Published: Oct. 27, 2020

How Two Entrepreneurial Approaches Filled a Research Void During COVID-19

Conference cancellations, event postponements, and quick shifts to remote formats due to the outbreak of COVID-19 this year created a chasm for academic researchers in the United States and across the world. In the blink of an eye, in-person opportunities for faculty—especially untenured faculty—to exchange ideas, workshop research papers and engage in thoughtful dialogue were reduced, as colleges and universities shut down campuses and labs for the undetermined future. 

Delaying research even a few months stagnates projects ripe for presentation and feedback,  and can have a significant impact on an early career researcher’s ability to build their portfolio of work and their reputation, according to Tony Cookson, associate professor of finance and co-director of the Center for Research on Consumer Financial Decision Making at the Leeds School of Business at the University of Colorado Boulder.  

The nature of business education itself, however, is well positioned to identifying opportunities during a downturn. The challenges to academic research caused by this year’s global pandemic ignited entrepreneurial thinking and comaraderie among some senior faculty at top business schools who shared concern for the career success of their early-career colleagues. 

Their interest in helping their junior counterparts fueled two entrepreneurial solutions, one from the University of Colorado Boulder’s Leeds School of Business and another at Boston College’s Carroll School of Management. Both offered early-career faculty opportunities to continue to move forward with their research and academic careers, despite the obstacles presented by COVID-19. 

A series born from necessity 

Early on, Cookson recognized the implications that a season of conference cancellations could have for early career faculty in the business school finance community and decided to address it head-on. He established a series of virtual conferences for finance researchers collectively titled “Finance in the Cloud.”  

The conferences featured presentations from finance faculty at top business schools around the country as well as the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and of Philadelphia.  

Cookson understood the hesitancy event organizers had to converting a conference with a top reputation online and the risks that could pose to the integrity of the work, virtual communication and technology, among other issues, but he figured someone needed to try to make it work. His conferences are proof of concept, as many virtual conferences and events of a similar nature have since followed with success.   

Cookson’s quick thinking gave these early career faculty the opportunity to continue to share their research when everything had literally been cleared from their calendars. In addition, hosting conferences solely for junior faculty allowed the focus to be on obtaining feedback on papers, sourcing ideas, and limiting the disruption to junior faculty professional development and careers. 

“Young researchers need to produce research to benefit their progress toward their tenure track,” says Cookson. “This wave of cancellations is particularly disruptive for those who have not yet fully established their reputations.”  

The online format allowed participants to benefit from their discussions in a way that Cookson notes they wouldn't have been able to do otherwise. He innovated a real-time discussion forum, where listeners would comment and provide constructive feedback in a chat function while the faculty member presented.  

If a co-author was present, that person would handle the clarifying questions while the presenter continued without being interrupted. This allowed the Q&A portion to dive into some nuanced discussion that may not have progressed to the same degree in an equal amount of time.  

“What they got out of 45 minutes, they would normally get from, a 90-minute seminar in person,” says Cookson.  

A remote research lifeline  

Like Cookson, Mary Ellen Carter, associate professor of accounting at Boston College, realized early on the difficulties the pandemic would create for untenured faculty.  
“The opportunity to present research and receive feedback is so important to the advancement of our research and careers—for everyone, not just junior faculty,” says Carter. “And now there was an added layer of isolation as we toiled in our home offices.” 

With the help of senior colleagues, Carter started the Corporate Governance and Executive Compensation Research Series in early April. She invited early career faculty, who they thought would benefit from being part of the community, along with top senior scholars in the field. Many of the senior faculty are also journal editors, who Carter and her colleagues believed would provide constructive, helpful comments and ideas for the early career researchers.  

The group meets every Friday for an hour on Zoom, with an average of 20 people to keep it small and interactive. Each meeting offers one faculty member the opportunity to present their research and get feedback from a group of peers.  

Participants represent top business schools from across the country and around the world, with faculty from IESE Business School in Barcelona, Spain, and the University of Melbourne in Australia.   

Including senior faculty was a key element, according to Yonca Ertimur, senior associate dean for faculty and research and Rustandy esteemed professor at the Leeds School of Business. Ertimur advised Carter at the outset of this project. 

“Junior faculty appreciate the ability to present work to their contemporaries and to senior colleagues,” says Ertimur. “Also being able to give feedback to senior faculty is important too; it increases junior faculty visibility.”  

Frances Tice Frances Tice, assistant professor of accounting at the Leeds School of Business at the University of Colorado Boulder, and her co-authors presented a working paper that examines the relationship between inside debt and debt contracting when borrowing firms have credit constraints or experience financial distress. “The findings expand our understanding on the usefulness of inside debt in reducing agency costs,” she says, particularly in times of economic downturns.  Having this opportunity to gain feedback during a major revision was extremely helpful for identifying potential concerns in their findings and refining the framing of their key arguments. Tice says the experience also allowed her to build relationships with other faculty in the same field.

Andrea Pawliczek, assistant professor and BKD Faculty Scholar for the Trulaske College of Business at the University of Missouri, also found the series to be beneficial for building relationships with others in the field, in addition to the helpful feedback she received on her research.  

“I think the series provides a partial substitute for some of the intangible benefits normally provided through conference attendance, where I have had the opportunity to meet and get to know other researchers,” says Pawliczek. 

Paige Patrick, assistant professor of accounting for the University of Illinois at Chicago’s College of Business, called the series one of the professional highlights of the year.  

“The feedback we received was invaluable, says Patrick. “Attending the research series is not only a great opportunity for feedback on our own work but also an opportunity to see what other folks in the area are working on.”   

The mother of invention 

Although campus activity has resumed to varying degrees across higher education in the United States, research collaboration and dissemination may look and feel different for all faculty well beyond this academic year. 

“I think [Finance in the Cloud] was useful and useful enough that people would be happy to engage in a in a virtual conference experience again, even in a world where they could, as an alternative, travel to a conference and present in-person and meet people and talk with them face-to-face over coffee,” says Cookson.  

The feedback Carter has received thus far from participants also has her considering continuing the series even as work, and the world, resumes operations post-COVID-19.  

“It’s not just the junior faculty who have found this helpful,” says Carter. We’ve had six senior folks present (myself included) and the constructive feedback has been useful for pushing projects forward.” 

While the coronavirus may have upended the usual mode of operations for academic research, Cookson and Carter’s virtual programs show how remote formats can work, even temporarily, to help early career faculty progress. Perhaps these types of events provide a window of what’s to come: a “new normal” for career development in academia.