Our ‘Dual Focus PhD’ series tracks the working lives of our part-time PhD fellows. Many work at the highest of levels, both nationally and internationally — and in normal times they come to Maastricht in person for our unique PhD Dual Career Training Programme in Governance and Policy Analysis (GPAC²). This time we had a virtual round table featuring Mindel van de Laar (MvdL), Jo Ritzen (JR), Anthony Arundel (AA), and PhD candidate Rafael Lemaitre (RL), who defends his PhD dissertation on 18 November 2021.
MvdL: Rafael, as a Mexican citizen, the choice of the Arab United Emirates is interesting, yet clearly related to your work. You somehow managed to combine your job as a management consultant in Dubai with doing your PhD research. Why did you choose to start your research while you were employed full-time?
RL: For me the reasons were two-fold. First, it was about developing academic research skills. As a management consultant, when we analyse problems, we do it at a high level, driven by a pressing need to give advice in a short period of time. In a PhD it is the opposite, you have to go very deep into a subject, analysing every possible angle. The second reason was a matter of expanding my ‘horizons’ in two key areas of interest: the Public Sector, and Innovation. As a consultant in the Middle East, my work mainly focuses on advising government entities on strategic matters, and innovation in public services had captured the spotlight. Therefore the PhD was a great way to enhance my knowledge (and credibility) in this area.
JR My experience supervising mid-career PhDs dates back to the 1980s when I was a professor in Rotterdam. Two mid-career professionals wrote their PhDs alongside full-time jobs and families with children. Both did very well. Recently we met in my house to reflect on that experience. They both looked back with great satisfaction at the experience even if the PhD had not been the perfect boon to their careers – but that was also not in their expectation when engaging in the PhD. At GPAC I also had the privilege to supervise Derek Copp who did very well and would have climbed high up in the Canadian education leadership, if not for his highly unfortunate –and far too early – death. In general, though, I prefer supervising the mid-career PhD students – like Rafael Lemaitre – more than ‘regular’ students. Their motivation is even stronger than that of regular students and they generally have a greater practical thrust in the research. They really want to know about the subject, and not in abstract but in concrete terms.
MvdL: Rafael, your PhD deals with public sector innovation, and the subtitle indicates that the occurrence of innovation — as well as the outcomes it may lead to — are less known than in private sector innovation. So your study makes for an an interesting contribution.
RL: For many people, innovation in government is considered an oxymoron. There is a popular perception that innovation is really driven by the private sector (nowadays this is exacerbated by the role of ‘big tech’). But this is far from the truth — the public sector innovates, and you can find great examples out there. My research wants to build on top of the emerging body of literature in Public Sector Innovation (PSI), adding a layer to it. I am trying to correlate different characteristics of organisations and managers, with the potential impact that their innovations deliver. In the process of doing so, I’m also trying to tackle a challenge which is the lack of PSI research in the ‘Arab World’. So far almost all studies have been conducted in the ‘Western World’, and my research is changing that.
AA: Public sector innovation is of growing interest in much of the world because of the role of the public sector in supporting equity through improved social services and in addressing pressing challenges such as climate change. At the same time, budgetary constraints have required public sector innovators to do more with less. This has led to debate over the best model for public sector innovation, for instance should public sector organisations rely on external sources of knowledge and expertise or develop these capabilities in-house, and if organisational capabilities and other factors affect outcomes. For this study, Rafael designed, conducted, and analysed a survey of public sector managers in the UAE that addresses these issues in public sector innovation. The result is new insights on management and risk, along with the identification of similarities and differences in how public sector innovation occurs in the Gulf States versus Europe.
MvdL: Your defence will take place in Maastricht, during one of our part-time PhD programme workshops. Over recent years you have visited UNU-MERIT twice a year to inform us on your progress and upcoming plans, while also receiving feedback. What we did not see, on our end, is how time consuming and how serious an undertaking is doing a PhD alongside a full-time job.
RL: I think that after so many years doing the PhD I can share a lot of tips in how NOT to progress fast! Jokes aside, the challenges I faced made me realise the things I should have done differently. I believe the key is a constant allocation of time. For example, it is much better to allocate an hour every day, rather than no hours during the week and then an 8-16 hours sprint at weekends. When time passes and you have not touched the research, you forget small things and need time to start all over and refresh your memory. Those are real inefficiencies in time that you should avoid at all costs! The second piece of advice I would strongly recommend is to keep connected to the GPAC² programme and team, always come to the workshops, login to Canvas, communicate with your supervisor, and reach out for help if needed. All of this helps you to maintain momentum and keeps you grounded, otherwise you can start drifting apart. I saw many of my fellow colleagues who did not do this and who ended up dropping out. We all have busy jobs, so the key is discipline. Ultimately, you can always squeeze time if you make the PhD a habit.
AA: I would agree with Rafael on some of the difficulties of working on a PhD part-time, which can also affect the supervisor if there are many months between commenting on a chapter and seeing the revisions! Nevertheless, working part-time, although creating some inefficiencies, has not led to any loss of quality. Rafael has produced a high-quality and rigorous PhD that makes a worthwhile contribution to our current knowledge of public sector innovation.
JR: The Arab world is in a serious transition from dependency (in particular in the Gulf States including Saudi Arabia) from dependency on oil production and exports towards a broader spectrum of production, including services. This is clear from all of the Gulf States’s strategic plans. I still spend quite some time in the region and recognise time and again that the major threshold for oil independency is ‘human capital’: knowledgeable people who can help organisations to become innovative and efficient. Efficiency of the government is in that respect recognised as an important precondition for private business to do its job. Your dissertation, Rafa, is important to the world of the Gulf States, but equally to the struggles of the middle income countries in the Arab world where development so much hinges on having an effective government.
The opinions expressed here are the authors’ own; they do not necessarily reflect the views of UNU.
UNU / H. Pijpers