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Connections made abroad enhance HDFS PhD candidate’s research

Header-Jack-DayGetting the unique opportunity to research in an idyllic location such as the Swiss Alps may seem attractive to most – but for PhD student Jack Day – it was the potential for collaborating with his peers that influenced his decision to participate in a week-long doctoral workshop abroad.

Jack and 15 fellow graduate students from around the world gathered to collaborate with nine faculty experts in the fields of psychology, sociology, economics and demography as part of the National Centre of Competence in Research (NCCR) LIVES project – “Overcoming Vulnerability: Life Course Perspectives” – which is funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation. This first “winter school” on the life course was co-organized by leaders of research centers in Switzerland, Germany, Canada and the United States – including the Hallie E. Ford Center for Healthy Children and Families housed in the College of Public Health and Human Sciences at Oregon State University.

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Jack, who recently proposed his PhD dissertation, says the workshops got him thinking about his research in new ways.

The winter school comprised three working groups on the topics of education, work and unemployment – the group in which Jack participated; family relationships in old age; and perceptions of the life course in Europe, which was co-taught by CPHHS Professor and Hallie Ford Center Director Rick Settersten. Rick is on the advisory board of LIVES and helped co-organize the winter school.

“I think one real strength of this program was to help develop collaborations that might persist over time,” Jack says. “One of my intentions was to keep building connections and to be able to explore topics of interest I share with other people who are studying in other areas, learn their ideas, learn from them and to help inject a different perspective about topics and research questions.”

Jack, who teaches critical thinking in Oregon State’s Human Development and Family Sciences eCampus online, learned of the opportunity through Rick, who is his mentor.

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(From left to right) Director of NCCR LIVES Dario Spini, Ingrid Connidis of Western University, Ontario and Hallie Ford Center Director Rick Settersten

“I knew this would be a very special opportunity for Jack’s professional growth,” Rick says. “I enjoyed watching him develop friendships with other doctoral students and faculty members during our intensive week together. We had so much fun working in our groups around the clock – but the groups also had a few opportunities to bond together outdoors, including an afternoon of skiing and snowshoeing and a competitive evening of curling. I think Jack enjoyed watching me fumble on the ice. Age may be on his side, but it’s no longer on mine!”

The larger LIVES project aims to better understand how people deal with a changing world, whether that’s from a change in family, religious identities or shifts in economic activity. It examines what it means to be vulnerable in today’s world and the factors inside and outside of people that protect them from vulnerability or help them overcome it. (Read more about the project here.)

Jack and his group conducted research on “Transitions in Work, Education and Unemployment,” where they were tasked with using a data set from the National Child Development Survey from Britain. He and his peers spent the week learning the longitudinal study – and its qualitative data – so they could develop questions and create a framework that combined each of their different research interests in order to collaborate on a paper after the program’s completion.

“We were looking at how patterns of employment, unemployment or education across the life course fluctuate for individuals,” he says. “We were able to map out what people’s lives look like for about 50 years, and we’re really interested in looking at the issue of turning points and identifying what these individuals really see as key transitional moments in their lives.”

“Knowing that I can reach out and share ideas with people from across the globe and gain their perspective is a nice benefit of having participated in this experience”

The group then compared that qualitative data with the quantitative data to determine how people’s stories match up.

“I’m really interested in the transition to adulthood, which has significant implications for people’s work trajectories as they form connections during that time of life,” he says. “Other people were much more interested in retirement or other angles. And that’s what was really beneficial about the Switzerland group – I get to collaborate with people who are looking at the life course from the other end of the decisions that are made during the transition to adulthood that can have implications for the rest of life.”

Jack, who recently proposed his PhD dissertation on patterns of social integration and social trust during the integration to adulthood, says the workshops got him thinking about his dissertation in new ways.

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Jack’s group was led by Walter Heinz (lower right) – University of Bremen, Germany and Felix Buehlmann (second from right) – University of Lausanne, Switzerland

“I had been so mired in my own work for so long that it was really nice to hear what others were doing and different ways of asking these questions, especially having the opportunity to talk with people who were studying these questions in Europe,” he says. “Because all of us came from different backgrounds, it complements the education and training I’ve received here at Oregon State – where it’s a really interdisciplinary approach – and I now have a better view of what the big overall picture looks like and where my research fits into that picture.”

Jack says it wasn’t only his research that benefitted from this program.

“The school allowed for really intense bonding and sharing of ideas, and that, to me, is the most unique aspect and is really beneficial,” he says. “Knowing that I can reach out and share ideas with people from across the globe and gain their perspective is a nice benefit of having participated in this experience.”

Once back home, Jack worked remotely with his team to sort through the qualitative data, identify themes and complete a group paper that is currently in development.

“That was the real intent – to not only form bonds among the people who participated, but also to have a product to show for it, to apply what we learned there and what we learned from each other to something that really benefits everybody,” he says.