UniPID DocShop 2017 reflected on the career options and responsible professional practices of the development research PhDs

February 20, 2017

UniPID DocShop 2017: Life after the PhD - Responsible professional practices for development researchers in the contemporary world was organized in Helsinki on February 16, 2017 in connection with the annual Development Days conference.

Group work at the House of Sciences and Letters.

UniPID DocShop 2017 Life after the PhD: Responsible professional practices for development researchers in the contemporary world was organized in Helsinki on February 16, 2017 in connection with the annual Development Days conference. 

The half-day workshop gathered some 30 participants, including PhD candidates, researchers, teachers and development practitioners with a wide spectrum of disciplinary backgrounds. The aim of the workshop was to reflect on how development researchers could respond to the changing global setting, including the growing demands and expectations of the funders and end-users of development research. More than ever before, development researchers are expected to produce measurable and policy-relevant results, include non-academic actors in research consortia, and build stakeholder consultation into study design.


Marja Spierenburg presenting the dilemmas of co-producing knowledge.

The workshop was organized by professors Anja Nygren (University of Helsinki) and Jeremy Gould (University of Jyväskylä) and was facilitated by Marja Spierenburg, professor of Anthropology and Development Studies at Radboud University Nijmegen (the Netherlands). The workshop started with professor Spierenburg’s presentation on the dilemmas of co-producing knowledge in the sphere of development research. The presentation was followed by break-out group work, where the participants were asked to reflect on their research project’s stakeholders with their various interests and power positions related to the research case.

In the feedback of the group work it came clear that the participants covered a very wide spectrum of topics, with a great variety of stakeholders. However, many common issues and dilemmas were identified. The participants shared the pressure between the contradictory requests from the stakeholders. Security issues related to researchers’ role in a conflict situation and their own security in the field, as well as to assuring stakeholders’ security were brought up by many. Joint concern was expressed on the dilemma between publishing research results and the call for open access data versus vulnerable groups’ need to maintain their anonymity. 

When considering solutions for the different dilemmas, it was seen that there is a need for the researchers to behave differently with different stakeholders. It was suggested that on one hand maintaining as objective as possible in the conflicts and between the differing stakeholder requests would ease researchers’ work. On the other hand, it was also considered that taking a clear stand for the local community one wants to support with their research can help researchers define their own roles in the project. Related to the researchers’ involvement with the stakeholders, the need to engage with the local communities, building trust and sharing the same language with them were considered crucial. Professor Spierenburg also reminded the audience that researchers need to be careful in creating expectations related to the potential of the research project to solve the problems of the stakeholders, which would actually require longer term commitment than regular research field work allows. 

The audience participated actively throughout the event. 

After the group work session, the workshop continued with interventions of Development Studies alumni reflecting on their career development. Kaari Mattila, currently the general secretary of Finnish League for Human Rights, criticized the rigidity of the academic work market, and also said to value PhD when recruiting for her NGO. Heini Vihemäki reflected on her working experiences as JPO in the Agroforestry center ICRAF in Tanzania, as well as in the Embassy of Finland in Nairobi. Gutu Wayessa spoke about his research career in the Universities of Luxenburg and Helsinki after finalizing his PhD.  

Professor Spierenburg based her second presentation on an alumni study of the National Research School for Resource Studies for Development (CERES) in the Netherlands. She stated that in addition to negotiating academic freedom and principles, as well as organizational culture and mission when working in different sectors, development research PhDs face challenges brought by the change in the public opinion on development issues and distrust towards scientists in the post-truth society. Also the social media challenges us even more when thinking about publishing research results and their spreading back to the countries of our research.  

The final discussion dwelt around the rigidity of the academic work market, where the requirements for publishing may close the doors of the academy for the people, who want to explore working also outside of the academy. It was considered that there might be a need at the universities to develop the tenure mechanisms and to facilitate moving back and forth of the academia to ensure having the best people working at the universities.  

More information on the UniPID DocNet and related activities available from Johanna Kivimäki.