Doctorates, Colombian Style

Reflections of an Expatriate Political Scientist

by | Oct 13, 2012

In addition to painting slogans and other texts on the walls of university buildings, students at the campus of the Universidad Nacional (UNAL) in Bogotá, make use of stencils. Photo by Steve Cagan.

“You do know this will be the kiss of death to your academic career” was the unenthusiastic response of my adviser to the news that I was going to marry a classmate and move to his native Colombia. It was 1990 and I was ABD in Yale’s doctoral program in political science. I wasn´t particularly concerned with turning my back on the rarified world of academia in the United States. I was in love, I was primed for adventure, and I was confident that I had a bright scholarly future awaiting me in Colombia, my adviser’s skepticism of academe in a developing country and my own rudimentary Spanish skills notwithstanding.

Three babies, three international moves and a dissertation later, I joined the political science faculty of the Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá. For most new Ph.D.s, the contrast between the theoretical and abstruse world of doctoral programs and first appointments with lots of undergraduate students and a large teaching load can come as quite a shock. In my case, this difference was compounded by strikingly divergent academic cultures. If political science in the United States was lofty and somewhat detached from reality, political science in Colombia was right in the thick of daily social and political life.

I had a hard time getting traction at Universidad de los Andes with my training, which had been very focused on the discipline itself: political science for political science’s sake. While my new colleagues were drafting columns for newspapers, moonlighting at NGOs, and dashing off to give congressional testimony, my instinct was to turn the conversation back to the intellectual safety of theories and models.

The Colombian social science environment is part and parcel of the world it studies. Historians, anthropologists, sociologists and political scientists, with advanced training from top universities both national and international, routinely jump into the fray of public debate. They revel in their role as scholar-practitioners and as political activists. The science of explaining and forecasting often takes a back seat to more urgent responsibilities, such as shaping the nation’s agenda, proposing solutions to persistent poverty, social inequality and violence, and helping end one of the most virulent and intractable internal conflicts in the world.

There are of course some U.S. social scientists who go in and out of government service and others who have permanently migrated from the academy into the private sector or policy-making sphere. With some notable exceptions, though, it is not unusual to hear such U.S. academics disparaged for for no longer producing bona fide scholarly work or for “selling out.” This criticism is strikingly absent in Colombia. University professors consider themselves public intellectuals, eagerly using their training in the service of society.

During my eight years at los Andes I gradually came to understand that political science’s relevance and contribution are highly contingent on the context in which the discipline is practiced. Through this experience I now have a deep appreciation for applied learning and research. Following my appointment as the Director of the Fulbright program in Bogota in 2006, my crash course in Colombian style political science would serve as the basis for ongoing reflections about the purpose of advanced learning and the role of Ph.Ds in the developing world. The Fulbright program, with its commitment to knowledge in the benefit of humanity, is a laboratory for applied scholarship. I continue to grapple with a number of issues related both to the value and impact of Ph.D. training and scholarly work in Colombia.

Doctorates in Colombia are on the rise. The nation’s shift toward a science-and technology-based growth strategy has led to a corresponding increase in R&D spending and expansion of research capabilities, as well as an escalation in the number of Ph.D.s and doctoral programs in Colombian universities, obvious prerequisites for innovation, scientific discovery and economic development. Colombia produces approximately 2.3 Ph.Ds per million inhabitants, a six-fold increase over the past decade, although still below other countries in the region. This proportion is insufficient to meet the country’s growing research needs. Colombian universities currently offer a total of 169 accredited doctoral programs; nearly double the figure only five years earlier. In leading public and private universities with major research programs, a doctorate is now a prerequisite for a career in academia, with a significant number of new faculty hired directly upon receiving the Ph.D.

