Campus review: United Nations Univ

When Anant Kamath wanted to pursue a PhD in technology studies after an MPhil in development economics, he went there. And when Roshini Lal, wanted to pursue research on sustainability after a PhD, she also landed here. Rahul Mane Sudhakar also a PhD scholar from JNU felt the need for a short-term course on his research theme, he too headed there. From sustainability to water to technology, the United Nations University (UNU) is the place to go, if you have an abiding interest in interdisciplinary research.

Fast Facts
Campus: HQ in Tokyo with nine units in various cities Programmes: Short-term programmes, Master's, PhDs, PDFs 
Fees:
 Normally none, some like MERIT charge tuition fees Fellowships: Very competitive to get one 
Career opportunities:
 Diverse sectors, normally in academia, think tanks and policy organisations.

The roots
Set up in 1975, with a broad remit to study processes and actors that profoundly affect and impact the world, the UNU system has evolved into a series of programmes, networks and institutes spread over 13 locations all over the world (view table, below). The university is different from the conventional models, since it does not grant its own degrees. It operates on decentralized systems, where individual institutes and programmes have the freedom to work out their respective research agenda and collaborate with like-minded partners. Hence for a student, the institutions offer one of the best multidisciplinary academic environments.

 

Structure
The form and structure at UNU is a function of the nature of the issue which is being investigated. For example, development studies are examined by an institute, World Institute of Development Education & Research (WIDER) while issues concerning geothermal development is organized as a geothermal development programme. Normally, UNU operates either as a programme or as an institute. A programme, in general, is focused on a narrow issue, while as an institute it would invariably have a large and diverse remit.

 

Institutions
There are currently six institutes within the UNU system. Of these four are fully functional and two of them (IIGH& ISP) began operations recently.

UNU-MERIT: Set up as Institute for new technologies (INTECH) it has merged with MERIT to form UNU-MERIT. Its mandate was to provide insights into the social, political and economic factors that drive technological change and innovation. The institute offers full-fledged MA and PhD programmes in association with University of Maastricht. Says Fernando Sandiego, a PhD scholar at MERIT, the sheer diversity of thought that one encounters in MERIT is unmatched in schools offering PhD programmes in technology studies, a view concurred by Anant Kamat another PhD scholar (see box, below).

 

IAS: The Institute of Advanced Studies, at Yokahama offers a focused research space for PhD and postdoctoral (PDF) students. It runs two prestigious fellowship programmes which offer an year's stay at IAS for a PhD scholar and from one to three years for a PDF student. Currently specialising in the domain of sustainability, broadly defined, the institute must widen its scope to include policy, societal considerations and governance issues asserts Prof. Govindan Parayil, the director of the institute.

 

IIST: UNU-IIST's mission is to help developing countries strengthen their education and research in computer science and their ability to produce computer software. It offers a range of opportunities for training and collaboration, mainly but not exclusively with universities. Fellowships in Macao enable bright young postgraduates to work on one of the research projects, typically for nine months. Teaching fellowships offer young lecturers an opportunity to spend a semester at a university in an industrial country and bring back a range of new computing courses for their department. They also offer a few PhD Fellowships to do a PhD jointly with Pisa University, Italy.

WIDER: One of the oldest institutions in the UNU network, WIDER now is relatively past its prime. A partial reason might that development economics, the main cause it espouses, itself is no more the central theme of economic researchers, though the underlying problems have shown very little signs of waning away. The institute now has skeletal staff, and is mostly run on the basis of projects and external project directors. It offers students, a six-month PhD internship, as well as a visiting fellowship for staffers.

 

Research programmes
Research programmes could be either independent units like the comparative regional integration studies (CRIS) or located with universities like the food and nutrition programme (FNP) which is located in Cornell University. The research programmes primarily offer short-term training programmes or focused PhD summer schools, aimed at providing in depth knowledge on their chosen domains. 'In general, short-term courses are a good means to acquire cutting edge knowledge in your domain,' says Dr. Nagesh Kumar, who worked for INTECH, UNU. They deal with an focussed theme and dissemination is the objective.

Both the Geothermal (GTP) and fisheries (FTP) training programmes offer a 6-month postgraduate certificate level training in their respective domain. The certifications are fully funded and open to nationals from developing countries. In case of geothermal training, options are also available for students to proceed further for an MSc or a PhD programme. Depending upon the depth and diversity of a research problem, at times they also evolve in to independent institutions.

