How did you find your way to your research topic during your studies?
My master thesis was about globalisation, how globalisation always leads to nationalism. A large part of the population has nothing to do with globalisation, so the nationalist tendencies creep up, the right wing parties coming up everywhere at the same time in Europe.
My doctoral dissertation topic was different. I started writing about the Arctic, about the opportunities that will present once the ice melts. But it was not going anywhere and then Peeter Selg got a grant for a research project (A relational approach to governing wicked problems) and approached me, remembering me from my masters’ studies. I definitely could not pass on this opportunity so I joined the project even though, to be completely honest, I did not understand what it was about at the start. It took me two years to figure fully out what Peeter was all about and now I wrote my doctoral l thesis on it.
Writing a doctoral dissertation is definitely a challenge that needs constant self-motivation. During this journey, what were your hacks to keep on working to successfully reach the end result?
I had a different supervisor back when I was still thinking about the Arctic. But both the topic and supervisor have to be well chosen, and you can only do a PhD when you want to work at a university as an academic, to me there’s no other way. I don’t know why you would do that otherwise, it takes all your time and effort. I was mostly motivated by this, I did work in the private sector a while, in banking, and that was not for me.
So yes, I was motivated by this but my PhD took a long time, mainly waiting for publications, a total of six years if we include the first one which was thrown away on the Arctic topic - and another year was thrown away because of the pandemic. We had a lot of articles that were submitted and they just laid there forever. The academic journals were suddenly not able to get their work done, as in shock. So if we take out these two years, it was four years, not too bad.
A very practical hack that worked for me was that I needed to write something everyday, whether it was for my articles or the thesis overview in the end. Even if it was just a couple of lines. But like this, the pages grew.
Describe some memorable or funny event that happened while writing the dissertation.
There was really nothing funny, ever. I’m sorry but the publication aspect itself - the first article we wrote, it went through 5 rounds of revisions, a personal record for Peeter, too, who has been doing it for fourteen years. He said he’s never seen anything like this. And then we had another article we submitted, and then after half a year they sent us back a review but it was about a wrong article, from somebody else. And then after that they did not even answer, the biggest and most prestigious journal of the American Political Science Association. The article is still there with them, for over three years. So it’s kind of funny, I guess. But at that moment it was really unfunny for me. I think I could write a book about that, too, “What could go wrong and then some more, for PhD students”...
How does your research change the world?
There’s a problem about how long academic research takes, it takes a long time for it to have an impact. But I believe my topic deals with some of the most important current issues - global crises - and can, therefore, have a direct impact on the policy-making. It also carries over to the future, where more of these problems, that we can’t even imagine yet, will hit us. As for a very current application,
Estonia right now is doing the exact opposite of what we are suggesting. Just standing still and waiting. Our approach is that you need to do something and if you see that it does not work, you do something else. And you do something else, and you do something else. That should be the new normal, because you cannot actually manage or control these crises, they always look different after a while. The pandemic is a good example, where first it is a health crisis, then it’s an economic crisis, a mental health crisis, education crisis. They always look different so every once in a while you need to adjust what you do. Not do nothing. You can read about that in our book soon, too.
What are the most important values and beliefs in your life to live by?
For me, what is important in both work life and private life is being generous. Many of my real mentors have been very generous, with their time, their input, and caring. The mentors who have not been very good have also not been generous. I try to follow the good examples in work but also it is the same in private life. Be generous to your friends and to your family, then the rest comes with it, you yourself get rewarded and others are also generous towards you.
Also hard work. We can come back to the previous question about hacks while writing the thesis - you just have to work hard - get the work done. I know that’s a very German approach, but that’s what it comes down to.
Describe a book that you've recently read and which you recommend others to read as well. Why do you recommend it?
It’s also a semi-academic book but probably the most important thing I’ve read recently: “Decolonizing Politics”, by Robbie Shilliam.
It’s written by a professor but it is very easy to read and writes about a very important topic. He talks about how all the knowledge we have, in political science or in social sciences, is the one of the colonizers. It is built on the canon of ‘classical’ philosophers, from Aristotle to Kant and Hegel, which tended to be frankly quite racist, writing from a standpoint of white European superiority. And even the ones that are not flat out racist still view imperialism as something worthwhile (e.g. civilizing the rest of the world). The author helps us understand and correct our biases, again and again, and this is something we need to at least reflect on. His book is not unsimilar to the works of Abdulrazak Gurnah, the 2021 winner of the Nobel prize in literature. Before colonization, all people in the world had their own knowledge as well, and we should now try to remember that and bring it to use.