Darren Blackburn

Examining professional identity formation in Canadian emergency managers
Dr. Judith Walker and Dr. Ron Bowles
New Westminster
MINDS Scholarship
Why did you decide to pursue a graduate degree?

My decision to pursue a PhD was a happy accident! Since 2005, I have worked in emergency management, a profession focused on guiding communities in preparing for, responding to, and recovering from disasters. For the most part, I felt I had a pretty good handle on how the field worked. I had solid professional networks, was developing and instructing curriculum as an educator, had worked with multiple committees developing professional standards, and was actively mentoring newbies as they pursued their first jobs. But in 2018, I had an unexpected conversation that made me question what I really knew about my field. While having a coffee with a well-respected colleague, they told me they didn’t see really see themselves as being part of the emergency management field. I was thrown for a loop! How could an established leader who develops policy and practice for first responders, provincial governments and even international organizations, not feel part like they were part of our field? This conversation led me to start informally researching professional identity - loosely defined as the ways people come to understand themselves as a particular type of professional. I found this to be an exciting area of study but was soon overwhelmed by the variety of perspectives and models. I just couldn’t bring all the pieces together into a coherent picture. It was then that I realized the unique interdisciplinary nature of emergency management meant a new model of professional identity formation was needed. To create this model, I would need to develop my research and writing skills in a purposeful way. My PhD program became the mechanism to develop these skills with my supervisors being my mentors.

Why did you decide to study at UBC?

I chose to study at UBC after an initial phone call with the program staff at the Interdisciplinary Studies Graduate Program (ISGP) office. I originally called with a long list of questions, expecting to be directed to the program website (an experience I had with other multiple other institutions). However, Enid at ISGP spent over an hour answering my questions and providing me with helpful insights on the application process. It was then that I realized UBC stands apart from other post-secondaries when it comes to supporting their graduate students. With a fulltime job and a young family, my time is at a premium. The supports offered by UBC are not happenstance but are designed to remove the distractions and frustrations that would impact my research focus. Some of these supports are logistical. Access to software licenses and a top-notch library collection mean I have the resources I need right when I need them. Other supports, like workshops on research methods, writing my dissertation, and using research software, are helping me develop the skillsets expected of academics. I have found that UBC takes the success of their graduates seriously and is the first to celebrate the accomplishments of their students.

What is it specifically, that your program offers, that attracted you?

My research is complicated as emergency management arguably doesn’t exist as a unique discipline but rather exists as an interdisciplinary profession. In academic terms, this means there is no in situ methods or well-developed paradigms that I can draw from to analyze professionalization in emergency managers. At other institutions, my only option would be to situate my research in an existing program area, adopting the departments disciplinary lens on my research. In other words, I would be understanding emergency management from the viewpoint of another discipline - not as an emergency management practitioner. The ISGP provides a unique opportunity for students to both reimagine and challenge disciplinary boundaries in support of developing new research spaces. In practical terms, ISGP guides students in both evaluating and integrating disciplinary methods into new structures that support analyzing complex, interdisciplinary questions. In my case, I’m integrating models from adult education, emergency response, sociology, and anthropology to create a comprehensive understanding of a process from the viewpoint of a legitimate practitioner. Put differently, I’m understanding emergency management as an emergency manager. In turn, the use of this viewpoint will support other emergency management practitioners in accepting my outputs as legitimate and adopting my recommendations .

What was the best surprise about UBC or life in Vancouver?

The best surprise for me about UBC was campus life. I’m used to campuses maintaining a clear distinction between student and academic spaces. This creates a feeling that students are just “passing through” the university. I had the opposite experience at UBC. UBC Point Grey campus is a wild, evolving, living space where the boundaries between student and academic life converge and overlap. Everyday, students are transforming campus spaces through their expression, their research outputs, and their advocacy. In my first year alone, one of my classmates played their own composition on the clock tower bells, my classmates and I were given permission to hang a semi-permanent mural on an administration building, and I made connections with a number of professors interested in my research. As one who typically avoided campus life, I discovered UBC to be a place that both invites and celebrates all kinds of student engagement.

UBC stands apart from other post-secondaries when it comes to supporting their graduate students. The supports offered by UBC are not happenstance but are designed to remove the distractions and frustrations that would impact my research focus. I have found that UBC takes the success of their graduates seriously and is the first to celebrate the accomplishments of their students.
What aspect of your graduate program do you enjoy the most or are looking forward to with the greatest curiosity?

