Q&A With An International Development Research Centre (IDRC) Research Award Recipient


Each year, the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) offers approximately 20 research awards to competitive applicants.

Research awardees undertake a one-year paid (salaries range from $37,950 to $43,516) program of intensive research on the topic they proposed in their application packages.

Roughly one quarter of the year will be spent in the global south (countries with medium or low levels of human development, which are primarily located in the southern hemisphere in South and Central America, Africa and Asia) where recipients carry out their research projects. In addition to a paid salary, awardees also receive up to $10,000 to support their independent research.

I recently had the opportunity to chat via email with Emily Jansons, a 2012 IDRC Research Award Recipient. Emily earned her BA from Queen’s University and MA from McGill University, both in History and International Development Studies. She works in the Executive Office of the International Development Research Centre and is currently abroad conducting her proposed research on private philanthropy in India.

Can you share with us what a typical day in Ottawa is like?

Emily: My day starts with checking my emails (and responding to queries by authors related to the book project; as well any as messages related to my own research) and news updates. Mid-morning I have an hour-long (weekly, routine) team meeting with the Policy and Planning Group (PPG), in which we informally discuss any recent news or developments that may affect IDRC (which falls under the function of PPG).

Before lunch I verify the attendant list for an upcoming workshop I am organizing (for the ‘book project’: an edited volume on development ideas and experiences coming out in 2013 with Oxford University Press) and coordinate with a colleague regarding travel to the workshop for the participants. Lunch is in the IDRC cafeteria with some other Research Awardees; or attending one of the frequent Brown Bag lunches at IDRC, learning about what other program units are doing.

In the afternoon I conduct some desk-based research before my French lesson (in house at IDRC, 1.5 hrs twice a week). Near the end of the day I head to Carleton University or DFAIT for a talk.

What does an average day carrying out research in India look like?

Emily: I check my email in the morning before heading out to my first meeting of the day. Commuting takes a long time in India’s large urban centres, so I give myself plenty of time. I usually have one or two (some days three) interviews with various individuals in the philanthropic sector (at foundations, philanthropic groups, NGOs, government or industry body individuals, etc.). Each interview is usually around one hour.

If I only have one meeting (and I am in Delhi), I may go into the IDRC regional office for a few hours for some desk-based work (alternatively, work from my guest-house if not in Delhi). After I get home I debrief on my interviews (taking notes on my laptop while still fresh in my mind), and then prep (both content and logistics) for my next day’s meetings.

I don’t have a lot of down-time, and indeed I don’t manage to analyse all my interviews every day (i.e., a backlog of analysis builds for when I get back to Ottawa).

Is there anything that your academic background didn’t necessarily prepare you for in terms of your position at IDRC? How did you navigate those obstacles?

Emily: I think this greatly varies depending on your background and what unit you are placed with (i.e., what tasks you contribute to your team). For me, my research background is a weakness; my master’s was more course-based than research-based and thus designing my own research methodology, ethics, etc., for my IDRC-research has been more of a challenge. Luckily, I have a very supportive mentor at IDRC to guide me.

Further, since the topic I am researching with IDRC is not related to my master’s or past knowledge, I have a steeper learning curve (catch up on literature review, etc.). However, I am not the only one in this boat – thus is not to discourage others from taking on new topics; rather, just be aware of the work ahead.

IDRC does focus on impact-based research, so shifting your research to an applicable result (i.e., how is it useful?) is perhaps different than academic research. However, as a research awardee you have lots of flexibility (after all, it is an award to do your own research, and not a contract to research for IDRC).

The half of my time assisting in the President’s Office, largely around co-ordinating the book project, is nothing you learn in school. It is my past office work experiences that have helped me here.

What has been the most valuable experience during your tenure at IDRC?

Emily: I have loved the people I have met, and the encouraging atmosphere to explore your interests, get involved, and develop yourself personally and professionally. (Of course, depending on your unit,) I feel quite a bit of freedom to attend off-site talks (even during the work day) around Ottawa.

Further, with your $10,000 travel budget there is lots of flexibility how to use it, i.e., not just to collect your data during a field visit, but also for conferences or workshops, or procure equipment (e.g., books). Of course, everything must be justified and approved.

As you know, the application process for a research award is quite intense, consisting of a detailed 10-page application package. Do you have any advice for those wishing to apply in the future?

Emily: Time flies by extremely quickly at IDRC, so the more you can pin down in your application to show you have a clear idea and action plan (i.e., show you can hit the ground running once you start), the better it will be for you (if you receive the award), and is also more appealing for IDRC (shows you have a serious plan, and can carry it out).

It is also important to demonstrate how you are a good fit for the programming unit you are applying to – both in regard to your research, as well as yourself as an employee (remember, you are spending half your time on tasks other than your research). Just having a great research idea isn’t enough if it doesn’t match IDRC’s interests/needs that year. So be sure to do your homework on what IDRC/your programming unit does.

The 2013 application deadline is Sept. 12, 2012. Click here for more information.

Photo credit: Delhi streets by Stewart Morris on Flickr
About the author

Katie Palmer is a recent graduate from the University of Toronto, where she completed an MA in Geography and a BA in Gender Studies and Geography. She spent six months working in the Philippines at a migrant rights’ non-profit organization. She has written extensively on the issue of child sex tourism in Southeast Asia for outlets such as the WIP, Herizons, and the University of Toronto Magazine. She currently works as a policy analyst with the Government of Ontario in the Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration.