Kent Nnadozie, International Civil Servant

Kent Nnadozie received his PhD from the Faculty of Law in 2016. In his thesis research he studied the international governance of plant genetic resources and international relations theory. Today he works as a civil servant with the United Nations as the head of the Secretariat of an international Convention.

Q: Could you tell me about how you ended up in your current job after your PhD? 

I had actually been working with an international organisation before starting my program at McGill. I worked on a project in Kenya and East Africa with my supervisor, Professor Richard Gold, which sparked my interest in doing a PhD with him. Luckily there was an opening and my project proposal was accepted so the faculty agreed for me to start the program. I tried to combine my work with studies, and halfway through I took a bit of a leave of absence from work to focus on my thesis, but later went back to full time work. At first, I remained at the same level, but, subsequently, the PhD played a major role in my elevation from technical officer to senior officer and, now, a director heading the Secretariat of an international Convention.

Q: Was there anything specific to your program of study that helped you in your work, or anything specific about your work that helped you in your program of study? 

My program was a combination of international relations and policy governance of genetic resources for food and agriculture. The experience in studying international relations helped me better understand and contextualise the dynamics of the interactions between countries. My studies and my experience combined helped me understand how to put all that knowledge in perspective into a conceptual framework related to what I deal with on a daily basis. There was a mutually reinforcing feedback loop between my work and studies.

Q: Did you have any opportunities to teach during your PhD? 

Not really, and that was mostly by choice because I didn’t contemplate that I was going to be teaching after the PhD. But now thinking about it, I wish I had taken some opportunities to teach. The thing was that after the first two years, I had to go back to work. I was combining writing the thesis with working so it wouldn’t have been practical for me to take on any teaching assignments. 

Q: Who do you think was your most important mentor during the program

It was my supervisor. He was super, super smart and very active and very enterprising. He was a good inspiration and model. The PhD journey is a lonely one because a lot of the work is independent, but I really got a great level of support and understanding from my supervisor. 

Having started the program at the age I had—having worked for a while and then come back to it—my focus was so narrow that I didn’t think I needed any additional mentorship, at least not within campus. However, I probably could have benefited from more interaction with students and professors from other departments doing work that related to mine. For instance, I probably should have had more interaction with the Faculty of Agriculture and other life sciences because of the work they do. I didn’t really take advantage of that even though a lot of the work I do now relies on some of their research.  

Q: Was there anything particularly helpful your supervisor did? 

I had been out of the academic environment for several years when I came back into it, so my approach to a lot of issues was much more pragmatic and practical. I had to reframe my perspective and become much more academic in my approach. That’s something my supervisor helped guide me through, especially when dealing with some of the theoretical aspects of the work relating to international relations, research methodologies, different approaches, etc. That certainly helped. My PhD took a mostly theoretical approach to which I brought a lot practical experience and knowledge. 

Q: Were there any challenges associated with coming back to academia after a few years in the workplace?  

I had been working in a much more structured environment with very defined tasks and roles. In comparison, the PhD is much more solitary than the work I was doing. You have to decide where you want to go and chart your own research path. It involves a lot of mind shifts and changing how you look at things. At the international organization where I work, you are trained to write and communicate in a particular way and to be truly measured in how you say things. It’s very different from the academic way of being very categorical, saying exactly what you mean, challenging others’ views bluntly and getting challenged on yours, etc. It was definitely a challenge to approach the change in style in writing and expression. It was also a bit of a challenge going back to work after the PhD when I had to shift yet again and re-adjust not to be overly analytical and challenging because of the more diplomatic environment I work in.   

Q: You mentioned earlier the solitary and sometimes lonely nature of the PhD, which is something a lot of students bring up. Were there any communities at McGill that you felt like you belonged to during that PhD to help with that? 

Of course, we had other PhD students that we shared our frustrations and burdens with and exchanged ideas and notes with and things like that. But there was also a program—I think it was the career center running it—where PhD students came together to exchange experiences and support each other in a more formalized setting, and they brought in professors from time to time to provide advice as well. It makes it easier to handle things when you know there are others going through the same torture and pain [laughing]. 

Q: Is there anything you wish you knew before starting your PhD?  

I wish I knew how hard it was going to get [laughing]. I didn’t know it was going to be that demanding and time consuming. I underestimated that because I thought—based on my practical experience and knowledge of the issues and the subject area—that it would probably not be too difficult, but it was much more than I expected. I think most PhD students have a tendency to underestimate what it will take, both in terms of time and work. It’s much more demanding, but it was well worth it, I would say. 

The whole experience was certainly worthwhile and helps me do the work that I’m doing now, especially in terms of focus. The ability to focus on a specific issue for an extended period of time and really dig deep into it is one skill that I really find useful currently. The ability to analyze and to deal with issues as they arise, seek out different perspectives, understand the dynamics among countries and why they do what they do and what might be driving their actions and positions…all of that is very helpful. 

It was a wonderful experience at McGill. The level of academic excellence and social support I got while there certainly reinforces the global reputation of the University as one of the most reputable places to go. On top of the fact that I have a PhD, the fact that it’s from McGill certainly goes a long way. 

Many thanks to Kent for sharing his PhD narrative! You can find out more about him on LinkedIn, Twitter, or here.

This interview took place in April 2020. Interviews are edited by the TRaCE McGill Editorial team for length and clarity before publication.