For this edition of Alumni Watch, we caught up with Dr. Andrea Franco-Correa of Colombia, who graduated from our PhD programme in January 2017. She defended her thesis ‘On the measurement of multidimensional poverty as a policy tool: The case of Chile, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru’ — and has since started work at the Colombian Institute for Family Welfare.
As a Colombian national, you were able to work on your PhD with the support of a government scholarship. What exactly were the conditions?
I got the funding from Colombia’s National Planning Department, which used to fund public officials working there (although I don’t know if that’s still the case). The initial conditions to get the loan scholarship were: that the university I was applying to was well-known, that I had being working for at least two years, and that I had demonstrated excellent performance in the interview.
As it was a loan scholarship it has a maximum amount deductible. From the total amount that my PhD cost I can get an 85% reduction, at most. How do I get this? It means that I have to work either as a public official, as I am currently doing, or in academia (either public or private, it doesn’t matter).
I’m giving back to my country the investment that it made in my studies – for the same amount of time that they funded me (four years). Right after landing I submitted a copy of my certificate and my scholarship already covered 50% of my costs. They are now waiting until I cover the four years of work, and if I got some extra points from publications, from teaching in a university, or from being employed in a region other than Bogotá.
After your graduation in January 2017, you moved back to Colombia to work for the national government. How did the PhD help you on the job, and did it lead to a career change?
I got the job before I graduated, although my CV was clear about the approximate date of graduation. I guess that my academic experience and the fact that I was enrolled in a public policy programme with a focus on poverty and inequality research, combined with my previous experience as a public official in Colombia, were the main reasons that I got accepted for the position.
Even if the PhD had not helped me to get the job, it has certainly helped me through this year-and-a-half to overcome the difficulties of my daily responsibilities, to manage the team that I am in charge of, and to give them appropriate feedback when needed. It has made me qualified in terms of finding ways to solve problems and to have an open mind in dealing with issues that require new and different approaches. For instance, when dealing with indigenous, Afro-Colombian and Romani populations.
In both research and practice, your work is highly relevant to the first Sustainable Development Goal, ‘No Poverty’. Yet, you’ve moved from policy to research and now back again to policy over the last five years. What did you gain in moving out of research, and what do you miss about no longer being a researcher?
That’s a very difficult question. My job often requires the use of rational thinking in dealing with emergencies, situations in which children and teenagers are being denied their rights. There is very little time to think and a real urgency to act. Colombia signed the ‘Convention on the Rights of the Child’ back in the 1990s; and since that time it has steadily focused more and more on respecting sectorial responsibilities while ensuring synergies between various coordinated actions. Besides that we are in charge of dealing with new public policies, strategies, programmes, and normative changes that require a detailed systemic approach.
It’s always difficult to make the transition between different worlds. It’s tough to move between public policymaking and research, and I really thought that I was prepared to go back the second time. I’d missed being ‘in touch with reality’ during the years I lived in the Netherlands. But now I equally miss academia, the environment at UNU-MERIT / MGSoG, and of course my friends. I guess I will never be totally one side or the other.
Moving out of research gave me the feeling that I am useful in a different way. In academia people were basically numbers on my screen, and I could find trends and reasons why the results were showing one behaviour as compared with the other option. But right now, for me, every child has a face: they suffer when they’re in need of something or they smile at the joy of life. My actions have a direct impact on people’s lives, for better or worse. It’s very rewarding when you end the week knowing that your decision and action changed somebody’s life for the better.
The opinions expressed here are the author’s own; they do not necessarily reflect the views of UNU.
UN Photo / Evan Schneider