From UEA Masters to Best Paper

From UEA Masters project to ‘Best paper’-

Helen Fitzhugh shares the story of how her research was received by an international audience

I’m a UEA graduate twice over now – I did my undergraduate and Masters Degrees here and now I’m studying for a PhD for the hat trick. Each time I’ve graduated I’ve seen the UEA motto emblazoned everywhere on signs, saying ‘Do different’. It’s an odd saying – reflecting our Norfolk roots – but it seems particularly relevant to what I study now. I research social enterprises, which are real businesses that trade in order to fulfil a social purpose. People in social enterprises are ‘doing different’ all the time – using business means towards the ends of a better, healthier, kinder society, not just believing business only serves to create private profit. Think of The Eden Project or Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen restaurants – where money is made from profitable business activities and then reinvested in activities helpful to the environment or to disadvantaged people. I believe more people need to know about these alternative ways of doing business, especially what works and what does not. So, I am keen to learn as much about them as I can in my research, to then be able to pass that awareness on to others.

Before I came back to UEA to do my Masters in Research Methods, I worked with and for a number of different organisations with a direct and practical interest in public policy, charities and social enterprises. So I was very clear that if I came back to university to do research, I didn’t want to write a dissertation that would sit in a cupboard somewhere with no-one reading it. Luckily, my supervisors really supported this thinking and encouraged me to get my work out there! I started writing up my Masters research to take to an international conference while I was also regularly travelling around England to do the fieldwork for my PhD. It was a really intense period where I was really grateful for the support of all around me, including the very patient support of my husband and the calm, steady encouragement from my supervisors. As it turns out, it was really worth the effort to take that next step towards bringing my research out into the world. 

The International Social Innovation Research Conference (ISIRC) is a conference that brings together researchers from around the globe to discuss innovation in social enterprises and other organisations, as well as in broader social movements. In September 2015, it was hosted by Professor Bob Doherty, Deputy Dean and Director of Faculty at The York Management School. This year did not disappoint and Bob and his colleagues had clearly worked hard to get a great conference together, including key note speeches from Professor Alex Nicholls (Oxford), Dr Helen Haugh (Cambridge), Professor Jacques Defourny (Liege), Dr Diane Holt (Essex) and Professor Tom Lumpkin (Syracuse). I’d been to ISIRC once before, so I knew it would be a great chance to interact with many of the professors and researchers whose papers I had been reading throughout my Masters and PhD. However, what I did not know beforehand, was how kindly and enthusiastically they would receive my work.

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Helen on the left discussing her research with academics at the University of York.

I presented the ideas behind my paper “Understanding ‘the deal’: weighing up empowerment and commodification in work integration social enterprises” in the Social Exclusion, Employability and Housing track at the conference and got some great feedback from new contacts after the presentation. Yet, there was better to come, because I was awarded Best Paper in this track by the chair and organising committee at the awards ceremony the next evening. The awards were presented at the gala dinner for the conference, held on the indoor platforms at the National Railway Museum in York, surrounded by luxury vintage train carriages. This provided a glamorous, if slightly surreal, backdrop to a great evening.

Being awarded best paper in track was a good feeling for a paper based on the findings of my Masters Research project. All the new people I had met at the conference seemed genuinely pleased for me and came over to the table to offer their congratulations. Yet there was more to come. The paper put forward alongside winners in the other fifteen tracks as a potential Best Paper for the conference overall. I was really shocked when they announced that my paper had also won this award, jointly with a paper by Rafael Ziegler from the University of Greifswald, who presented a philosophical discussion on contestable elements of the term social innovation. So I went from being worried whether anyone would ever read my research, to having dozens of people coming up and telling me they’d just downloaded my paper and would be reading it on the way home! I made even more new contacts – not just from business schools but other disciplines too.

Helen with Award

Helen Celebrating her Successful Conference with the Best Conference Paper Award.

It would have been easier on my workload and energy levels just to see my Masters research as a rehearsal for the PhD and to leave it sitting on the shelf, gathering dust. I’m very glad I didn’t. It’s out in the world with a life of its own and it feels great. Now there’s just the matter of getting the PhD done on time…. Wish me luck!

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