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Performing Research: A Comparison between Academia and the Non-Profit Sector

By Li Feng Xie


Disclaimer: The views are those of the author's alone and do not represent the views of UNA-Canada.


Let's begin with a self-introduction. My name is Li Feng Xie, and I am a Registered Dietitian (RD) in Canada and the United States as well as a Ph.D. candidate in Human Nutrition at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. As a healthcare professional and a junior researcher, I have always believed in the practicability of evidence-based results and their power in enacting change and impacting lives. This belief is well aligned with the work I presently conduct as a Junior Professional Consultant (JPC) with UNA-Canada, in which I support the World Food Programme (WFP) Headquarter (HQ) in Rome, in Climate Action research.


Despite all my previous research experiences, working on a project within an international non-profit organization is completely brand new for me. In this article, I would like to highlight some differences and similarities from my internship compared to my previous experiences in academia and how I have successfully adapted to these changes.


JPC Li Feng has worked as a dietician before her experience with WFP Rome



1. Be curious: "What is the research background?"

I believe that when transferring to a new environment/work field, it is essential to understand the background of this new field, in order to build a proper research question.

Unlike my Ph.D. project, where I needed to define the research question by myself, the research question/issue under investigation was already provided to me by my team at WFP. However, as Climate Action is a brand-new topic to me, I still needed to do a lot of readings to understand why it is necessary to further investigate in this field, who the target population is, what our aims are, and what the expected outcomes will be (hypothesis).

In the academic world, my research background generally begins with reading biomedical literature databases such as PubMed in combination with clinical/community experiences. Nevertheless, since WFP targets mainly issues through fieldwork research, those databases then become insufficient to describe what is actually happening within the communities WFP works with on the ground. Therefore, I first asked my supervisor if he could provide me with any background documents/internal reports. I also referred to WFP's internal learning platform (i.e. WeLearn) to assimilate myself with different works that have already been performed.

Another way I worked to accelerate my degree of familiarity with the context of the Climate Action field , was through participation in different team meetings and WFP's internal webinars. I have to admit that initially, it was difficult for me to follow all the propositions and ideas because I didn't fully understand the issues at hand; but as I became more familiar with the key concepts and their acronyms, my integration and adaptation into my new internship role became smoother.


Li Feng has become more familiar with various softwares during her internship


2. Ability to self-learn: “Be Patient and Persevere”

In addition to staying curious, I believe that self-learning is also an important skill for researchers. Whenever I start a new research project, I am always amazed by the number of new elements that I discover.

For my research internship at WFP, I had the opportunity to rediscover the software Excel and SPSS and learn about Tableau.

You might be asking me, "LiFeng, Wait, why are you using the verb <rediscover>, when as a professional researcher you are already so familiar with these platforms?"

Well, while Excel and SPSS are the main statistical analysis software I use for my master's and Ph.D. projects, I initially thought that I had a great degree of familiarity with this software. Through my research project at WFP though, I was encouraged to learn more functionalities and in much greater detail. I did a lot of research through Google and Youtube to investigate how to make certain calculations and analyses that I didn’t know before. The learning process was very independent, and sometimes I had to spend hours resolving one issue. However, when I translated this result to my work and then was able to see its impact, I believe that it has absolutely been worth the time and effort!

3. Communicating Results: "Try a new format"

A third point that I found a bit different between my work in academia and at WFP is how we communicate our results and findings.

In both cases, we need to provide an "official" version as well as and a lay-language version for the general public. The latter one is very similar between the two contexts. However, the "official" version at WFP is often under a report format addressing other members of the organization and/or the donors, whereas, in academia, the "official" version is often a scientific article for the scientific community.

Since this is my first experience writing corporate reports, it was very helpful for me to request samples from my supervisor and to ask for continuous feedback about my work from my team members. Finally, I also have paid close attention to the keywords used in these reports and the corporate emails to ensure that I am following the same standard language and format of other UN Agency documents.

These are the three main elements that I would like to highlight here. I do acknowledge that the research world is very versatile, and each person who enters it will experience their own unique journey. Therefore, these points only apply to my personal stories, but you may find some pearls of wisdom from what I have discussed. At this point, I have only completed 3 out of my total 6-month internship with the WFP, but I cannot wait to discover and learn more from my team through this amazing organization and opportunity!


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