This has led to something of a mad dash among traditional teaching universities and even technical institutes to join the research and Ph.D. bandwagon. Universities encourage professors already on a teaching track with a master´s or diploma degree to do a doctorate, develop research agendas and even open doctoral programs. The development of research competencies can upgrade scholarship and invigorate teaching. Likewise, homegrown Ph.D. programs are more likely to promote research that focuses on local problems and needs. Still, as doctoral programs and Ph.Ds become the new credential, there is a potential for diverting scarce resources and capacities from the instructional mission of higher education, especially in some of Colombia’s regions. It is not realistic, or desirable, for all Colombian universities to aspire to research institution status. Such a change risks downgrading the importance of preparing citizens for professional and technical careers in the private sector, government and civil society.

This shift to research and doctoral training by Colombia’s universities also raises questions regarding how scholarship is evaluated and weighed. While many universities accept independent peer review as a valid control of academic quality, the “publish or perish” model of scholarly validation that reigns in the United States has been embraced only partially. Controversy continues about who are considered the legitimate gatekeepers of the discipline and the relative importance of publications and peer review to faculty advancement. 

International peer-reviewed journals are not universally recognized in Colombia as the sine qua non of social science rigor. Although top-ranked universities value the prestige associated with publishing in leading scientific journals, national publications with local experts and review processes more attuned to autochthonous scholarship are also recognized as a valid imprimatur of both the quality and the importance of findings. That Spanish-language manuscripts are barred from international academic vetting only strengthens the legitimacy of Colombian peer review. In Colombia’s major research universities, peer-reviewed publications do play an increasingly important role in faculty evaluations and promotion. Unsurprisingly, where teaching undergraduates continues to be at the core of the university purpose, the “publish or perish” mandate is weak. Of concern in this model of judging academic performance is that it neither evaluates the real impact of the research itself, nor does it reward professors who engage in other vital activities within the university, including teaching and mentorship.

Another thorny issue surrounding doctoral training and impact relates to the location from which Ph.D.s are most able to contribute to the country’s research and development needs. A fundamental tenet of the Fulbright program worldwide is the requirement for U.S. trained professionals and academics to return to their country of origin upon finishing their degrees and related activities. The Fulbright officers’ thinking, shared by Colombian government entities such as Colciencias that also sponsor graduate studies, is that the best way to harness the knowledge and research skills of citizens who do doctoral work in the United States is through their return to Colombia.

Today, of course, it is feasible for researchers from all corners of the globe to achieve local impact. In fact, one could argue that having Colombian academics strategically located in universities and research facilities around the world is instrumental to the development of institutional ties, research networks and collaborations. According to this point of view, transnational processes and global knowledge communities make the concept of brain drain obsolete.

Nevertheless, I’m still a true believer in the importance of space and physicality. The day-to-day experience of living in Colombia provides a social and political backdrop to our work as scientists and researchers. Being in Colombia exerts a powerful influence on research agendas and is a constant reminder of the need to produce findings that can be applied to solving local problems and improving lives. Ph.D.s with appointments at Colombian universities are more likely to engage in capacity building, to build national research networks, and to teach and train a new generation of students with global competencies, all fundamental to the goals of internationalization. Furthermore, the ability to benefit from Colombian scientists and researchers abroad presupposes that the country has the institutional capacity to identify and reach out to its academic diaspora. This continues to evolve, of course, but for now I maintain that the requirement that Colombians return home after completing doctoral and postdoctoral work will generally serve to maximize the impact they are able to achieve.

I suppose my adviser was right in that my relocation to Colombia did put an end to any aspirations I may have had to an academic career in the United States. No matter. I believe that my experience in Colombia, where academia continues to be more oriented to meeting society’s needs than to making scholarly contributions to the discipline, has been more meaningful. At the end of the day, scholarship’s greatest application is to help create more prosperous, peaceful and equal societies. Taking my political science career to Colombia was not the kiss of death. On the contrary, it was the kiss that transformed the frog into a handsome prince.

Fall 2012Volume XII, Number 1

Ann Mason is the Director of the Fulbright program in Colombia, where she has lived for 18 years. She previously was Professor and Chair of the Political Science Department at the Universidad de los Andes in Bogota. She holds a Ph.D. in political science from Yale University.

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