It has been almost exactly one year since the moment I was informed that I had received the DAAD scholarship I had applied for to spend half a year at the Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City in order to advance the work on my dissertation. I was informed that I had been given the Gustav-Schübeck-Scholarship (Link), which is awarded by the DAAD Foundation, an affiliate to the DAAD e.V.
The amount of the grant, adapted to the cost of living in the destination country, was generous and enabled me to travel to different parts of the country, which helped me enormously in my work. I was given much independence in organizing my stay. Taking care of the flight, the accommodation, the contact with the host university and my life and project planning on site were left up to me, but were covered by the scholarship or by corresponding additional lump sums transferred monthly to me. I found it very pleasant to have this freedom, especially since I was always given prompt and competent advice in case of questions and doubts.
The moment when I received the confirmation email—separated from the present by the outbreak of the pandemic and my experiences in Mexico—right now seems to have passed a very long time ago, but I nevertheless still clearly remember it because it was a moment of strong relief—more than joy—for me.
As far as I know, the exact statistics on accepted and rejected applicants are not published, but the rate of accepted applications is, according to hearsay and the opinion of all those who have advised me, much higher than in other funding agencies. My relief, however, was not only due to the resolution of the general uncertainty about the success of the application, but also to the fact that some other uncertainties had disappeared. I had invested a reasonably large amount of time and effort in my application, which included the expected (letter of motivation, work plan, certificates, proof of language skills, two letters of recommendation). There were some complications with getting one of the letters of recommendation to the DAAD, the communication with the DAAD, which was only possible via the online forum where the application was also managed, was rather slow and during the whole spring I had not been able to plan for the second half of 2019, of which I didn't know if I would spend it in Germany and in Mexico. I had waited a few months longer than originally announced for the notification I now received.
Correspondingly, the relief changed almost instantly into the necessary busyness, because I only had one month until my departure. The DAAD offers two variants of country-specific PhD scholarships: for 1-6 months and for 7-12 months. In both cases, for the application one chooses the period of time that seems appropriate and specifies a departure date that must be within the period until the start of the next application phase. In my case, I had chosen a rather early date, corresponding to the beginning of the Mexican semester, so that a lot had to be organized in a short time. For example, it would not have been possible to apply for a student visa in that time (fortunately, tourist visas for Mexico are issued without prior application and for 180 days upon entry).
I have described my perception of my everyday life, my host university, some experiences on research excursions and my own privileges as a kind of narrative in this detailed report (Link in German), the (necessarily extremely) shortened version of which, is the following:
Let me begin my report, which is really more of a story, with my first day at Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico, which I will call simply “the Ibero” in the text. I had gotten lost, and, in order to get to the university campus, I had to cross two four-lane roads and an overpass, which turned out to be a walk of nearly an hour. Fortunately, I had planned one and a half hours for just such contingencies, because I knew that my chances of not only getting on the correct minibus, but also getting off in the right place, were very slim. Traffic is one of the main topics of all conversations I had in Mexico City. Since the weather here never changes, the time it takes to get from A to B serves as a common and innocuous topic for small talk (an equivalent to talking about what one has eaten – the common topic in less urban regions of Mexico).
For a while I considered getting a bicycle, but I always discarded the idea, among other reasons because I did not want to expose myself to pollutants and breathe them in. So I kept taking buses, which emit the very pollutants I aimed to avoid. Traffic breeds the necessity for more traffic.
In the shadow of an impressive building ruin at the entrance gate to the university, I was met by Professor Javier Torres Nafarrate, who had invited me to come to Mexico. All entrances to the campus are heavily guarded; access without a chip card is not possible. The Ibero is a private university, founded and financed by the Jesuit order. Though committed to the order’s ideals in general, it is independent in terms of its teaching. Within a highly stratified system of higher education, it is considered an elite university. At the library, I found – as predicted by research I did before my trip – a wealth of books (naturally mostly in Spanish), to which I had no access in Germany. Unfortunately, the computer at the workstation provided to me in Professor Torres’ office was impossibly slow, so I always worked on my laptop.
My “privileged status” there was more structural than situational: it did not directly benefit me in any way. But this was not the case in the academic context of my stay: Not only did I, as is common in academic work, use the contact networks of my professors, but beyond that I am fairly certain that the mention of my home country of Germany in general and my home university Bielefeld in particular helped me with requests I made for interviews and meetings with academics, journalists, lawyers and human rights activists that I needed for my dissertation. I believe I was given appointments that probably would not have been granted to Mexican students at a public provincial university. Despite this, I decided to mention my origins, as the main purpose of my trip was, after all, to conduct these interviews and discussions.
Also, my research project deals with a topic that is widespread in Mexico, but hardly exists in my home country. It deals with “impunity discourse”, meaning the social discussion of the fact that in many regions of the world, the large majority of all crimes goes unpunished. I am mainly interested in the forms in which these discussions occur, as well as the social reactions to such discourse. I went to Latin America because, here, impunity discourse (and I mean explicitly the discourse, not necessarily the phenomenon it refers to) is the most pronounced of all regions worldwide.
This was evidenced by the conference at the Colegio de México (Colmex), which can be considered the peak of Mexico’s academic hierarchy. The opportunity to introduce my research project at that conference was one of the absolute highlights of my visit. On that occasion, I also encountered the institutional library for the first time, whose phenomenal inventory includes practically all of the literature I had previously searched for in vain at German libraries and those of the Ibero. This includes, in particular, the digital library, which can be accessed from anywhere on campus, which is why from then on, I was often drawn to the Colmex to work.
