Born in Aberdeen, Scotland, Roderick McDonald attended Aberdeen Grammar School, then the University of Aberdeen, graduating with an MA in History and Sociology in 1973. He later attained his PhD from the University of Kansas, and is currently a Professor of History at Rider University in New Jersey, where he teaches Caribbean, Latin American, African American, US and African history. His research and numerous publications concentrate on slavery and the transition to freedom in the Americas.

In early 2004 he became Editor of the Journal of the Early Republic, a quarterly periodical focused on the history and culture of the United States between 1776 and 1861. His work has been supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation, and in 2009 he became a fellow of the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation.

Roderick is heavily involved in alumni activity in Philadelphia and regularly organises and hosts events for alumni in the area.