Engaged Scholarship Tools

MIT GOV/LAB is developing tools to support engaged scholarship by practitioner-academic research teams. One of these tools is this guide on “How to have difficult conversations.”  This living document is an update to our guide launched in August 2019 and now includes case studies from MIT GOV/LAB collaborations. Additional case studies and feedback welcome at mitgovlab@mit.edu.


We know from behavioral science that it’s often easier to learn from others’ mistakes than our own.

When we put together this guide on “How to have difficult conversations,” we knew that highlighting common pitfalls for academic-practitioner research collaborations, even with concrete ideas on how to navigate those challenges, wouldn’t be sufficient. To illustrate how the guide works in practice, we needed to apply these lessons to our own projects and reflect honestly on what worked, what didn’t, and whether or not we achieved our goal of a more equitable exchange.

The updated guide now includes a case study on a MIT GOV/LAB collaboration with Grassroot, a fast-paced partnership, where we learned the difficulty of balancing project evaluation and broad-based theory testing.

Our hope is that these case studies, warts and all, are useful in thinking reflexively about your own work. Please be in touch with your own case studies (see our “how to write a learning case” below) and let us know what resonated or what didn’t. We are all ears.

Why difficult conversations?

You are entering into a partnership because you have presumably decided that there is enough of an overlap in your interests and actions to pursue a joint agenda. But where do you diverge? Frequently, we start collaborations with different—but unsaid—expectations. An academic might be working towards a peer-reviewed publication or looking to test out a new data collection method. A practitioner might be looking for data to help design a new initiative, or looking to evaluate an existing program’s effectiveness.

Bringing academia and practice together to address pressing problems is nothing new. In the last two decades these collaborations have become more common in political science as academics have sought new opportunities to develop innovative research, and for their results to have more real-world relevance. At the same time, new data and technologies combined with more data-driven decision-making have led government as well as non-governmental practitioners to seek more sophisticated ways to measure their impact and to inform their interventions.

These conditions have led to an increased interest in academic-practitioner research collaborations, especially in developing-country contexts where MIT GOV/LAB often operates. Partnerships have proliferated but these relationships can be challenging to manage, with different incentives, expectations, needs, and timelines. Some of these challenges are institutional and difficult to change—such as the tenure-track requirements within academia which favor publications in academic journals over the applied nature of collaborations. We think these systemic challenges need to be addressed, but change is likely to be slow. In the meantime, the academic-practitioner collaborations that exist today can be managed better and yield better results for all by creating more functional partnerships.

“We need to talk”

This document is meant to highlight and provide guidance on how to have “difficult conversations” that often arise when academic researchers and practitioners decide to collaborate. The focus here on difficult conversations is intentional because we want to hone in on pivotal decision points and issues that are frequently overlooked, or brought up too late.

At MIT GOV/LAB, part of our mission is to produce and promote engaged scholarship on how to encourage citizens to voice their needs and engage their governments in productive ways. Our working definition of engaged scholarship is rigorous research that is co-created by practitioner organizations and grounded in field work. This collaborative process increases the likelihood that practitioners will be able to use research results and apply them to their work. Our engaged scholarship model is based on values of equitable exchange between practitioners and academics. For us, equitable exchange starts with outlining potential costs and benefits and acknowledging potential power asymmetries to spread risk out more evenly and maximize learning for both parties.

Over the years, we’ve collaborated with numerous practitioner partners in diverse geographies on projects small and large—and we’ve learned a lot along the way. This guide builds on MIT GOV/LAB’s deep experience of learning in the field and from many honest conversations with partners reflecting on “what could have gone differently.”  Based on our experience and the principle of equitable exchange, this guide focuses on research collaborations related to political science, with an emphasis on empirical evidence, and with practitioners who are often based in developing countries. Practitioners can be a diverse set of actors, and MIT GOV/LAB tends to partner with groups grounded in local contexts, oftentimes within civil society or local government who have long-standing presence in the communities we seek to engage.

Download the updated guide and check out the new case study from MIT GOV/LAB featuring Grassroot.


Suggested Citation

MIT Governance Lab (MIT GOV/LAB). 2020. “How to Have Difficult Conversations / A Practical Guide for Academic-Practitioner Research Collaborations”. Version 2. Massachusetts Institute of Technology Governance Lab (United States).

Authors: Varja Lipovsek and Alisa Zomer
Designers: Susy Tort and Gabriela Reygadas


The idea for this guide came out of a 2018 workshop co-hosted with Evidence in Governance and Politics (EGAP) on “Identifying Best Practices for Academic-Practitioner Research Partnerships” in Washington, DC. Thanks to Adam S. Levine, Baruani Mshale, Michael Moses, Leah Rosenzweig, Matthew Lisiecki, and Ingrid Lee, as well as the 2019 APSA Summer Institute for Civically Engaged Research at Tufts University for providing timely and useful input on the early iterations of the guide.

Many thanks to our partners Luke Jordan and Katlego Mohlabane from Grassroot for reviewing the case study in this update to the guide. Thanks to MIT GOV/LAB Faculty Director Professor Lily Tsai for many comments and to Selmah Goldberg for helping to shape this second iteration. Finally, thanks to our editor Maggie Biroscak for helping us translate across audiences and Nina Gregg for designing the initial interactive tool concept.