How and under what conditions can academic research contribute to solving societal challenges? So far, research on this topic has focused on questions of impact measurability and the public perception of research, and far less on the question of how researchers themselves assess their societal impact. In the same way that it is important to understand how the public receives research, it is important to better understand how researchers anticipate the public and achieve societal impact in order to draft effective policies. In this article we report the results of an empirical survey among 499 researchers in Germany on their pathways to societal impact, i.e. their attitudes towards impact policies, their societal goals and use of engagement formats. We are able to show that most researchers regard societal engagement as part of their job and are generally in favor of impact evaluation. However, few think that societal impact is a priority at their institution, and fewer think that institutional communication departments reach relevant stakeholders in society. Moreover, we are able to show that impact goals differ greatly between disciplines and organizational types. Based on our results, we give recommendations for a governance of impact that is responsive to epistemic cultures and point towards avenues for further research.