“Make a conscious effort to regularly remind yourself of what you have achieved already!”

22. Juli 2022

You have the Chair in International Relations, Political Science, at the University of Mannheim since 2010. What do you like the most about being a professor?

I like that I can keep on being curious, asking questions that interest me and that I deem relevant, and I can try to find out the answers to them. Being able to determine what I work on and having great flexibility over this is a great privilege. What I love the most is being able to observe young people transform from inexperienced and sometimes insecure students to independent, confident and accomplished professionals. Being part of this journey is the most satisfying element of my job. This experience is most prominent when supervising PhD students, because you spend more time with them over a longer time period than with other students. But being able to witness and support the intellectual growth of young people is incredibly exciting in any context.

You regularly publish papers in leading journals such as Journal of Politics, Political Studies, Annual Review of Political Science or Journal of Peace Research. Further, you served as Associate Editor of the American Political Science Review – one of this discipline's leading journals. What do you think are the main ingredients for publishing successfully?

It is much easier to publish a paper well that tackles a question that is interesting, intriguing and relevant for a larger audience than for the few people who study the exact same, and possibly narrow topic. But you as author need to explain why your research question is interesting and you should have a clear and convincing, and ideally simple and possibly surprising answer. In my experience, it is very important to tell a clear and persuasive story, without over-complicating the argument or getting lost in technical details. Obviously you need to have a strong research design, but running state-of-the-art analyses is not enough to convince most readers that your topic is worth publishing in a top journal. You need to explain why what you do is interesting and worth their attention.

Your research concentrates on analyses of repression and political violence and the role of political institutions. When did you decide on this research focus? And how do you tackle the balance between specialisation and (the necessary degree of) breadth/generality in your research?

I have always been curious about why people in some countries live under very difficult and inhumane conditions. When I studied for my MA degree in the United States I was very lucky have a supervisor and mentor who completely fascinated me in how he approached his job, both with respect to research and interacting with students. I guess his passion for his topic spilled over to me and I have since focused on very similar questions.

My supervisor for my second MA degree in Germany pointed out the importance of slightly broadening your focus, to avoid working on one very narrow topic, which was very helpful. Personally, I would also get bored working continuously on the exact same topic. As I mentioned in my first answer, I love that I can explore new angles or related phenomena. Of course there are common themes to my work, which are my key interests. But within these broad categories, I have worked on different topics and quite different questions, not because I want to avoid being associated with only one narrow topic, but because it is more satisfying for me to explore new questions.

Another strategy to achieve some generality of your work is to make sure that you can embed your specific research question into a broader framework or wider debates. Try to look beyond the immediate context of your research questions and topic. Are there similar patterns in different areas? Does your work speak to different debates? Do not leave it up to the reader to make these connections. You need to tell your audience how your work contributes to a wider agenda and might be of interest to scholars outside your own network.

What was one of the major challenges during your academic career? And how did you master it?

I think one of the major (and continuous) challenges for me is to balance my private life with my (endless) work. I can’t say I have mastered that. It gets easier as children get older and become more independent, and as your academic position becomes more secure, but it doesn’t solve the fundamental challenge on how to find some balance.

What kind of advice would you like to give young female academics?

First, pick research topics that really fascinate you. Otherwise it will be too hard to work on them for a substantial length of time. Second, choose peers to share your experiences with, to exchange concerns and strategies, and to support each other. Since challenges for male peers are often very different, I think it is helpful to have a support network of female scholars who can often relate more easily to your own experiences. Third, make a conscious effort to regularly remind yourself of what you have achieved already. You get very little external encouragement as academic and it is too easy to become intimidated by others’ success, so keep an eye on what you have accomplished (and try to avoid the company of people who make you feel inadequate). Finally, establish boundaries of what you are willing to sacrifice for an academic career. While it can be a rewarding career, the sacrifices to get and stay there might become overwhelming (temporary contracts, constantly moving location, constant pressure to work constantly, rare positive feedback relative to common rejections, etc). Make sure you know where you draw the line so that you are in the long term happy with your life situation.