Kent Schroeder did not set out to make history when he enrolled as a graduate student at Guelph. But this spring he became Canada’s first PhD graduate in international development.
Schroeder successfully defended his thesis on development in the tiny Asian country of Bhutan, making him the first graduate of a doctoral-level international development studies (IDS) program in Canada. Until now, international development workers seeking a PhD in IDS had to pursue their doctoral studies outside of Canada.
The Guelph PhD program, which began in 2009, is interdisciplinary and draws students from other graduate programs. It now has 12 candidates, plus Schroeder. U of G departments with PhD candidates in IDS are political science, population medicine and geography.
Enrolled in political science, Schroeder came to Guelph while working at Humber College as director of international development projects. He had managed projects in Bangladesh, Tanzania and Bhutan, and wanted to look more closely at development in Bhutan.
“Bhutan intrigued me in that its development strategy appeared to be generating a broad range of integrated development outcomes in a way that I had not seen when working elsewhere,” he says.
“As my practical engagement with Bhutan deepened, so too did my intrigue. I wanted to do a PhD to more fully explore how development there is being implemented. It was a means to improve my current work, which involves both project development and teaching, and will hopefully make my contributions to development more effective.”
Coming to Guelph was an easy choice.
“The interdisciplinary nature of the IDS PhD program appealed to me as it involves students from a range of disciplines. At Guelph, the faculty were not only incredibly knowledgeable but friendly, accessible and clearly interested in helping students succeed.”
He often worked with Sarah Pugh, also an IDS PhD candidate in political science. The differences in their work experience and academic interests helped them learn from each other, he says.
Pugh is hoping to defend her thesis on refugee and migration politics in South Africa this summer. She had worked in South Africa at an outdoor education centre during her BA.
When she heard about violence against foreigners in South Africa in 2008, she wanted to understand why it was happening.
“My research involves trying to understand the dynamics in South Africa that led to the positioning of migrants as threats, criminals, carriers of disease and stealers of jobs, and how much social and political space there really is for those who are attempting to challenge that narrative in the country,” Pugh says.
She had been working at the British Columbia Centre for Disease Control in Vancouver for three years when she chose to move to Guelph for her PhD.
“I applied elsewhere as well, but at the end of the day, I was won over completely by Guelph,” she says.
“I was met with enormous warmth and enthusiasm at U of G. I loved the size of the University, its ethic and its engagement. And I loved the City of Guelph — it was easy for me to imagine living there.”
The chance to live in Cape Town, South Africa, while doing her research was a bonus for her.
Living abroad while conducting research is part of the applied nature of the program, says Prof. Craig Johnson, director of graduate studies for IDS.
“There is a strong emphasis on empirical, field-based research in IDS, reflecting a desire on the part of many IDS researchers to ensure that their work is advancing knowledge in ways that are sensitive to local culture and context,” says Johnson, who helped design the program.
“We reviewed PhD programs in Europe when designing this. Our program combines traditional academic disciplines like geography, sociology and political science with ‘real-world’ problems like poverty, food security and climate change.
“Many international development agencies like the World Food Program, Canada’s International Development Research Centre and the World Bank now require a PhD in IDS, reflecting the recent shift in favour of evidence- and results-based planning in development policy and practice.”
For Schroeder, the time and effort required to make his PhD relevant to his career was worthwhile.
“While it was often a heavy workload, at no point did my interest in Bhutan, or political science-IDS more generally, flag,” he says.
“The PhD experience was a great way to not only learn and critically engage with development theory but to reflect on the nature of my own personal practice and how it might be more effective in the future as a way to promote positive change.”