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Southern Miss Ph.D. program designed for busy professionals

Hattiesburg — The International Development Ph.D. Program at the University of Southern Mississippi (USM) is drawing students from all over because it is the only program of its kind in the nation offering a doctor of philosophy degree in international development using a blended delivery model — an online program punctuated with on-campus sessions three times each semester.

Program director Dr. David Butler says that’s the most interesting point of the program designed with working people in mind. “It’s a Ph.D. for working professionals and a marvelous model that allows students to continue their busy lives,” he said. “We don’t produce Ph.D.s designed to be professors. They can leverage the degree into whatever careers they want.”

Begun in 1999, the rigorous program currently has 55 students and has produced 11 graduates. Those graduates are in a variety of careers that include teaching at Belhaven College, working at Mississippi Technology Alliance, running a consulting company and doing cutting-edge research with NOAA in the nation’s capital.

Current students come from a number of states with a 50/50 mix of men and women. San Diego is the home of the student who travels the greatest distance for the on-campus sessions but others come from Colorado, Indiana, Florida, Texas and Alabama as well as Mississippi. On-campus classes were moved to USM’s Gulf Coast campus in Long Beach to allow students to spend less time traveling and gain more time in class, Butler said, since most were flying into the Gulfport-Biloxi Airport.

“We were losing time by having them drive to Hattiesburg, and since we have such a wonderful facility on the Coast, we moved it there,” he said. “We have a block of rooms there and use a shuttle. It has really helped.”

Butler, who joined the International Development and International Affairs Program in 2003, feels USM’s Department of Political Science is on the cutting edge of a lifelong learning model with the blended approach to advanced education.

“You hear that but this is a realization of that theory,” he said. “It’s not like it was in the 1950s when you got a diploma and that satisfied you all your life.”

He says this degree is a true research Ph.D., the kind that previously required a student to quit a job and give up two to three years of regular life. With online classes, individual research and weekend on-campus sessions, students can keep their careers going. Gone are the days when a career closed the door on obtaining this highest level degree, he adds.

“It’s internationally focused because that’s where the future is,” Butler said. “All the students in this program have master’s degrees and after getting that degree many of them had to make a decision to teach or have a career. Our graduates can leverage the degree into whatever careers they want but some just want it for self-edification. They’re all very smart people.”

Of the current students, some are active-duty military and law enforcement officers. Some want to go into diplomatic and foreign affairs and a myriad of other fields in the increasingly interconnected world. “Not only must they be admitted, which is an exacting evaluation process, but they must also produce a dissertation based on research that is the equivalent to a book,” Butler said.

On top of all that, he points out, students must submit their work for publication in reviewed journals, have international field experience and submit competitive proposals for research grants or consulting positions.

Each fall, the program rotates a field trip between Washington, D.C., and New York City. Instead of classroom time, there are meetings with the highest-level executives possible in each location. Past meetings have included visits with the World Trade Organization, the United Nations, the French, German and Afghan embassies, Ford and Rockefeller Foundations and many more.

A spring field trip rotates between more regional locations that have included Atlanta, New Orleans and the Mississippi Delta.

Meetings were held with Coca-Cola International, BellSouth International, New Orleans Port Authority, Viking Range Corporation and others.

“This doctoral program reflects the practical reality of development initiatives today,” Butler said. “Whether in Biloxi or Bolivia, modern economic development must be sustainable and free-market oriented. Development practitioners must be prepared to address a modern economic spectrum that ranges from rural agriculture to manufacturing to tourism, information and other service industries.”

Present students in the program reflect a variety of backgrounds, including India, Florida, Latin America, North Carolina, Hawaii, Pennsylvania and Ellisville. One works for a multi-national telecommunications firm in the northeast. Another owns a Sylvan Learning Center and another is a forester with a strong interest in applications of geospatial technologies. There is also the president of a construction company, a Masonite Corporation employee and a project executive for IBM Corporation on the student roster.

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at mbj@msbusiness.com.

About Lynn Lofton

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