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Viewpoint: Academia across the pond

BY BRANISLAV RADELJIć

Published April 10, 2014

Branislav Radeljić is an associate professor in international politics at the School of Law and Social Sciences, University of East London. In 2013, he was a visiting scholar at the European Union Center of Excellence, University of California at Berkeley, and is currently Telluride faculty fellow, hosted by the University of Michigan's Department of History. He is the author of Europe and the Collapse of Yugoslavia: The Role of Non-State Actors and European Diplomacy, and editor of Europe and the Post-Yugoslav Space and Debating European Identity: Bright Ideas, Dim Prospects.

It is truly interesting to observe the differences that characterize the approaches to doctoral research in politics in America and Britain. To begin with, while the former perceives the readiness to argue, challenge, debate and offer contrasting standpoints as an opportunity to deepen academic links, the latter is very careful about such aspects of academic upbringing as if they could eventually generate animosity. Of course, it should be noted that on various occasions, the American idea about freedom of the academic mind could easily lead to Q&A sessions that have nothing to do with the presented topics. But, this is still less worrisome, as sometimes-irrelevant questions can serve as a basis for some new, relevant ones. Thus, while British approach can teach us to be more judgmental about the speaker and their talk, American approach can teach us to be more creative and flexible vis-à-vis the academic scholarship.

Flexibility of mind and options, in general, can also be problematic, especially when thinking about practical issues: it is generally much quicker (not necessarily easier, as sometimes imagined) to obtain a Ph.D in the UK than in the US. While American graduate students are bombarded with all sorts of literature and, more importantly, expected to prove a detailed familiarity with aspects of often-questionable usefulness, UK doctoral candidates are expected to know primarily about aspects closely related to their research puzzle (everything else seems to be a luxury). But, this is what doing a Ph.D is supposed to be, isn’t it? This kind of discrepancy can be attributed to the overall approach to doctoral studies as well as to the role played by advisors (US) or supervisors (UK). In fact, it seems that even these two words suggest two different roles: while in America, the role of an advisor is to advise doctoral students by providing them with additional ideas, numerous questions and possible directions to consider, in Britain, the role of a supervisor is to supervise, meaning to guide and tell the students what to do (in a polite way, of course) and if not doing it the supervisor-expected way, to correct them. This somehow indicates that supervisors are often expected to be experts in the field (or at least the leading supervisor), whereas advisors are not — an important aspect suggesting that advisors can also learn a lot from their doctoral candidates. Such an exchange of knowledge could lead to joint publications — something that, generally speaking, seems to happen more often in the US than in the UK. The advising approach is lengthier and usually a couple of years are gone before clear-cut research question(s) and main argument(s) are established. On the other hand, the Europeans tend to have their research design before they even apply for doctoral programs, as applications are judged based on the overall quality of the submitted research proposal. The preparation American doctoral students must go through is intended to help them to consolidate their arguments and often to defend them in a more convincing way (including conferences and workshops where they present early stages of their research), whereas their European colleagues tend to modify their originally presented proposals or even completely abandon them.

With regard to the research methods employed in most social science areas, what seems quite striking is the obsession with dependent and independent variables and the power of numbers and percentages amongst American doctoral candidates. In fact, it seems that it has become impossible to present a good research prospectus in the US without having the two variables and some idea about what they are likely to show. This could have to do with the whole post-Second World War number mania when polls, percentages and accompanying predictions came to occupy an important place in social sciences. In May 2012, I was invited to serve as a discussant at the Western US Graduate Student Research Workshop on the European Union, hosted by the EU Center of Excellence at the University of California at Berkeley, and I was amazed to hear that every single presentation had the two variables and, in fact, proudly insisted on their relevance. According to one of the presented papers, numbers are enough (sometimes 100 interviewees out of over 500 million inhabitants of the EU) to tell us how the Union exactly works, how it is likely to respond to the present and future crises, whether the concept of European identity is a valid one and so on. But, is it credible to say that the two variables can explain almost any EU-related research topic or should the students be allowed to be a bit more flexible when conducting research? Perhaps, the issue is that numbers — and, more relevantly, percentages — have consolidated their position really well, to the extent that they are often used as the only accurate source of information and thus no junior researcher is really willing to challenge their power.

Interestingly, when recently asked about her experience as a visiting fellow at a top ranked American university, a colleague of mine described it as a kind of Disneyland for academics. While “playing” with available resources, peers and, most importantly, new ideas, academics tend to produce some new, cutting-edge scholarship and this is where the US seems to be ahead any other country or region. Apart from explaining some sections of the rankings, this could probably explain the US-based university presses’ right to be extremely picky when it comes to scholarship they want to consider and possibly publish. Another colleague of mine has recently had the following experience: after approaching an American university press and sending in the whole manuscript, a set of constructive comments was provided by the reviewers who said that the submitted work was good and that they themselves would be very happy to use it and cite it, but still required some (substantial) changes. However, the publisher kept the right to say and actually warn the submitter that even after all the changes have been made, the reviewers might still decide to reject the manuscript in which case the whole process would terminate there. Needless to say how frustrating such a response for an ambitious junior scholar must be!

As already noted, the rankings show that the world’s best universities are mostly US-based. Although we can argue that rankings often tend to be defined by parameters that should not really matter to prospective researchers, there are many aspects that cannot be ignored and here I primarily refer to the funding available to conduct (post)graduate study in politics. In this respect, Americans can afford to finance their PhD candidates to sit and go through both relevant and irrelevant methods and scholarship, whereas the UK-based researchers are often conditioned by tight deadlines to complete, submit and defend their PhDs. Still, in both cases, a good PhD is a finished PhD and it is actually here where the real fight for a permanent position in academia begins. Indeed, the question of the job market is the one that remains the most pressing, both in the system that rushes through and the one that seems to be significantly slower. Given the disappointing numbers of new jobs in academia at the moment, contrasted with the growing numbers of available PhD holders, one could potentially find it easier to opt for a longer, American version of conducting a doctoral study and thus enjoy as many aspects of research as possible. Some others would rather do it the quick, British way, and then consider all sorts of jobs, including the idea that they will not be back in academia at any time soon.

Branislav Radeljić is a visiting faculty fellow for the Department of History and the Telluride Association.