Guest blog: What’s the value of a PhD? Some musings from a confused knowledge worker

I’m delighted to have my first guest blog!  This piece was written by my colleague Michael Boulle who is thoughtfully embarking on his PhD journey.  Many thanks to Michael for sharing this with us – Michael can be contacted on

Over the last year, I have been contemplating the value of doing a PhD. This coming from a position after finishing a masters that I was adamant I would never do a PhD… to thinking it was not necessary… to a gradual softening to the question and becoming open to it… and now getting to a point that almost in spite of myself, I am not able to avoid it!

So why as someone who is concerned with how I can make a meaningful contribution to the work on just, low carbon transitions would I consider such a seemingly slow, irrelevant journey as a valuable way to respond to an urgent problem?

on a journey

Over the last seven years I have inhabited this strange climate mitigation policy world, mainly from the position of a university research unit in South Africa which participates in policy processes in South Africa and other countries in the global South; and then from a think tank in Germany. Emerging out of my experience, a pressing question is concerning me: Are we as knowledge workers having the impact that we could have in supporting the implementation of just, low carbon transitions? Given the slow progress in climate policy implementation, it would appear we are not. Surely, as individuals and as a community of practice, we need to deeply reflect on why this may be the case?

Some features stand out in particular as demanding attention:

Although the slow implementation progress should be clear cause for concern, the climate mitigation community lacks a critical view of itself, or a reflection on ‘how we do what we do’ and the implications for implementation of climate mitigation policy. Preference seems to be for a narrowness – in how we think about and approach the problem, in the knowledge we produce, and in terms of who is in the room.

Despite the talk about equity and country-driven approaches, northern hegemony persists in climate policy processes in the global South. Processes are typically dependent on external experts generating a narrow body of evidence to support policy processes in recipient countries, on a project by project basis, with little attention paid to how different pieces fit together and what this ad hoc approach is achieving. In place of introspection there seems to be an optimism driven by increasingly ambitious scenarios. But progress in scenarios shouldn’t be confused with progress in the real world. What impact in the real world have we actually had?

From my perspective, some of these problematic features seem to be symptoms of a lack of commitment to deeply embed our work in a context, to grapple with how to go about this process of knowledge generation and what knowledge we produce, for our work to have relevance, within a context, beyond its niche climate policy community.

So where to from here? To make my own contribution it would seem a PhD journey would offer one of the spaces, as a knowledge worker, to radically reflect on my own role in this strange world we have created. And by radical, I mean recognising the need to interrogate root causes of some of the issues we are facing, as a chosen principle over an obsession with end-of-pipe solutions. What might this look like?



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