The difficult path to meaningful & decolonized PhDs in Development Studies
The other day a young, bright contact in my network announced that they had accepted a PhD position on a full scholarship at a great development studies institution in Europe.
And then I read a post in a large, well-known aid Facebook group where a member announced that they are planning to return to academia, but are looking for a way not to do ‘research for research’s sake’ and instead influence humanitarian policy or practice in the OECD country of their studies.
Both of these anecdotes as well as recent discussions with contacts about the pros and cons of embarking on a PhD journey reminded me on how difficult it is to pull off the unicorn PhD that gets you a fancy degree, influences policy and achieves all of this in a participatory way that keeps you and your informants safe, healthy and happy.
Is a PhD the most colonial academic undertaking today?
This is of course a provocative and very generalizing question, but unlike other degrees, subjects or study experiences I have come to believe that the PhD is particularly persistent to changes and ‘decolonization’. No amount of careful acknowledgements or participatory exercises can mitigate the fact that at the end of the day it will be your name on the certificate-you will be acknowledged as the sole author. If you manage to turn thesis chapters into academic journal articles that will eventually be published in pay-walled journals after months, sometimes years of revisions neither your ‘informants’ nor ‘policy makers’ will likely pay much attention.
(‘as the Chief of Policy Analysis [for a large agency] I never read a journal, I never looked at a lit review’).
For most of his career Robert Chambers did not supervise PhD students and while he enjoyed the academic environment of IDS, he was very clear that he did not believe that the theoretical innovations and practical applications in participatory development would come from PhD theses.
Today, there are ethical reviews, action research frameworks and reflective practice approaches that have diversified the PhD experience and aim at making it more inclusive and less extractive but that is far from ‘decolonizing’ the concept and challenge the deep-rooted inequalities of the degree.
How will the aid industry look like in four years’ time?
A snarky reply would probably be ‘pretty similar to today’, but what I mean is that today’s PhD proposals will be finished theses only in a few years’ time.
One of the problems with many PhD theses is that they are either published too early or too late: A thesis on ‘localization of humanitarian aid’ from 2016 may have been lost in the archives and the 2024 thesis on ‘diversifying humanitarian organizational structures’ may arrive a bit late. This has also to do with the inherent conflict of a PhD which is not really supposed to be ‘trendy’, applicable and immediately relevant for policy or practice.
Can’t I do my PhD alongside all my other interesting, meaning- and impactful projects?
The period of a PhD is usually an income-free time. Scholarships, research assistant gigs and the odd consultancy may be worthwhile and nice, but an income means that you actually have to file for taxes…the risk is that your full-time PhD student existence turns into a full-time volunteering-of-sorts existence. There is nothing wrong with volunteering, of course, but if you really want to do policy work, like the pace of a Think Tank or find supporting communities in ‘the field’ so much more fulfilling, then why did you quit your previous job?!?
I know from years of experience that going for low or short-term hanging fruit can be much more appealing than focusing on the long-term, slow process of drafting thesis chapters that your supervisor(s) will take apart, but such a limbo usually does not contribute to a healthy work-life balance.
My general advice on PhDs in Development Studies have been consistent since my initial post more than 10 years ago (Should I consider a PhD in International Development Studies?) or my more recent reflections on Should I transition from aid work to academia? Some don’ts & don’ts.
So should we abandon PhDs in Development Studies altogether?
If you are young-ish, full of energy and ideas the PhD may be an opportunity later on to round off your education and CV. And if you want to work on social change ‘on the ground’, in your community no amount of tweaking a PhD will have the same impact as doing the real thing.
The PhD in Development Studies (especially in the form of a monograph thesis) is still a fairly conservative degree that seems even less open to ‘disruption’ or change than other educational programs in the development sphere, let alone in ‘the field’ where pushes for localization, decolonization and diversity are already at the gates of the headquarters and guesthouses.
I work in academia and I appreciate what the sector can do in terms of learning and contributions to knowledge, but I also want potential PhD students to think very hard about their motives for embarking on this journey and whether the commitment is the right choice at this particular moment in their career.
There is nothing wrong in being interested in small methodological improvements, nuanced new insights from a well-researched geographical location or a thorough review of years of literature-and sometimes your PhD topic may coincide with major developments in the aid industry, international policy discourses and strategic changes in organizations. But it is an expensive gamble-both in monetary and mental terms-and most likely, your topic will be of far less interest than you hoped when you started some years ago.
At the same time, international development academia needs to take a long and hard look at PhDs so that they are not just about adding (fee-paying) students to departments, but to contribute to the 21st century realities of rethinking development studies.