I had a bad day yesterday.
I had my candidacy exam and I failed.
Needless to say there have been a lot of tears. And a lot of support from many friends and family both near and far.
My dissertation proposal sought to look at Alberta and Norway’s governance of oil and gas resources from an intergenerational justice perspective. The primary research questions of the proposal were as follows:
- To what extent did Alberta and Norway each address or fail to address the concerns of intergenerational equity with regard to oil and gas policy?
- What factors contributed to their success or failure?
- What lessons can be drawn from these cases about the creation of intergenerationally equitable oil and gas policy?
There were two distinct components to my proposal: a normative component and a social scientific component. The normative component sought to look at a broad number of policy areas through an intergenerational justice lens. I wanted to understand what intergenerationally just policy looked like in a very holistic manner recognizing the numerous issues that could potentially impact future generations. The second part of the dissertation sought to understand and explain the conditions and factors that lead to or impeded the intergenerational equity of those policies. In other words, I wanted to understand a) what intergenerationally equitable policy looked like, and b) what impediments are in the way of intergenerationally equitable policy being adopted. On the face of it, that seems like a perfectly reasonable dissertation. The first problem, however, was that I didn’t have enough conceptual clarity about my own understanding of what intergenerational justice actually means. I had identified various ways in which one COULD assess intergenerational equity, but I didn’t take the next step to try and define how I would want to assess intergenerational equity. The second problem was with or without that theoretical clarity, evaluating all of those policy areas and understanding all of the factors that shaped those policy areas could very easily be a lifetime worth of work rather than a single dissertation. Without clarity on those issues the committee felt, rightly so, that it would be a disservice to me to approve the proposal and have me lost in the weeds.
Towards the end of the first round of questions, my supervisor made the point that rather than making the dissertation about intergenerational justice, the dissertation could be looking at the historical development of two specific policy areas – royalty regimes and wealth funds – with an eye towards intergenerational equity. This project would be a simpler, more focused, and thus more manageable version of my dissertation that would be fairly straightforward as a piece of social scientific inquiry. I expressed openness to the idea and as I was about to leave to let the committee deliberate I expressed that I had an interest in a career in the public service rather than academia. Thinking aloud I suggested that my supervisor’s proposal might be better suited to a public service career. One of my committee members disagreed. He said (and I’m paraphrasing cuz it was a bit of a blur) that the challenge for public servants isn’t being well versed and an ‘expert’ in a particular historical era, but the ability to apply complex theoretical issues and constructs to real world problems. He raised the illustration of David Mowat who is currently chairing the Royalty Review Panel here in Alberta. He said that when asked what the objectives of the panel are, David replies that the panel is seeking to “optimize” the royalty regime for Alberta. But if pressed on what criteria “optimization” refers, he cannot answer. That is what government needs. But that, also, is the bigger challenge.
I posted on Facebook about my situation. I expressed that I had failed and that I faced a significant question about my future. I knew that I could re-write the proposal in a more manageable way, focusing on the historical account of royalty regimes and wealth funds as expressed by my supervisor. I knew I could finish the PhD IF I so choose. But I had already been thinking about a career in the public service and had applied for a few jobs already. I had, in effect, one foot out the door as I was working on my dissertation proposal. After posting about my situation on Facebook, I took a bath. I was trying to relax and spend a bit of quality time with my two daughters. But I kept thinking about my future, and the choices that lay ahead of me. I thought about quitting and just applying for public service jobs that may be out there. I thought about re-writing my proposal as my supervisor suggested in order to make my project as manageable as possible in order to complete my PhD. But then a thought came to me.
Thinking about that comment, as benign as it may have been for that committee member, inspired me. It also gave me a new attitude for thinking about my dissertation. Thus far, because of the imposter syndrome that infects so many academics, I had been worried about writing a dissertation proposal that would not fail. I had been worried that I might miss something and so I dutifully identified and catalogued as many relevant components as possible without the ability to sort through all of those factors and synthesis them into a coherent whole. My proposal sought to be everything to everyone on a committee comprised of public policy specialist, political theorist, critical theory comparativist, and an economist. By trying to be everything to everyone, my proposal became unwieldy and incoherent.
Now I have, quite literally, been given a new lease on life. Rather than writing a proposal that I am afraid might fail, I can write the proposal I want to write and IF it fails, so be it. To use an overused cliché, I have the confidence to “leave it all out on the field” as President Obama/Bartlett said. If they approve me, great. If not, then I at least I can say I tried. I still have SSHRC funding for another year.
So what is MY proposal idea?
Here it is:
This new proposal will outline a dissertation that will take the intergenerational justice literature and convert that into a framework that will help guide policy makers about the intergenerational equity of policy proposals. It will identify the key issues that must be included in an assessment of intergenerational equity. While I do not at this time know what they will all be, I do have one example of what that might look like. One issue that must be decided is how to put boundaries demarcating who counts as future generations. Is the next generation sufficient or must we think 7 generations into the future? The challenge is that the further out we look, the more uncertainty with which we must contend. There will be other issues of course, and the framework will help policy makers sort through those additional complexities that may not necessarily be front and center. The idea would be to develop a framework that would be applicable to various governments and jurisdictions. Intergenerational equity will look differently in Alberta than it will in Norway, and this framework would allow for those unique contextual factors to shape what the policy should look like. I will then apply this framework to two specific cases which have the potential to impact intergenerational equity here in Alberta: Alberta’s new Climate Change panel recommendations and Alberta’s upcoming Royalty review.
If it is the big theoretical questions that energize me, then it is the big theoretical questions that I will succeed or fail by. I will not lower my expectations in order to pass. Doing so would be a cop-out and a poor example to set for my daughters. Now I’ve got some work to do.