Solving real-world problems through research

March 12, 2021
Assoc. Prof. Hassan Wafai (left) and Prof. Mary Bernard

Two Royal Roads University professors are on a mission to spread across Canada the school’s practical approach to doctoral research.

Dr. Mary Bernard and Dr. Hassan Wafai recently received a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Connections Grant to organize and host a conference on applied research for doctoral students. Called Socially Engaged Applied Doctoral Research in Canada: Approaches to Contemporary Social and Management Opportunities and Challenges, the event will run virtually from Aug. 20 to 22, 2021.

The conference is open to doctoral students in a variety of disciplines and interdisciplinary areas as well as their research supervisors, says Bernard, a professor in Royal Roads’ College of Interdisciplinary Studies and head of the Doctor of Social Sciences program.

“We focus, in our doctoral programs, on producing actionable and relevant knowledge,” says Wafai, an associate professor in the Faculty of Management and head of RRU’s Doctor of Business Administration program. “Our students bring real-life, problematic situations that they’ve been working in or dealing with to our programs, and they build research inquiry to address these situations.”

For instance, Bernard gives the example of a Doctor of Social Sciences student whose research explored children with autism aging out of government care at 18, and the ramifications of that on the kids, their families and society. That research involved intensive, in-person discussions with children and families over many months, “resulting in some very clear and practical suggestions for the B.C. government and its associated ministries, as well as a tangible contribution to the literature in the area of children, autism and developmental progress.”

Applied, impactful research

While all research matters, and intellectual and academic rigour must be employed in all doctoral research, Wafai says, “Applied research is… impactful research. It’s research that contributes to ongoing change in our society, in our industries.”

And it “can be communicated to people who are outside academia.”

Bernard says, “Doctoral programs are being revisited across the world” and notes that Royal Roads, as a relatively young university that began with an applied research focus, was a natural environment to mount applied doctorates.

She also points out that amazing work is being done in traditional PhD research, especially in the sciences, and applied research-oriented degrees aren’t meant to replace that approach; rather, “What we’re saying is that there’s a need for both the traditional PhD and for the applied doctorates.”

Both she and Wafai say they see value in bringing together doctoral students from different disciplines, interdisciplinary areas and institutions to compare research topics, theory and methods, and to include supervisors and faculty to compare best practices. To that end, two of the three days of the virtual conference are for students, the third for faculty members.

They’re also asking prospective participants to submit research papers so students can learn from one another.

Still, their goal is much bigger than this summer’s event. The aim is for future conferences to be held in person and to spread the net wider, to attract international students and professors —post-pandemic and, of course, if it’s practical.

Royal Roads will host its first doctoral conference from Aug. 20 to 22, 2021, focused on socially engaged applied doctoral research in Canada. Submissions are open until April 18, 2021 for papers from doctoral students and extended abstracts from supervisors and faculty members. Doctoral students at any phase of their research and doctoral supervisors and faculty interested in discussing doctoral scholarship and supervision can attend.