs and demonstrable evidence that the actually important outcomes are seemingly absent. And now there seems to be a renewed rhetoric that we should be positive because of the shifting focus in the sector and by donors on the importance of impact. But isn’t the fact that we are only now talking about the importance of actual IMPACT a glaringly obvious exemplification of the fundamentally pointless nature of the work to date? If impact hasn’t been the primary objective so far then what has? And are things really going to be different when we prioritise rigorous data studies, academically backed methodologies and RCT’s as the gold standard for evidence of impact over the actual human experience and just ethical imperative to do things better?

    My feeling is – isn’t it all a bit bull? Hasn’t ID as a whole just recreated the system it keeps purporting to be disrupting? In reality it can’t survive without assimilation. Its all still the same power dynamics, institutionalised inequalities and hierarchies of privilege. And even in the age of localisation and participation models – are we not still asking the Global South to conform to exactly the same academic pathways and methods in order to sit at the table?

    So pracademics or not – what difference are we actually making?

    1. Post

      ‘increasingly, indistinguishable difference between practitioners and academics’. Thanks Lauren, thanks for this powerful and painful testimony, which prompted a lot of thoughts: Localization/the recognition of the primacy of local actors means ‘we’ are no longer in the centre of the picture, which is obvs a good thing. But beyond that, it can lead in various directions for people in the North who still want to contribute: straightforward solidarity; the more academic/distanced approach that you describe, or deciding to work on development/social change in your own context, rather than go elsewhere. The official aid system will struggle with solidarity, which looks to them like ‘money with no questions asked’. Just hope you find an answer that works for you in the end!

Leave a Reply