Last September 2017 I started my journey towards PhD degree, and as a crucial part of it, the data collection of our research project started in the beginning of 2018. Having visited and interviewed a bunch of interesting family SMEs in Finland, I feel confident that we are digging a fruitful and important turf of internationalization phenomena, and that there is a lot to learn from these stories of successful family enterprises. For now, I won’t go that deeper into the insights relevant to our research project (because there are still many interviews to be made during the spring and, thus, more insights to be taken into consideration), but rather I would like to reflect these enterprise visits to the researcher’s work and career development in general. Being at the early stage of my PhD degree path and having done few courses related to the research field and methodology, I think that, just like the case often is with lower level degrees, there should be compulsory internship or practical training period for each PhD to really get to know, what the real world is really like regarding one’s own research field.
My gut feeling is that most PhD students have started doing doctoral degree straight after getting Master’s degree. That is, of course, a natural pathway to becoming a researcher, as you have just finished the heavy research task of conducting the Master’s thesis, and now there could be the opportunity to deepen the gained knowledge by pursuing PhD. I am not saying that this most common pathway would be wrong – actually, I was intending to do the same but ended up working for two different software start-ups in sales before starting doctoral studies. However, getting practical work experience prior to starting to become a research expert in a given area wouldn’t hurt. Since it is often not the case and students continue to the doctoral studies straight from the Master’s studies, a study module of compulsory internship or practical training period could be implemented. While much of the young PhD student’s work is to get to know with the scientific publications in one’s research field throughout in order to be able to produce high-quality and contemporary research by oneself, it should also be of high importance to actually see and hear, what happens in those firms or other research objects under investigation. To a certain extent, this seeing and hearing can happen via the chosen research methodologies, such as interviewing or action research, whereby you live, experience and develop the research phenomena together with the community you are involved in. But for many researchers doing qualitative – and especially quantitative – research, the research contexts and objects often remain distant despite the aspirations to understand them as well as possible. To be credible contributors to both theory and practice, not just observing as an outsider but also being present in the research context as an integral part is or should be desirable. Putting PhD students into the real-life settings by these ECTS-worth working periods could be one solution.
So, as an example, what could my internship be like? The more I hear stories about the internationalization of Finnish family SMEs, the more I learn that while internationalization can be complex often times, it is often simple things that matter in the end. Buying a flight ticket and going door-to-door to promote the products of a firm in the foreign market. Participating in a foreign trade fair with a well-prepared plan to meet existing and potential clients. Doing active cold calling. Searching and gathering information about the potential foreign partners to meet the criteria for partnership. Doing market research about a potential foreign market. These valuable yet relatively simple tasks can be managed by anyone with little training and onboarding by the organization you are working at. Not only does this help the organizations in the short run but also in the long run, as the researcher is able to bring his or her insights back to the academia and provide holistic research outcomes that truly have practical implications. And for the researcher him- or herself, this working period could provide ideas for impactful and contemporary research, equip with useful insights to be shared with other members and students in universities, and enhance skill and career development. Putting theory to practice, isn’t it our – the researchers’ – way to survive and the essence of all what we should be doing?