The Confirmation Document
A PhD involves doing your own research project, from the defining of objectives to data analysis and creating recommendations, which is basically why I’m here. The project is entirely mine, from beginning to end. That kind of project ownership is scary and empowering. But that same thing defines a Masters degree, or even an Honours thesis… what separates a PhD is that your research has to be unique and different. PhD research has to contribute something new to your field. No pressure.
Just before Christmas, I handed in my “confirmation document”, which is basically a detailed research proposal that is approved by my supervisor, committee members, and a couple of external examiners. They evaluate my research proposal for it’s feasibility, robustness, and it’s unique contribution to my field. As part of this confirmation, I had to define how what I am doing will actually further knowledge about grizzly bears, protected areas, wildlife management, visitor expectations… or all of the above.
It’s like asking someone what makes them special…
Well, everything… and nothing.
I’ll be honest, I work in a field with a lot of really smart people who have been working with bears for decades and who, in my humble opinion, know SO much more about bears than I do or even dream I could. How will my work contribute to what all these really smart people already know? I mean, don’t they know everything already? I thought I was just trying to prove myself to them so that I could get a job later and maybe by the time they retire I’ll actually know enough about bears to be an expert. (I don’t consider myself an expert now, not by any stretch).
So I really had to think about it. What will my work contribute to Alberta grizzly bear management and beyond?
Breaking It Down
As with most things in my writing, I broke it down. I’m studying grizzly bears (that’s one field of knowledge), in protected areas (another field of knowledge), and I’m working to define visitor expectations (yet another field of knowledge). All that to influence wildlife management (independent field of knowledge #4) and visitor management in protected areas (field #5). AND, I’m using an interdisciplinary approach, which is a relatively new field of knowledge in protected areas management.
So somehow all of this is related and somehow I want to create unique contributions in each of these fields, both independently and simultaneously. Being surrounded by so many experts already, I really had to think about this carefully. I sometimes feel like I’m not quite smart enough to be creating something new and revolutionary, but when I separate my own ego from the research it’s much easier to look at the research based on its own merit.
The other thing I did was take it back to the beginning. I started this research because I had a question that nobody could really answer, so I must be doing something new.
My Unique Contribution
In the end I did manage to define my unique contribution.
My work will refine our understanding of grizzly bear habitat use in the presence of people engaging in low-intensity disturbance, which will help to create a baseline of grizzly bear reactions to people in Alberta. This will help with grizzly bear management in protected areas, but also could be useful when considering more intense impacts like industrial developments. Hopefully, I’ll also be able to see how different age/sex classes, particularly reproducing females, use habitat around human use differently (if at all). Given that females with cubs are the most important population cohort for grizzly bear recovery, understanding how they use the landscape around people can have important implications for management.
Parks and Protected Areas Management
My research will help to refine and define the balance between visitor needs and ecological integrity in protected areas, which is something that most protected areas in the world deal with. Also, because I’m working with a large carnivore that people don’t always want to be around, my research could be applicable to other areas where hikers and carnivores are using the same landscape.
Visitor Expectations and Management
I’m using an approach called Normative Theory that is relatively new in the world of wildlife management and will help me to define what visitor support for various management options are. The survey is designed to see how decisions visitors made before they came to the Park (e.g., where they are staying, how far ahead they planned their visit, where they are from) affect their support for management and their expectations of how grizzly bears should be managed in our National Parks. Understanding the visitor’s expectations will help managers to ensure their decisions are founded in public support, or show them which management actions may require further explanation to the public. Again, these research results don’t only apply to grizzly bears in Alberta but can be useful for carnivore management in all protected areas.
Interdisciplinary Holistic Awesomeness
This is the most significant contribution of my thesis. Lots of people study bears. Lots of people study visitors. Lots of people study Protected Areas. Not very many people have studied all of these things at the same time and interwoven them into an complex, holistic tapestry of research awesome. This is one of the first studies to examine social and biological contexts as they pertain to grizzly bear management in North America. The management recommendations will result from a holistic examination of the ecosystem. This will provide park managers with a clear understanding of the risks and benefits associated with implementing any particular management approach in regards to both the grizzly bears inhabiting the Canada Rocky Mountain National Parks and the visitors recreating in them.
So as it turns out, I was able to define how my work is new and different and unique.
This figure is a bit of visual representation of the thesis and all of its interdisciplinary awesomeness (click on the image to see a bigger version that you can actually read).