Should I transition from aid work to academia? Some don’ts & don’ts

In what seems like a digital lifetime ago I asked: Should I consider a PhD in International Development Studies? in 2011.

My central points are still valid and the post is one of my most successful in terms of readership and comments. The main
audience for this post were a young(er) undergraduates or professionals who contemplate doing a PhD in international development as career advancement.
Fast forward to a 2017 piece in the Guardian about aid worker midlife crisis, discussions in forums such as 50 Shades of Aid or direct talks with aid workers and it seems that an update or extension of my original post could be a good idea to kick off the start of a new academic year.

The basic question is whether it is worth exploring PhD options as a mid-career, midlife aid worker with an intention to transition from the development industry into academia. tl:dr: Don’t do it!

Your aid work(er) experiences are pretty much meaningless for a PhD project
In my original post I wrote about ‘boring proposals
and the risks of un-researchable topics.
In the ‘grown-up’ version the problem is that many aid workers overestimate their experiences, the projects they worked with and the data they have engaged with over the years.
Put simply, your stressful years in a decentralization project or the survey data you collected meticulously for a baseline study will probably not be useful as a basis for a PhD project. The level of sophistication when it comes to the collection, analysis and presentation of data has increased exponentially over the last decade or so. And turning your field diary into auto-ethnographic data is a bit 2006 ;).
You will not be ‘going back to school’, you will do something new and completely different.

It will be a costly transition & therapy is cheaper anyway
Most academics I know are pretty nice people with decent social skills including listening skills, empathy, broad global experiences and critical reflections. Chances are they are different from your last bureaucratic boss, uncritical co-worker or disillusioned manager. Put simply, after that nice spring visit on campus and a coffee with a nice professor and equally nice PhD student representative you seem so ready to join this club!
But unlike seven years ago when I wrote my initial post, I can safely say that there are plenty of other offerings if figuring out what to with the rest of your life is really the main point for your transition.
PhDs have become more expensive (or living in nice university towns has become more expensive even if fees stayed the same more or less) and they still come with heavy emotional baggage. And they are not a one-year MBA, MPH or MA in HR Management-which are all legitimate possible choices for career transitions-they are a long-term commitment.

#MeToo, #AidToo, #PhDToo
Providing a critical overview of the current state of higher education is beyond this post. But try to imagine that the neoliberal, precarious, metricized university is not that dissimilar to your last large aid organization. Comparing notes on whether the UN or a university has the more ridiculous travel reimbursement system makes for good dinner conversation fun, but as the hashtags above indicate academia is grappling with many deep-rooted problems as other industries do when it comes to power (and abuses of it), stressful or harmful working conditions and generally working under the condition of post-modern capitalism. And depending on your academic homebase, your crude expat joke or passionate talk about the importance of global migration will attract ‘feedback’-especially if you are not a man and on social media.

Becoming an affiliated research associate is not a career change

Many universities like to keep ‘practitioners’ around-often with good intentions, but still under the conditions of neoliberal capitalism briefly mentioned above. A 50% ‘MA course leader’ job after your successful completion of your PhD, invitations to career days or some other kind of project affiliation seem nice enough, but remember that your goal of your career transition was probably to move into a full time job or something that resembles a career, live in a certain location or generally more stable-including financial stability, not (more) student loans.
My biggest worry is that the four to six years of PhD transition time are not (no longer?) enough to create the foundation for a new career. My experience is that formal educational credits count relatively less than practical experience, so you probably will not be able to launch a lucrative consultancy career just because you are a doctor now.

Is there really no light at the end of the tunnel?
I have many wonderful friends and colleagues in my networks who have managed this transition successfully.
Some probably thought it would be easier and others simply treated it more like a ‘normal’ job change (perfect opportunity for a guest post response!).
I also think that academics should be more critical and realistic with prospective students who think about a career change.
Can we perhaps offer some of the perks of academia in shorter courses, reading or writing retreats and other forms of non-traditional engagement? 

Or perhaps review a product that the aid worker produced in their work from a strictly academic perspective?

I personally have absolutely no doubts that diverse PhD cohorts are great for academia, but our desire to be surrounded by field experiences and interesting people always risks to turn into an almost colonial approach at a time when higher education is already going through major soul searching.
So talk to us-but prepared for ‘Reviewer 2’ feedback ;)!


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