Doctor of Social Sciences fuels the life’s work of students

October 17, 2017
Cindy MacDougall
Doctor of Social Sciences students in residency

The life cycle of a doctorate candidate used to be simple. Start with years of hard work and dedication. Survive a dissertation defence. Celebrate convocation. Teach at a university.

That last step doesn’t happen for many social science doctorates anymore. For the creators of Royal Roads University’s Doctor of Social Sciences (DSocSci), producing professors was never the only goal.

Instead, they aimed to help students create fuel to feed their life’s work.

“Our students are practitioners interested in connecting their experience with a scholarly foundation,” says Dr. Siomonn Pulla, program head for the DSocSci and associate professor of the College of Interdisciplinary Studies. “They often already have a career. Our students aim to create meaningful connections between scholarship and practitioner-based research.”

Launched in 2010, the DSocSci was designed to enable students to “integrate professional experience and academic scholarship to produce policy-relevant research that is written in a widely accessible way,” Pulla writes with co-author Prof. Bernard Schissel in their book Applied Interdisciplinarity in Scholar-Practitioner Programs, forthcoming later this fall.

Since its launch, the program has produced more than 20 graduates working in fields as wide ranging as law, political science, the arts, emergency management, business and post-secondary teaching and research itself.

“The need for interdisciplinary, collaborative approaches involving practitioners and communities is well-documented,” says Royal Roads Vice-Provost of Research and Interdisciplinary Studies matthew heinz. “Few doctoral programs, however, are structurally able to facilitate such research. We’re fortunate the structures we created have allowed our students to study complex problems in new ways.”

 DSocSci graduate and retired lawyer Dr. Nancy Gilbert was deep into a second act as a volunteer with the non-profit Foundation for Partnership Initiatives in the Niger Delta when she joined the doctorate program.

As she looked into health issues in the region, she discovered 100 million people lack access to adequate sanitation there – and there was little scientific research on why or how to fix it.

“I discovered this was my passion,” Gilbert says. “I wanted an excuse to dig into this issue from a more academic and disciplined place.”

Supported by a Mitacs Accelerate fellowship, she investigated both best practices around sanitation for the region and behavioural attitudes towards sanitation and hygiene.

Gilbert now uses her research as she works with various partners to develop safe, locally made and environmentally suitable toilets for the Niger Delta.

“You never want research to be sitting on a shelf. That’s one of the things about Royal Roads—we’re encouraged to do research that will have an impact,” she says.

Dr. Dan Guinan’s research for his DSocSci was also a means to a solution. Guinan, the first non-Indigenous president of the private, non-profit Native Education College in Vancouver, was interested in how post-secondary schools could better support Indigenous students’ success.

“We need to have discussions around what we are doing at post-secondary institutions and why we want reconciliation,” he says. “How do we work together and what are our objectives and values to move forward?”

He conducted a case study at a university in BC which found a lack of social relationships between university employees and Indigenous students caused gaps in intercultural understanding. Those gaps can make Indigenous students feel isolated, Guinan says, or that they must assimilate culturally.

Guinan developed a social model to help employees become more accepting of Indigenous culture and identity.

“We have to learn more about Indigenous cultures so we can effectively teach people in their culture,” he says.

Eva Jewell came to Royal Roads through a desire to ground her scholarship in her community. Jewell had been away from her nation and people, the Anishinaabe of Deshkaan Ziibing in Ontario, for more than six years as she completed undergraduate and master’s degrees in Indigenous arts and Indigenous governance in Santa Fe, New Mexico and Victoria, BC.

“I was afraid that if I did a doctorate, I would lose touch with the community from which I draw my indigeneity,” Jewell says. “I put a pin into the idea until I was ready to leave the nation.”

The DSocSci’s blended model of online study with short residencies allowed her to stay closer to home and to the people with whom she conducts her research.

With the support of the 2017-18 Pre-Doctoral Fellowship in American Indian and Indigenous Studies from Michigan State University, she researches the attitudes of citizens of Deshkaan Ziibing towards customary forms of governance as a replacement to the band structure imposed on the nation by the Indian Act.

“I am producing research with my community that is responding to that contemporary call to produce Indigenous data and that’s very exciting to me,” she says. “I hope I can create a spark, an activation, a mobilization to another way of being. I hope in seven generations they will look back and say, ‘She was thinking about us.’”

That dedication to results with a practical, innovative effect shines throughout the research of the students and graduates of the DSocSci program, leaving a mark on the many work and research fields of its graduates.

“The university put its faith in social science innovation when it launched the DSocSci program,” says Vice-Provost heinz. “It’s a showcase of our transdisciplinary, applied strength.”