Magdalena Cholakova: Impactful research for uncertain times

Magdalena Cholakova’s roots in psychology have given her an abiding interest in human behaviour which feeds directly into her current lines of research - and ensures these always have a strong application and connection with the world outside academia. An Assistant Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship, Cholakova says she draws her energy from direct engagement with people, and believes that this enables her to provide better research solutions. A deep-seated adherence to her own core values and a commitment to taking that next step, no matter what obstacles might emerge, have seen Cholakova emerge as a powerful force in the area of entrepreneurship academia, with her research regularly published – including in the Journal of Management, Entrepreneurship Theory and Practrice Journal, International Journal of Organization Theory and Behavior, and the Entrepreneurship Research Journal. We spoke to her about her journey to her current position in the Department of Strategic Management and Entrepreneurship at the Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University, her hopes for the future of research, what inspires her and more.

You have an impressive set of qualifications. Can you remember what first drew you to the field of academia?

I have always been very interested in human behaviour and the factors that explain how and why we make certain choices and follow certain paths. I started my undergraduate degree at a research intensive, private university in Germany, where I studied social and cognitive psychology. I was immediately drawn to it as it offered me a window into myself and others’ behaviour, which truly engaged my attention and imagination. I started working as a student research assistant into the Emotions Lab of a Professor, whom I deeply admired and respected, and it was his work ethic, wealth of knowledge in the field of psychology, and his persona in and outside the classroom, that really shaped my interest in pursuing an academic path.

Growing up, did you have a sense that academia is where you would make your career?

Truth be told, no – I never had an image of myself as a Professor. In fact, I went through the typical stages as a child of wanting to be an astronaut or a photographer. However, I was strongly influenced and inspired by my mother, who is a mathematics Professor. I remember sitting in on some of her classes and being impressed by the admiration that her students had for her, in spite of the difficult subject. She has an incredible talent for solving highly abstract and complex problems and this appealed to me too.

What have been the challenges you have faced in your journey in academia – specifically related to being a woman, and in general?

Honestly, I started being aware of this much later, perhaps around the time I completed my research Masters and started my PhD. I have been brought up by my mother, as we lost my father to cancer when I was very little, so I have had a very strong role model and have been raised to be independent and hard-working, despite the obstacles. In that sense, I never had the feeling of being the ‘weaker sex’. Nonetheless, I have realised as I started my academic career that being a woman automatically did place me in a different box in the eyes of some colleagues, in some countries more so than others, which I found very difficult to reconcile as it did not resonate with me and mismatched with my own set of roles I strongly identified with.

And can you identify the opportunities that have made a difference in that journey?

I think it is hard for me to pinpoint one or two specific things; I would rather say, at least in my own case, it has always been about making small steps persistently, no matter what, and, most importantly, staying true to your core values and moral compass as you persevere and move forward.

Your current research interests include Entrepreneurial Reasoning and Learning, Decision Making Heuristics, Cognitive Complexity and Individuals’ Response to Change. Can you tell us a little about what draws you to a particular area?

I am currently a Professor of Entrepreneurship, however I started my career in Psychology and this has always remained a fundamental core in my research. I am very interested in understanding the underlying cognitive and affective (emotional) mechanisms that can explain individuals’ decision making and behaviour, particularly when confronted with difficult or uncertain situations. Building on this basis, then my research passion is about developing a certain set of tools that can help individuals learn and perform better under uncertainty.

What do you feel most passionately about, in terms of your own research?

Currently, I am most passionate about finding ways to train entrepreneurs how to validate their ideas at the start of their journey, learn from and persist in the face of setbacks and failure, and set better goals for their future steps. I am a firm believer that an important set of entrepreneurial competences can be taught and identifying some of the mechanisms to accomplish this can offer tremendous benefit both to entrepreneurs and larger corporates as well.

How important is it to you that your research, and research in general, impacts the real-world or has societal relevance?

As mentioned, I find it of fundamental importance. It is what motivates me personally in persisting with the academic path, despite it is own ups and downs. The possibility to make even a small difference by discovering how we may empower entrepreneurs or intrapreneurs to pursue their journey more effectively is inherently important and gratifying to me as a researcher.

How do we inspire girls all over the world to enter research and academia?

I believe that the problem comes at a later stage so the question is more about how do we help them thrive and succeed once they enter that path. And, in my opinion, it all has to do with increasing our collective awareness of the hurdles and the invisible hoops that, in some parts of the world more so than others, women still need to jump through before they can even get to the same starting point as men.

Do you have any advice for women wanting to enter research?

Well, I am a runner so I will allow myself to borrow a moto that rings quite true to me, which is “Just do it and see it as a marathon, not a short race”. Having a long career path view, while all the same focusing on the small immediate steps that you need to make to get there, will smoothen the journey and help you reach the finish line.

What inspires you in your work life?

Well, there are two parts of my job, really, and two roles. When I wear my researcher hat, what I truly love is solving problems or theoretical puzzles and I get a great kick from working with people whom I intellectually strongly admire and can converse with at lengths about the topics I am studying - they reinforce the importance and relevance of the research problem, and the potential value that its solution could offer to society at large, so it really brings the motivation back in times of doubt too. At the same time, I also love teaching and the feeling of contributing, even if in a tiny way, to inspire or motivate students to learn a given subject and pursue it further. Our students are very versatile and talented and interacting with them is a wonderful opportunity for me to also learn from them and this is something I greatly enjoy too.

And personally?

Well, I am more of an introvert than extrovert (though people would hardly place the introvert label on me) and I draw my inspiration from having moments to reconnect with myself, which tends to be when I am in nature. I grew up by the sea and it plays an important role for me in this regard.

We are less than a year away from 2020. What changes would you like to see in academia this time, next year?

Open access to our work so that everyone can benefit more directly from the research we conduct. And a more transparent journal review process, though the latter is certainly an issue that will go beyond 2020.

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