HATTIESBURG – As director of long-range economic development planning at the University Research Center of the Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning,
Pete Walley didn’t need a doctorate in international studies, but he’s pursuing one anyway, in the first program of its kind in the world for working professionals.
“As director of the state’s long- range economic development planning effort, I am paid to research, analyze and report on issues and facts that may or will have a
significant impact on the state’s economic development,” Walley said. “The studies of international development have greatly broadened my readings and
understanding of the forces that are acting on the state’s economy.”
Walley is one of 24 students enrolled in the doctor of philosophy program in international development, an interdisciplinary program coordinated by the College of
International and Continuing Education at the University of Southern Mississippi.
“The logistical structure of the program combines the best of face-to-face discussion and distance learning,” Walley said. “Through the distance learning component, I
can literally interact with colleagues, professors and world-renowned professionals, all in the same session.”
Dr. Mark Miller, associate dean of USM’s College of International and Continuing Education, said university officials “sensed a demand” among professionals, many
with master’s degrees who work in economic development, to pursue doctorates in international studies.
“Pete Walley is a great example,” Miller said. “He doesn’t need this. He’s doing it for personal satisfaction and intellectual curiosity. Other folks want to make their
career options more flexible, whether academics or consulting or to advance in their own position. For a variety of reasons, we saw a class of professionals who was
hungry for advanced research of this nature and didn’t have many opportunities to pursue it without leaving their other life behind.”
The program entered its second year this fall.
“We have to tweak the program constantly,” Miller said. “The biggest challenge for me has been to keep up with the students, who are so highly motivated.”
This fall, Dr. Mario Tello, a visiting professor from the Catholic University in Lima, Peru, joined the program as a one-year visiting professor to work exclusively in
international studies. As an experienced international economist with an extensive academic and global research and consulting background, Tello is working with a
dozen second-year students on a variety of research topics, which includes pricing and policy development, the impact of immigration on the economy and the role of
women in economic development.
Barbara Travis, an economic development consultant with MarketLynx Consulting in Flowood, said she searched for years for an academic program “to stretch my
professional horizons and give me credentials which extend beyond my career experiences.”
“This program offers me the opportunity to do those things, but also exposes me to a diversity of ideas and approaches to complex development problems,” Travis
said. “It is my desire to learn as much about the international perspective as possible as well as to contribute to the thought process.”
As a marketing and community development consultant, much of Travis’ work focuses on research for communities and economic development organizations “in their
quest for commercial and retail growth,” she said.
“I also work for local developers, landowners and small business owners as their projects demand, and completing this Ph.D. program will help me to broaden the
marketing of my services and grow my business beyond state borders,” she said.
Juggling work, family, and school presents special challenges, Travis said.
“As a consultant, I am totally responsible for my clients’ projects,” she said. “That means a lot of focused time at all hours. I also have a demanding family schedule
with active teenagers. It is not easy. In fact, it’s hard. But if it were easy, everyone would be doing it.”
Judson Edward, a second-year doctoral student in residence who manages the Economic Development Review, a publication of the American Economic
Development Council (AEDC) housed in the department of economic development and planning at USM, said he was enrolled in a Ph.D. program in planning and
development at another university, but professors weren’t interested in international and innovation issues.
“Now, I am in a program that uses the latest technology to attend classes online with students from all over the U.S.,” Edward said.
Brian Richard, senior research analyst for the Mississippi Gaming Association, said the format is an important feature of the program.
“The weekly online sessions, together with intensive monthly in-person meetings, allow working professionals to become Ph.D. students without leaving their careers,”
Richard said. “As a result, the program has attracted an impressive array of people from around the southeastern U.S. The diverse backgrounds of the students are
also a benefit to the program because we have students that deal professionally with urban and rural issues in their jobs, as well as local, state and national issues.
These different perspectives add a great deal to the discussions and learning processes as we go through the program.”
Students are assigned a specific research focus that allows them to develop skills and talents directly applicable to their current careers, Richard said.
“In my case, my focus for the past year on the gaming industry let me step into my current position and hit the ground running,” he said. “Through my studies, I had
already developed some expertise on the industry before I became directly involved in it. Naturally, finding the time to devote to study and research is the major
challenge. I have been fortunate to have employers that have supported my participation in the program. The degree will give me greater credibility as I continue my
career in the gaming industry.”
Sara Kimmel of the state treasurer’s office, and a doctoral candidate in the program, said the best part of the program is the interdisciplinary approach.
“Some Ph.D. programs look at a student’s life ties, such as family, as baggage, but the USM program considers life experiences an advantage,” Kimmel said. “The
program gives each of us an opportunity to develop our own focus, within our own discipline, while networking with the others in the program whose research takes
them in completely different directions. The synergy is just incredible and is really at the cutting edge of academe.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at email@example.com or (601) 853-3967.