 

Entry into UNU
Admission into any programme is very competitive. Prof. Joseph, faculty at CDS and a reviewer for UNU-MERIT, says, their evaluation system is quite competitive and candidate assessment almost foolproof. Unless a student is able to demonstrate superior competencies, entry is very difficult. Admits Jyotsna Gupta, a PhD scholar at JNU, 'My application at WIDER was rejected twice, before they finally permitted me to join as an intern.' The evaluation criterion is of a very high standard.

SELECT PROGRAMMES AND INSTITUTES OF UNU SYSTEM
 
Comparative regional
integration studies (P)
Burgen, Belgium
 
Short-term programmes/PhD Schools/ Visiting research fellowships
Environment and human security (I)
Bonn, Germany
PhD programme/Visiting fellowships
 
Postgraduate fisheries research and development (P)
Reykjavik, Iceland
PG certificate training programme
 
Geothermal research, exploration and development (P)
Reykjavik, Iceland
 
PG certificate training programme/ MSc Programme
Water, environment and human health (P)
Hamilton, Canada
Internships for master's level students
Global health (I)
 
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
An online course on health
Software technologies for development (I)
Macao, China
9-month fellowship/Joint PhD programme/
 
Institute for Advanced
Studies (I)
Yokohama, Japan
PhD/ Postdoctoral Fellowships
Sustainability and peace (I)
Tokyo, Japan
Masters/PhD Programmes (on the anvil)
Socio-economic impacts of new technologies (I)
Maastricht,
The Netherlands
MA/ PhD programmes
 
Development economics (I)
Helsinki, Finland
PhD Short-term fellowships
Biotechnology and society (P)
Venezuela
Programmes for LA scholars
 
Food and nutrition capacity building (P)
 
Located at Cornell
Univeristy
Exclusive focus on African researchers
 
 
Natural resources
management (I)
Accara, Ghana
 
For Africa
 

Entry requirements are different for every programme, and all of them invariably demand a research proposal, a statement of purpose besides a few letters of recommendation from faculty who have taught you. 'Past academic performance is definitely a criterion, but the deciding factor is your proposal,' says Rahul Mane.

Where does it all lead to?
The diversity of offerings within the UNU system makes it is impossible to project a defined career path. But students find lucrative assignments at international institutions, universities, think tanks and policy making organisations. The only factor one needs to keep in mind before applying is the fact that, these institutions depend on local government funding. So the number of fellowships would vary depending on funds availability. But once your in, value addition is something you could count on.


'UNU-MERIT is the best place so far
Anant kamat
PhD Fellow, UNU-MERIT

I am now commencing the third year (out of four) of the PhD programme in the Economics and Policy Studies of Technical Change. I came here to UNU-MERIT in Maastricht from CDS (Thiruvananthapuram) since it was one of the best places to be if you were interested in innovation studies, and I managed to get more than I thought I would.

A place like that offered not only a good infrastructure (there's almost nothing that they don't provide you, mostly free of charge, and there's none of that bureaucracy that's there in many larger universities in the Netherlands) and coursework (courses in innovation and technology that you probably would have never studied in regular economics graduate and postgraduate programmes), but also one of the most important things for a budding researcher - exposure to international conferences and many of the big names in the field.

I have managed to travel to many places in Europe, most of them in easy reach of Maastricht, to present my research and to receive a great deal of useful feedback from many important people in the field something I know for sure is a luxury for many students in India. The fact that UNU-MERIT is networked to many forums and academic communities only makes things easier.

I would rate exposure to these avenues, as the most beneficial part of my UNU-MERIT experience. And naturally, the other fallouts of studying abroad come automatically - exposure to people from across the world, with ideas stemming from each one's unique experiences from their homeland. Fieldwork if necessary is also quite smoothly undertaken during the programme, and is separately funded.

The stipend we get here might be quite low compared to many other PhD programmes in Maastricht or in Europe, but I did not think of that as much of a hurdle. But one rather tedious affair, applicable across the Netherlands as such, is the tangle of formalities for the visa and residence permit. UNU-MERIT, I can easily say, has been academically a very memorable and beneficial experience so far.

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