Can you please introduce yourself?
My name is Benjamin, I am from Germany and currently a PhD Candidate in Government & Politics since 2015 at Tallinn University. I also started teaching since 2017 and have been teaching different courses every year since then. I came to Estonia in 2013 to obtain my master degree in International Relations and graduated in 2015 and joined PhD afterwards, and I am hoping to graduate in few months from now.
Why did you choose Estonia and what has been your experience in Estonia as a foreign student?
Well, I moved here because my wife is Estonian. Before she became my wife, we wanted to move together to a place where we can live together, and I found a master program in Tallinn University that suited me well, then I moved here, and she also did the same because she was living in Tartu at the time. This is the unspectacular reason why I am here. Also, my experience has been quite good; the only issue sometimes is the lack of English information at the university. It has gotten better over time, but I feel like that, especially information for instructors is often shared in Estonian or not shared with me. However, I have great colleagues in my institute that usually make sure that I receive all necessary information. Otherwise, it is pretty easy to get along with English in Tallinn. I also kind of blend into the people here and they don’t even notice that I am a foreigner at first, plus I can do a pretty good “Tere”. So, my experience has been pretty good!
Did you experience a culture shock in Estonia?
Not like a big shock, I guess. The German and Estonian culture is very similar, I would say. Sometimes, however, I still kind of wonder about how poor the communication culture is in this country. I still notice it most of the days, yes some of the Estonians are not like this, but it is more like an institution-based observation, like in universities, schools and now my little daughter is in kindergarten, nobody wants to talk to anybody. And the communication sometimes gets so bad that things are left undone, people have to figure out everything on their own or feel treated unfairly. This really doesn’t have to be like that.
As a PhD student, how do you manage studying with lecturing?
Uhm, this is actually quite hard. The biggest problem is that almost none of what I am teaching relates to my research in particular. So, for almost all of my courses, I needed to do lots of reading and research along with my PhD thesis. On the other hand, it is getting better from year to year, and it is a better position than I was in at the beginning of my PhD, when I had jobs outside of the university. Lecturing on an adjacent subject is still easier to combine with the knowledge I obtain from my research and it is also nice to receive my income from the university. Of course, there are moments during the semester where most of my time goes to teaching, like in the beginning of the semester and at the end when there is lots of preparation and grading to do. Last year was also somehow crazy, because we received so many new students and I ended up with graduate classes with over 40 students and introductory lectures with 120. This academic year the admission numbers have fallen a little bit and with that also the workload.
Nevertheless, it is great to teach courses that are different from my research as it educates me on many other aspects and it broadened my knowledge a lot.
Any comment about the effect of covid with this year's teaching?
Yeah, that has its own challenges because many students couldn’t come in and we had to do hybrid teaching where some students were present in the classroom, and some were attending online from their homes at the same time. It was not easy combining the two. It is much easier if they are all in the classroom or all online. A couple of students from, e.g., Russia, Nigeria and other third countries, couldn’t come at all to Tallinn and they required special assistance in this tough situation.
What has been your strength and weakness of being a PhD student and teaching?
Teaching, has helped me with being a better researcher. More often than not, I am also learning from the students, from their different backgrounds and viewpoints and their critical thinking. Often, they make me ask questions I would not have come up with myself, which is greatly beneficial. In short, it is really quite easy to get motivated to want to become a great teacher, but it is really hard to get motivated to do research because often you work on it alone after working hours, in the evenings, at weekends and often your hard work will only be published and appreciated in three or four years down the line. These are very long timelines, and it is easy to lose the goal out of sight.
Can you throw more light on your research?
I am mostly interested in the theory and methodology of the social sciences with a particular focus on International Relations but also study migration and global crises.
The title of my doctoral thesis is "Facing global crises. A processual-relational approach to studying and governing wicked problems". It is an interdisciplinary thesis taking lessons from relational sociology, international relations and public administration. Hidden behind this complicated title is the argument that many global crises such as climate change, migration crises or the coronavirus crisis need very special treatment when one attempts to study or govern them. To do this, we are developing a so-called processual-relational approach that considers the extreme complexity and constantly changing nature of these crises. My dissertation does this in very theoretical and somewhat general terms, and I hope that my future research will be particularly useful in governing the climate crisis that none of us should forget.
What is your plan after graduation?
Also, I hope graduation will be very soon! Let's start with that! Afterwards, I hope to get a fixed job at a university as I want to be an academic for life. I don’t know where that job will be as I first need to graduate and then find it. I wouldn’t mind leaving Tallinn for a while as I think it is very important for me to see other places, listen to other voices, talk to some other experts, and change my own views on some things. I am not saying that Tallinn University isn’t the right place for this, but I have been here for eight years and it's recommended for young researchers to move. Therefore, I am looking currently for post-doc positions in Germany or very close to it like the Netherlands. That is at least the plan. However, it also leaves the opportunity open to stay in TLU or come back here when there is a nice opportunity.