When I first started my program, I was overwhelmed by the amount of reading I needed to do. It seemed every journal article led to ten more; every book referenced a dozen others. My reading list rapidly ballooned and my desk was soon covered in papers. However, over time, I found the readings were becoming less of a chore. I was seeing patterns and making connections I didn’t see before or, more accurately, which I wouldn’t have been able to see before. I was developing a sense of wonder, a curiosity that was fed by the new ideas I was reading. Now that I have gotten into the practice of reading broadly, I read more than I have before. There is something really energizing around discovering new ideas, concepts, connections in the materials I read. I’m astonished at how often I find model or concept presented in one discipline supports an interpretation or reinterpretation of ideas in my own field.

What do you see as your biggest challenge(s) in your future career?

I’m in a unique position as I started my PhD program in the middle of a great career. I currently work as a program director with the Justice Institute of British Columbia, a dynamic post-secondary institution that educates a variety of public safety professionals. In my role, I oversee a portfolio of emergency management programs ranging from small scale micro-credentials to multi-year post-baccalaureate diplomas. I’m very fortunate as I get to engage with amazing people who are driven to serve their communities and help keep people safe. It’s quite an honour to be trusted with their education. At times, I feel my research is quite small. I am exploring professional identity formation in emergency managers which, while being quite an exciting and impactful area of study, is still only one small aspect of the field. Further, emergency management is constantly evolving with factors like climate change, the impacts of artificial intelligence, and the modernization of emergency legislation rapidly changing practice. It’s possible that my research outputs may only be valid for a few years before these factors completely transform practice. My biggest challenge will be ensuring I have continued access to current data to inform my work.

How do you feel your program is preparing you for those challenges?

Among the foundational courses in the ISGP are a handful of interdisciplinary research methods courses. A major theme of interdisciplinary research is the application of strategies to integrate data from multiple disciplinary sources. The interdisciplinary researcher then uses different lenses to analyze, interpret, and find common ground amongst data supporting its application towards complex problems. Having learned these methods, I realize that I don’t need to be constantly engaged in primary research. I can access a variety of data sources and apply these toward the challenges facing emergency managers. I can stay current by reading broadly and using interdisciplinary methods to continue to build my understanding of emergency management.

What aspects of your life or career before now have best prepared you for your UBC graduate program?

When I was in my early twenties, I decided I wanted to run a marathon. But being 6’4”, 240 pounds, and with a penchant for pizza, it was going to take some training! As I trained, I learned some useful strategies that would get me across the finish line. On reflection, I realize the strategies for running long distances are almost identical to the ones I use to keep me moving through my program. The strategies are simple: • Eat well and stay hydrated. • Get enough sleep. • Find your own steady pace and stick to it. • Let your friends know what you’re doing so they can cheer you on (and they will cheer you on!). • Keep moving forward, one step at a time. There is a finish line – keep going and you’ll reach it!

What do you like to do for fun or relaxation?

I’m the type of person that always needs to be doing something. When I’m not working or studying, I try to find things that help keep me energized. These includes running (well, slow jogging), indoor rock climbing with my son, and playing far too much Red Dead Redemption!

What advice do you have for new graduate students?

When you first start your graduate program, you may have experiences that shake your self-confidence. Your instructors may introduce new language and concepts you’ve never heard of and don’t understand. Your supervisors may be critical of your ideas and ask for endless rewrites of your materials. Your classmates may be awarded scholarships while you miss out. And (perhaps worst of all) your friends may advance to candidacy before you do. It’s easy to see your peers and supervisors and think “Oh geez, they really seem to have it together! Why am I not like them? What am I doing wrong?” There really is nothing easy about being a graduate student. But that’s actually the point. If completing a graduate program was easy, everyone would do it and it wouldn’t be that special – or impactful. The process of creating new knowledge requires getting out of your comfort zone and pushing through boundaries. The process is a challenge but that’s why the outputs - your outputs - are so significant.

Outside of your academic work, what are the ways that you engage with your local or global community? Are there projects in particular that you are proud of?

Outside of my studies, I’m leading a research project exploring interpretations of mass care in British Columbia. What is mass care? Good question! The nominal definition is that mass care is an umbrella term for all the supports provided to communities when they exhaust local resources during a disaster. But, during interviews and focus groups, we’re discovering that the idea and practice of mass care means different things to different people. The goal of the project is to develop scale-able definitions for mass care and to identify recommendations to support the eventual development of a mass care framework. We’re fortunate to have the support of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) on this research. Learn more about this research here: https://mcf.jibc.ca/.


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