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, our Head of Communications, spoke with Rodrigo Lopez and Giovanna Mazzeo Ortolani who just started their PhD.
Diego: Giovanna and Rodrigo, welcome to UNU-MERIT! Could you tell me a little bit about yourselves?
Rodrigo: My name is Rodrigo Lopez, and I come from Chile. I’m a sociologist with a background in medicine.
Giovanna: My name is Giovanna Mazzeo Ortolani, and despite my Italian-sounding name, I’m Brazilian. I’ve been living in Europe for about seven years. I’m an economist by training and currently work with social policies and welfare at the European Commission. I’ve happily joined the first-year cohort of the GPAC2 Programme.
Diego: What made you decide to do a PhD?
Rodrigo: Oh, that’s an excellent question. As a practising physician, I have often realised that even if the care is there, some patients cannot reach the healthcare system. So I would like to know how to improve their chances to be treated. And to receive adequate treatment. I want to understand the barriers to healthcare, and that’s not something that I can address from my medical perspective. I need to understand the systemic policy perspective.
Diego: Did your interest start because of the pandemic or before?
Rodrigo: It started before. I’ve done a lot of international cooperation and know that sometimes there are many factors involved in delivering care.
Diego: Giovanna, you work at the European Commission. How did you decide to do a PhD?
Giovanna: I decided it even before joining the Commission. I’ve always wanted to do research as part of my career without knowing precisely the type of format. Last year, after three years of dealing with macroeconomics and policy and doing very empirical work, I joined a research centre of the Commission. That’s when I realised how much I had been missing the rigour of scientific research in my daily life.
Diego: How will a PhD and the skills that come with it improve your policy work?
Giovanna: Sometimes, in policy, our need to draw general conclusions that apply to different conditions makes us zoom out so much that we lose the ability to look into the details. A doctoral degree is not only a diploma but also actual competencies. We learn to zoom in on a problem with rigour, and we can use this methodology for different types of problems. We know that policymakers and researchers don’t speak the same language, and I’ve always wanted to bridge these two worlds. But I can’t do it without doing research myself.
Diego: Let me go on a tangent quickly. What should research institutions and researchers do better when speaking to policymakers like yourself?
Giovanna: Besides doing good research, you can focus on communicating your research. Make an effort to explain your research in a non-technical way. I understand that you will lose some degree of detail in doing so, but if you don’t do this, if you’re not humble enough to make this effort, then there isn’t any communication at all.
Rodrigo: It is also about paying attention to real problems. Policymakers don’t ask us what our problems are. So, the first thing to do is to set the agenda. But who sets the agenda? Is it academia or policymakers? And then we need to be able to communicate with each other.
Diego: What is the best way to co-create solutions? What are you missing?
Rodrigo: I think it’s a matter of language. It’s not about speaking English. It’s about being able to talk to one another and the language of the other.
Giovanna: Independently of the field, if you are an established professional, you always think you are doing great work, and no one is questioning this. But can you make your research matter? For whose sake are you doing research? Is it for your personal fulfilment, to advance your career, or to improve certain aspects of the world? I am not saying that academia is not the real world, but academics need to be able to communicate this. Sometimes I think that people in academia forget that what they are doing is very relevant to policymakers. Policymakers need to be informed about innovative research projects at an earlier stage of the policymaking process. We need to remember that the policy and research agendas have different dynamics.
Diego: Let us delve into the more practical aspect of your part-time programme. How are you tackling the PhD alongside your daily work?
Rodrigo: I’m just starting, so it’s difficult to say. But I think it is a matter of being organised, allocating time for the PhD and allocating time for work. I will spend all Tuesday, mornings and Thursdays on my PhD. I hope it is going to be sustainable.
Giovanna: There are many spillovers between what I research at work and what I’ll do here as part of my doctorate programme. I hope this will allow me to work in a very efficient way. But then, indeed, I might have to set the clock to say: “Okay, work is ready. Now onto my research”. Research work requires a rigorous scientific mindset, so I want to do it in the mornings when I am still fresh and probably at least one day during the weekend.
Rodrigo: It is a matter of motivation. The part-time PhD programme is a good option for working professionals because we remind ourselves why we’re doing it all the time. And I like our cohort of fellows, they are very interesting people with many different backgrounds and experiences, but at the same time, we all share a common goal: we want to improve in our fields.
The opinions expressed here are the author’s own; they do not necessarily reflect the views of UNU.
UNU-MERIT / H. Pijpers