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ESSAY: My PhD – A Winding Road

In this short essay Ayca Uygur reflects upon her own experience in writing a PhD dissertation.

Writing a PhD dissertation is not a straightforward journey. You start up with many positive, even euphoric, emotions. After all, it is now official that your idea is actually worth something. And even though some people will keep asking if your student life will ever end, you know that this IS a real job and that a whole new learning experience is ahead of you. As the journey continues, there will be ups and downs, crossroads where important decisions will be made, and probably a destination quite far away from what you originally planned on. But in the end, the journey is all yours; and it shapes your thinking as much as you shape it – and that’s what makes it so much fun and rewarding.

This is my attempt to talk to you about my own journey, what my project came up to be and how it first started taking form in my mind. Hopefully, you will get to see that what I do is inherently connected to who I am and how I desire the world to be.

“Soo… What is your PhD about?”
When you are a PhD student, you get this question A LOT. Over the course of three years or more, you eventually end up with a short and a long answer and you pick one depending on the social occasion and the intensity of the puzzled look on people’s faces. My short answer usually is ‘Europeanization of security sector reforms in Turkey and Poland and the role informal institutions play during the implementation stage’. But unless you are at a party, the longer version is much more fun to hear:

In the more general theoretical sense, I am interested in understanding the relationship between institutional change and political outcomes. Depending on your angle, institutional change can mean anything from constitutional amendments to changing norms and identities in any form of organization over time. But do written rules of the game, or what we sometimes call formal institutions, lead to similar political outcomes? Say, for instance, will making military budgets subject to parliamentary approval lead to similar degrees of civilian oversight in different contexts? No, it will not. There are many potential answers as to why this is the case, but my idea was to look into the interaction of formal and informal rules that guide the behavior of the implementers of reform: administrative and judicial bureaucracy. Can the informal principles that guide the behavior of these actors have anything to do with the different ways in which reforms are being implemented?

In my opinion, EU’s newest members and candidate states give us an incredible empirical space for exploring this relationship. Since the 1990s, where ‘Eastern enlargement’ became a possibility, the European Union and its member states have taken on the task of ‘re­unifying Europe’ under the condition that potential member states transform their economic, political and societal institutions at a fast pace. There were benchmarks along the way and the better the candidate states ‘performed’ the more were the benefits. In this sense the amount of formal institutional change that has been taking place and been monitored by the EU is simply immense. On the other hand, we are faced with such diverse state and societal traditions that we can expect to observe a good deal of tension and interaction between formal and informal institutions in determining the course of politics.

I picked Turkey and Poland as my two cases because they present very different values on the implementation of civilian oversight reforms. Going on fieldwork in both countries to interview officials who are in charge of implementing security sector reforms, I have been aiming at uncovering the major differences as to how rule enforcers in these different contexts understand, interpret, challenge and apply a particular EU reform. In the end, I hope my project will say something very specific about why EU rules and norms translate differently to different domestic contexts during enlargement.

The shaping of an idea
My theoretical interest was formed through meeting two excellent academics. As a master student at LSE, I took Mark Thatcher’s course on institutional change. His approach was so demanding and so comprehensive that I eventually ended up liking all the puzzles that we were trying to explain in class and even came up with my own. On the other hand, a different course by Jonathan White introduced me to practice theory and eventually I was convinced that I could find some answers in the intersection of these two separate theoretical traditions. So in my opinion, it is never a bad idea to endure those theoretical weeks even though you are not into political theory.

My worldview and work experience have been equally influential in guiding me towards my empirical interest. I was born and raised in Turkey by a politically oriented family, which meant that political, and often sad, stories from their youth were a part of usual dinnertime conversation. Being a citizen of a country with such troublesome encounters with democracy created in me a desire that has stayed with me ever since: Understanding things in order to make them better. Understanding the role of the armed forces was (and still is) a big deal in terms of making sense of Turkey’s overall experience with democracy.

After I wrote my master thesis on Turkish security sector reform, I got a job at UNDP as a junior expert. This was an incredible opportunity and I was to work with officials from the ministry of interior, as they were to implement an EU-funded project about civilian oversight. In a sense, this was like a pilot study where I got to observe the everyday interactions between actors who are essential to the reform process. After completing my task and reflecting back on it, I had already developed a strong interest towards studying the role of informal institutions in reform implementation.

Thinking about taking on research?
I close with a final word to those who are considering taking on research: If you love politics, there is a great chance that you will love conducting your own research on something that matters the most to you. After all, there is great joy in having so much freedom and influence regarding your own work. But it is also OK if you do not want to decide yet. Hopefully, my experience has shown that the choice between academia and other types of work is not that black and white at all. Signing up for a PhD program does not necessarily mean a lifetime commitment to an academic career; and working on the field before taking on an academic task may be exactly what you need to find your own puzzle.