Interdisciplinary degree prepares Ph.D.s for an increasingly urbanized world

downtown detroit
Detroit already exemplifies many of the opportunities and challenges posed by burgeoning urbanism, making the city a unique training ground for students.

The world is rapidly urbanizing. Seventy years ago, 30% of the world population lived in cities (United Nations, 2009), but by 2050, that figure will jump to 70%, said Andrea Sankar, the co-director of the doctoral degree in social work and anthropology (SWAN) at Wayne State University.

The trend is recognized by organizations such as the National Association of Social Workers, the National Institute of Health and the National Science Foundation, all of which agree that global training is paramount for students who will work in a world that's becoming increasingly connected, and now offer millions of dollars in grants to universities willing to do something about it.

WSU answered the call by launching SWAN, one of only two trans-disciplinary programs in social work and anthropology in the nation--the other is at the University of Michigan.

Detroit is a unique training ground for students. The city already exemplifies many of the opportunities and challenges posed by burgeoning urbanism: urban recovery, food and water security, poverty, the opioid crisis, and--most timely--the exposure and containment of disease.

"The idea (of SWAN) is to break down silos in doctoral training," Sankar said, "because we need interdisciplinary thinking to solve major urban issues like poverty and the opioid crisis--you can't do that with one discipline." There also aren't enough academic jobs for those in narrow fields to go around, she added. Teaching students a wide range of disciplinary skills can only better prepare them for the job market.

The SWAN program pairs the global approach of anthropology with the hands-on skills and policy enacting know-how taught in the field of social work.

SWAN student Todd Hartley's research offers a prime example of how these disciplines connect.

Hartley lived in Bogotá, Colombia, for four years as a lecturer. There, he met survivors of the civil unrest in the country that dates back decades.

"I was there during the signing of the 2016 peace agreement," Hartley said, "and became interested in trying to understand why much of the population, especially in Bogotá, was not interested in the process-they essentially ignored what was going on."

He wanted to better understand the role culture played in the country's ability to heal and why it varied by region.

"There are many parallels to what is happening in other parts of the world, with politicians actively breeding divisions through populism and much of the population supporting these leaders even when it is often against their better interests."

As part of his dissertation research, he will work with survivors of the conflict in Colombia.

Haley Scott's desire to pursue a degree in SWAN was also inspired by her up close and personal work with people.

"I previously worked in several medical examiner offices across Michigan," Scott said. "It was there that I saw how much work there is to be done on public death education, the scarcity of resources, including funeral poverty and grief counseling, and the stigmatization of suicide, overdose deaths and homicides."

She aspires to change the narrative around death and dying and to do that, she must better understand the policies and cultural dynamics that impact public perception. Currently an intern in the Office of Decedent Affairs at Michigan Medicine, Scott hopes to specialize in bereavement support and work closely with medical examiner offices after graduation.

Scott said she initially found synthesizing the two disciplines into her own work to be challenging on top of her internship, but that tying her "own interests into assignments and class have helped tenfold." Thanks to the funds she's earned from a Thomas C. Rumble University Graduate Fellowship, she's able to dedicate more time to the degree.

SWAN students have co-advisors, one from each discipline. Students who have not attained the M.S.W. are required to obtain it prior to graduation with a SWAN Ph.D. The degree requires a total of 110 credits, which includes those earned for the M.S.W.

Currently the only interdisciplinary Ph.D. offered at WSU, Sankar hopes SWAN can serve as a model for future interdisciplinary doctoral programs at the university.

More information about the program can be found on the SWAN page.

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