University of Calgary

PhD at 40,000 feet

Submitted by tdroden on Thu, 09/15/2011 - 16:10.

PhD at 40,000 feet

It took some courage for Rob Barrett to research grassroots conflict in Nigeria
By Brooke Hunter

Rob Barrett completed his PhD while working as a pilot for Air Canada. (Photo by Riley Brandt)Rob Barrett completed his PhD while working as a pilot for Air Canada. (Photo by Riley Brandt)

What’s it like to sit behind the wheel of 265 tons of metal and machinery as it launches into the air? Alumnus Rob Barrett, PhD’10, knows. Flying is his life, or at least one part of it. The courage it takes to get behind the wheel of an Airbus A330 is nothing compared to the courage and determination it took to risk everything, including his life, to finish his PhD.

After completing an undergraduate degree from the University of Waterloo in 1993, Barrett began his career as a pilot. After landing a job with Air Canada in 1999, he decided to take some additional university courses.

“I was simply looking for the opportunity to explore an interest area in psychological and sociological aspects of international conflict,” says Barrett. “I had been doing a lot of reading and thought ‘wouldn’t it be interesting to take a course on this?’ ”

The course led to the pursuit of a master’s degree from Royal Roads University, which he completed while still flying for Air Canada. By the time he completed his master’s, he found a new home in Calgary and still had an appetite for continuing his research.

“I don’t want to say I had nothing else going on in my life, but I really didn’t,” says Barrett. “So I decided it would be interesting to carry on and maybe explore the idea of doing a PhD.”

After a meeting with Rob Huebert from the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary, there was no turning back. No matter what it took—or how long—he would complete his PhD, and continue to fly.

Striking a balance between school and work was a challenge, but the biggest challenge was the research itself. Concentrating on conflict analysis, Barrett set out to look at the social and psychological reasons behind grassroots fighting groups, why they formed, who joined them and why. Travelling to a small area called Toto, in the Nigerian middle belt, he set up a research team with one of the universities in the area, and set about interviewing people who were part of the ethnic and religious-based conflicts in the area.

His presence in Nigeria was met with distrust and suspicion from those involved in the grassroots conflicts—they were concerned he wasn’t a researcher, but someone who wished to investigate their crimes. Barrett, with the help of local scholars, was sometimes forced to conduct some of the more difficult interviews with known killers and leaders of armed gangs.

On one occasion, he travelled with some of the grad students on his team to another rural village in a salt mining area—he started to realize how dangerous this trip could really be. Along the way, they passed through several police checkpoints. Their driver never slowed and the music was turned up. Then they came to a military checkpoint—the music was turned off, hands were put up on the wheel and the car coasted very slowly to a stop as the military officers conversed with the driver, looked into the vehicle and finally let them through.

When Barrett asked why the military checkpoint was different the driver told him “well it’s military, if they don’t like the look of you, they kill you.”

“I started asking what happens then because I didn’t see any ambulances around. Looking back on it now I don’t know if it was luck or courage that got me through it all.”

It was probably a little bit of both. Just over five years after he started, while still flying regularly, Barrett completed his PhD and is looking toward the future.

“I’m going to keep striking the balance. I really enjoy flying and I really enjoy researching and writing. We’ll see what happens. I’d love to be involved in the public service some day.”