Department of Economics
I have done research on questions such as (1) to what degree does information among traders affect financial market prices, (2) can policy makers infer information from financial market prices and improve policy, (3) is crowdfunding a valuable financial innovation that can improve welfare, or (4) can financial employee rewards improve innovation in corporations. I use various methods, such as laboratory experiments or mathematical models, to address these questions.
Take the research on employee rewards and corporate innovation. In many sectors, firms nowadays have to keep innovating to stay ahead of the competition. How to get employees to participate in this process, even if their standard tasks do not require this? In an experiment, we gave employees in the treatment group financial rewards if they suggested new products or process improvements (and if these were implemented), whereas employees in the control group didn't get these rewards. We found that the number of ideas due to the rewards did not increase, but the quality of ideas did. These findings got a lot of interest outside of academia - first in blogs, then in the business press, finally in academic journals. And indeed, the firm where we ran the experiment actually introduced a rewards policy company-wide after learning of our findings, so we affected real change.
The bread and butter in academia is publications - in economics that means getting your research into the best journals - and I was lucky to get some of those. But I tried to be active beyond that. Some of my research got featured by media outlets, and I even had a few interviews for local tv and radio, that was an interesting experience. And once I had some publications, I was able to get a few research grants. Different actors assign different weights to these outcomes - universities like the grants a lot, whereas the profession probably values good publications the most. To me, it is very satisfying if your research inspires follow-up studies by others, so you start to make a difference in the field - I think some of my experimental work qualifies there.
An honest answer would have to say that I have not been able to overcome the biggest challenges research-wise, otherwise I would be getting this award from Harvard University. :) On a more serious note: A big challenge in microeconomics/business research is to get the data you need to do research from firms. In our ReStat paper, we managed to get anonymised internal data from a firm and it generated very nice insights, was covered in business outlets like the Harvard Business Review, and actually affected firm policy, but too often firms do not seem to see the benefit in working with academics to answer questions of mutual interest. That's a pity, academics often have good skills in data analysis and statistics and are willing to employ them for free to get publications, so perhaps firms should be more open to that.
Let me address PhD students and perhaps postdocs. 1) Do research, write papers, and publish them. This should go without saying, but some very smart people don't seem to get around to doing it. A few years ago I had fellow PhD students who excelled at writing exams, but when they were asked to do independent research they were lost. Overcoming that hurdle is the main test in becoming a successful academic. 2) Coauthor with senior researchers early on, you will learn a lot. 3) In economics, a specialisation in economic theory or lab experiments is an uphill battle at the moment. The profession is becoming very empirical and focused on field data, so lab experiments and sometimes theory papers tend to get more rejections by general interest economics journals, which are the most visible in the profession.