Students in Carleton’s PhD program in Ethics and Public Affairs (EPAF) combine ethical analysis with social science to gain a comprehensive understanding of the options for solving particular public issues. So it made sense to Seetal Sunga and Kerry O’Neill to pursue this program. Both are two of the first EPAF graduates.

Seetal Sunga

New alumna Seetal Sunga

During her PhD, Sunga explored the ethical obligations of the state to hear and respond fully to Indigenous claims for justice. “I had the opportunity to hear directly what justice means from Indigenous advocates themselves. I looked at commissions and inquiries as state mechanisms for listening, and the types of strategic moves that should be taken by individuals within institutional structures and the state to address Indigenous justice claims.”

O’Neill’s research examined conditional cash transfer programs. These programs are an anti-poverty strategy that give cash to poor households on the condition that they make certain pre-specified investments in the human capital of their children. Her dissertation answers the question of whether state programs that attach conditions to welfare benefits are justifiable and whether a move towards unconditional cash transfers are better suited to address poverty and gender inequality.

Since it was launched in 2015, the EPAF program has attracted students with outstanding backgrounds. Sunga, for example, has been a lawyer since 1994 and had worked on justice issues relating to Indigenous peoples, including working on inquiries and commissions such as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, in a legal aid clinic serving Cree communities in Northern Ontario, and in the provincial public service for two provinces. She is now with the Department of Justice Canada.

Kerry O'Neill

New EPAF grad Kerry O’Neill

O’Neill was accepted into the program after completing a BA (Hons.) in Peace Studies and Philosophy at McMaster University and an MA in Philosophy at McMaster University in combination with a Water Without Borders diploma from the United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health. The topic of her Master’s thesis was the human right to water – specifically the right to safe drinking water and the duties that arise because of its being a right.

Both had very specific reasons for applying to the EPAF program. Sunga said she was attracted to the program because of its interdisciplinary nature. “I wanted to develop and formulate my thinking into a single piece of written work and I very much wanted training and institutional support to do qualitative research.” She also was drawn to the collegial atmosphere at Carleton and the quality of supervision offered to EPAF students.

O’Neill was very interested in the EPAF program’s practicum component. “I think it’s so important to set students up for success whether in academia or in other professional/ governmental roles and providing a practicum opportunity helps students explore possible future careers.” For her practicum, O’Neill worked as an archivist and engaged in ethics-based research at Library and Archives Canada. They extended her contract so she could continue working on her archival projects after her practicum ended.

She also liked how the EPAF program situated itself at the intersection of ethical analysis and public policy research. “I wanted to become both a better philosopher and a better policy analyst and the program’s aim was to do just that by encouraging students to draw on values-based and evidence-based rationales in their doctoral projects.”

Sunga said the program helped provide her with a solid foundation for a different level of work and perhaps a different realm of work than she had previously done.

O’Neill just accepted a position as a Postdoctoral Associate in the Rotman Institute of Philosophy at the University of Western Ontario where she will work on ethics questions related to COVID-19. “The principal investigators for the project are especially interested in my unique and interdisciplinary PhD training as they were looking for a candidate who could navigate values-based and evidence-based research on various issues presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

She is also teaching on contract at Carleton and the University of Toronto from Sept. 2021-April 2022. “It’s going to be a busy year for me.”

COVID impacted both alumni. As O’Neill points out: “Working during a pandemic is not normal – writing a dissertation during a pandemic is not normal and we all need to be kinder to ourselves given this reality. I was fortunate, however, to have people in both my professional and personal life that helped me navigate the completion of my degree during these highly difficult circumstances.”

Sunga shared that COVID did interfere with her field research and made fulfilling the requirements of her ethics protocol a bit challenging. “I would have liked to have completed my interviews with Indigenous advocates and government officials in person, but that wasn’t possible. I also missed in-person meetings and conferences. On the other hand, it was easier to take advantage of the need to stay home and stay focused.”

Both graduates appreciate the support they received from their supervisors.

Sunga shared that: “Dr. Christine Koggel (Ethics and Public Affairs) and Dr. Kahente Horn-Miller (School of Indigenous and Canadian Studies) provided critically important guidance and support throughout my program. Dr. Koggel was a fantastic mentor throughout the program and made every effort to ensure I achieved the most that I could. Dr. Kahente Horn-Miller provided indispensable guidance during the field research and dissertation writing components of my program. Without both of their expertise,  this would not have been such an amazing and enriching experience.”

O’Neill said: “Drs. Lisa Mills and Vida Panitch were a wealth of knowledge and have continued to support my research interests and professional goals. Their insights and expertise played a major role in helping me complete my dissertation. They encouraged me to apply for teaching and research positions and provided me with numerous opportunities to develop as a scholar.”

She also appreciates the generous funding she received through a SSHRC Doctoral Fellowship (2019-2021) and Ontario Graduate Scholarships (2018-2019; 2019-2020).

The third student to graduate this fall from EPAF is Ozan Gurcan. Unfortunately, he was not available for an interview but did note the title of his dissertation was Genetic Discrimination and Beyond – A Proposal for Ethical Life Insurance. You can find out more about him and current students in the EPAF program by clicking here.

Jay DrydykPhilosophy Prof. Jay Drydyk, who was instrumental in creating the EPAF program said: “I am very proud of the work that Kerry, Ozan and Seetal have done. They have shown themselves to be leaders in uncovering the ethical risks attached to public policy options, and in finding innovative solutions. Having worked with them, I know how much they have to offer the public policy world. Their analytical skills and knowledge can apply not just to the particular issues that they researched, but to many related issues as well.”

The University will host a virtual graduation celebration on Nov. 13th. Sunga has been awarded a Senate medal for outstanding academic achievement.

For more information about the EPAF program, please click here.

Monday, November 8, 2021 in , ,
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