Where our students go: interview with Pheakkdey Nguon

Pheakkdey Nguon on fieldwork in Oddar Meanchey province, Cambodia

Pheakkdey Nguon on fieldwork in Oddar Meanchey province, Cambodia

Pheakkdey ’KD’ Nguon graduated from our MIDEA program (now part of the Masters of Sustainability) in 2009. He is currently a Doctoral Candidate at the Graduate School of Geography, Clark University, Massachusetts, USA.  The main objective of his doctoral research is to better understand how governance systems organize and distribute knowledge about the UN’s REDD+ program (Reducing Emissions through Deforestation and Degradation) across different groups of stakeholders with conflicting interests, and the resulting impacts of these programs on forests and people in Cambodia. He recently published a paper reviewing the design of REDD+ projects in 36 participant countries with respect to natural forest disturbance.

Pheakkdey’s research has been funded by a Fulbright Fellowship, by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), by the Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation, by the Association of American Geographers (Human Dimensions of Global Change and Cultural And Political Ecology specialty groups), and by the Albert, Norma and Howard Geller ’77 Endowed Research Awards for Projects relating to Sustainability. We recently caught up with him, and asked him some questions about his career and educational path.

Why did you choose your current career path?

My intellectual curiosity has brought me to my current doctoral dissertation research, after having worked for several years with various public and private institutions in Cambodia and abroad – mainly on projects that explore the nexus of environmental governance and sustainable livelihood development for forest dependent communities in developing countries. My focus has always been on striving to combine what I can learn from academia with real world policy application.

What did you major in before you decided to pursue your Masters, and why did you choose the Monash MIDEA program?

I hold a Bachelor of Education from the Royal University of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. I was indeed deciding between an MA in Social Work in the US (Fulbright Fellowship) or Monash MIDEA program (Australian Leadership Award). Why an MA in Social Work? It’s a long story, and I won’t go into it now. I decided to decline the Fulbright and went to Monash because at the time there was a real need for lecturers who specialize in areas such as environmental governance, political economy/ ecology, global environmental change, and international development at the newly established Department of International Studies, Royal University of Phnom Penh, where I was to be appointed as a coordinator.    

When did you finish your Masters and what have you been doing since?

I graduated from Monash MIDEA program in July 2009. As part of the Australian Leadership Award’s requirements, awardees must intern at one of Australian public or private institutions. I was offered a two-week internship at Earth Systems Consulting Pty, an environmental consulting company based in Melbourne during my second semester in MIDEA. Upon the completion of this internship, I was offered a part time job at the company, where I was fortunate to work with and learn from seasoned professionals on various aspects of environmental governance projects in countries such as Australia, Canada, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Senegal, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and the United States. I returned to Cambodia after graduation, and was offered an acting-head position at the Department of Institutional Studies, while keeping my part-time appointment with Earth Systems Consulting. Of all the projects in which I was involved at Earth Systems, REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation in developing countries) was the one that really intrigued me academically. The interest was so strong that I decided to explore this topic as a PhD research.

What are the most valuable professional skills you’ve gained from MIDEA?

I did learn a lot from the different classes that I took during my time in the program. Given that I came from an Education background. I had to admit that it was a real challenge for me during the first few weeks of the program. I was really struggling trying to take in the readings and then to communicate them in class in ways that would express my senses (sometimes doubts) of the readings. I remembered spending more time at the library than my apartment trying to do the readings and thinking about what I might say in class. It was a painful process, but I’m glad I went through that. This particular skill did tremendously help me when I was preparing for my doctoral qualification exams at Clark University.

What advice would you give students wanting to pursue careers in International Development and Environmental Analysis?

I concur with the advice given by Byron Pakula for this question. What I would add is that this is such a broad field that it attracts people from various academic and professional backgrounds. The downside of this is of course the fact that one can easily get lost in the whole thing. What has worked for me is the commitment and perseverance to pursue a topic (REDD+) within this broad field that attracts me. I used the word perseverance here because a topic that you choose to pursue and how you pursue that topic might not be a favorite for some of the people around you. Thus, it is extremely important to listen to and constructively engage with the different viewpoints – while standing your ground.

Based on your experience, what are the emerging opportunities and challenges in this professional field of work, and what new skills should our students require?

Given my background and the work I’ve been pursuing, one of the emerging opportunities and challenges that I see for students would be the abilities to work across the traditional disciplinary boundaries. I’ve observed that those who have been at the forefront of my strain of work are the ones who can communicate and work with both natural scientists and social scientists. It is necessary for students to be well trained as natural or social scientists, but it is also important for students to not be shy away from engaging with those who might not be from their side of the scientific distinction. 

Tell us about the most rewarding experience in your career since MIDEA

So many things happened post MIDEA program. For me the most rewarding one would be my doctoral advising committee (Dr. Anthony Bebbington, Dr. Colin Polsky, Dr. Dominik Kulakowski, and Dr. Diana Liverman) at the Graduate School of Geography at Clark University. No doubts, that their academic/ professional accomplishments are truly inspiring. However, what I appreciate most from them is their genuine supports in the work that I am trying to do as a young researcher. For this I can’t thank Dr. Christian Kull and Dr. Haripriya Rangan enough for their supports and recommendations when I was applying for PhD programs in the United States.     

And the weirdest one…

Winter in Massachusetts makes me think about how wonderful the weather in Melbourne is! 

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