“Oh, so you are a planner”
“Will you go and work as a planning officer when you complete?”
“Hurry up and come help plan our country”
These are some of the most common comments I tend to get when I inform people that am doing a PhD at the Department of Town and Regional Planning, University of Sheffield, UK. The fact is that I never really thought of my future job as being directly linked to the name of the department where I am studying. I always thought that the content of my research was what was important in shaping my future job prospects. When I was applying for admission at various institutions, my chief concern centred on which school or department is most likely to give me a scholarship. I already had an interest in and a proposal on the topic of tourism and poverty reduction in Ghana so I was simply looking for the funds and competent supervisors. It therefore came as a surprise to me in the first months of my studies when people automatically assumed that I have a background in planning simply because I found myself in a planning department.
Initially, my response to the question of where I am studying went something like this: “I am doing a PhD at the Department of Town and Regional Planning, University of Sheffield but my research is actually concerned with the use of tourism for poverty reduction and the governance challenges involved”. There was always this urge to qualify why I am based in a planning department when my research was not really in the area of traditional planning topics. My academic fora had taken me to disciplines ranging from Geography and Rural Development, Sociology and Social Work, Tourism, Environment and Development, Development Studies and International Relations but nothing specifically on planning. On many occasions I am pretty content with my multi- and inter-disciplinary background but finding myself in a planning department sometimes makes me feel like an imposter – i.e. a perceived planner but with no background in planning.
I was getting a bit used to the notion and role of being an ‘unplanned PhD planner’ when I embarked on the fieldwork for my research in Ghana. In Ghana, I came face-to-face with the imposter feeling again as people automatically made the connection that I must be a planner if am doing a PhD in a planning department. I did explain to them about the ‘complexity’ of my unplanned journey into planning and they seemed to understand me. It was however when I went prospecting about future jobs that I realised – with some amusement – that this automated association of competence on the basis of the name of a department is partly institutionalised. When I passed by the Geography & Rural Development department that runs a BA Culture and Tourism programme, the head of department informed me that he will have to provide a defence of why the university appointments committee should consider my application. This is because my qualification is going to be PhD Town and Regional Planning which on the face of it bears no resemblance to the geography department. But then of course, he knows and appreciates that my research is all about tourism which is directly related to a programme run within the department.
To add to the complexities of my wanderings into the field of planning, my department at the University of Sheffield is undergoing a change of name from September, 2015 and will be known as the Department of Urban Studies and Planning. Thus, the easiest thing to do will be to apply to a Department of Planning in a university I hope to take up employment after my studies. The caveat is that I will have no answer to them if they ask me to describe the process that goes into the making of a community development plan or even settlement plans. This is the reason why I find it amusing that the first criteria used by the university appointments committee is the name of qualifications rather than on the substance of one’s research during the course of gaining that qualification. Although to be fair, they have to start from somewhere and they do not automatically reject the application if the head of department attaches a justification of why one’s services are needed in the department.
There are times that I find it really cool that I can stake my claim of research competence in different disciplinary areas. However, when it comes to staking a claim in planning, I get the imposter feeling time and again. I guess I will have to keep on providing the extra information on what I am doing in a planning department. Hopefully by the end of my PhD I will confidently move from being an ‘unplanned PhD planner’ to a ‘PhD planner’.
P.S. After I came up with the term ‘Unplanned PhD Planner’, I thought it will make a nice name for a blog on my PhD studies the start of which I have for a year now kept postponing.