On a personal level, I tried to lead a “Mexican life” – whatever that may be – which was certainly aided by my good Spanish skills, refined by several long-term visits to Spanish-speaking countries. These skills are likely the reason why I was asked by the Ibero to do some translation work for a journal. During my half-year visit, I frequently translated brief articles and, in the end, made arrangements for further cooperation in this area in the future. One of the ways in which I attempted to integrate into everyday life in Mexico was by living in a house with Mexicans.
At the time of my application for the scholarship I had three basic subject-specific objectives for my stay: To present and discuss my dissertation project in the socio-cultural and geographical context to which its content relates to a large degree; to conduct expert interviews and collect material for a discourse analysis; and to generate academic exchange at a general level. My hopes were fulfilled or exceeded on all three counts.
I am honestly convinced that my work advanced significantly during the half year of my stay, not only academically, but personally as well. Thanks to many encounters, I gained innumerable and priceless insights even beyond the realm of a doctorate. I am deeply grateful to the DAAD-Stiftung for making this experience possible.
Clara Buitrago is the new coordinator for internationalisation in the BGHS office. For Clara it is a return to the BGHS, because she did her PhD at the BGHS. Sabine Schäfer asked her what it is like to be part of the BGHS again, what she finds important for international doctoral researchers and what she is most looking forward to. The interview can be heard here:
Further information on the BGHS-Office: Website.
:: Non-academic careers ::
Practitioners in talk #Part 8
Many roads lead out of the BGHS. But where do paths lead to after the doctorate? In the summer semester we talk to historians and sociologists who have taken up their profession outside the university. Götz Frommholz talked with us about his work at the "Open Society Foundations".
Götz Frommholz (second from left) at the "Internet Governance Forum" of the United Nations.
Götz, when you think about the start of your career: How did you find your way in?
Götz Frommholz: I found my entry during my doctorate. After my diploma in Bielefeld I went to Edinburgh and did a PhD in sociology. I have to say that I was already politically active before I started my career, I retired from active politics, but I was still interested in politics. And at that time in Edinburgh, I was thinking along with other doctoral students: Where is there a niche in Germany for people who are interested in politics and want to give evidence-based advice on politics? We saw that at that time there was a great lack of organizations that were engaged in political participation at the interface between science and society outside the university. So in 2012 we founded a think tank: dpart. During my doctorate it became increasingly clear to me: I'm going back to Germany. But if I go to Germany, I'm definitely not going to science, because a scientific career in Germany simply cannot be planned. I then decided to set up our think tank in Germany, coordinate a European network of doctoral students and carry out research projects within this framework. For example, together with the University of Edinburgh, we conducted research on the Scottish referendum on independence, and a briefing that we prepared was actually also the basis for the Scottish Parliament to reduce the voting age from 18 to 16. So, we've done cool things already, and dpart is still there. But in 2016 I got fed up with cleaning doorknobs and getting grants and then I went to Humboldt University. There I did the monitoring of young researchers at the Humboldt Graduate School. That encouraged me once again when I saw the numbers: How unlikely it is to apply for a professorship and then actually succeed. I did that for two and a half years. During that time we started another research project with dpart, in cooperation with the Open Society Foundations (OSF). The foundation fled from Hungary in the summer of 2018, because of Orban and the anti-Soros laws, and moved to Germany. And then people from the foundation asked me if I would like to apply for a position as policy analyst here in Berlin, for the new office. I had just signed my third one-year contract at HU and thought to myself: Okay, the shop is not really grateful either, I try it. And I got the job. That's how I got into it.
You work for the "Open Society Foundations". What exactly are your tasks?
Götz Frommholz: Officially, I work for the Brussels office of our foundation network: the Open Society European Policy Institute. But for OSF I am here in Berlin and I am the analyst especially for EU policy in Germany. The Open Society Foundations: These are many independent foundations and programmes founded by the American philanthropist and billionaire George Soros. We are the largest private foundation worldwide that promotes democracy and human rights. There are over 120 countries in which we are active and are committed to civil society, human rights and democracy promotion.
A webinar moderated by Götz Frommholz with Michael Roth, Minister of State for Europe, and Selmin Caliskan, OSF Director for Institutional Relations OSF Berlin.
What tips do you have for colleagues from sociology and history who are interested in entering your field of activity?
Götz Frommholz: So, I think: If I had not had the will to work in this field, I would not have ended up there. Because it has been a long dry spell, especially when we built up our own think tank. That meant cleaning up many, many handles. I was actually on the road seven days a week and danced at all the weddings to meet people. On the other hand, political communication is a huge field: you can work for NGOs, for trade unions or for the Association of Chambers of Industry and Commerce. And that's why it's important to think carefully and make a conscious decision as to who you want to work for.
Götz, thank you for the conversation.
The interview was conducted by Ulf Ortmann.
The complete conversation is available here (only in German):
:: Non-academic careers ::
Practitioners in talk #Part 7
Many roads lead out of the BGHS. But where do paths lead to after the doctorate? In the summer semester we talk to historians and sociologists who have taken up their profession outside the university. Marie-Christine Heinze talked with us about her work at the „Center for Applied Research in Partnership with the Orient“ (CARPO).
Panel discussion at CARPO on the subject of "The Yemen conflict in the context of regional rivalries" on 8 March 2018, on the panel from the left: Marie-Christine Heinze, Sebastian Sons (CARPO Associate Fellow), Gudrun Harrer (Moderator; Der Standard), Adnan Tabatabai (CARPO CEO)
Marie, if you remember the start of your career: How did you find your way in?
Marie-Christine Heinze: I wrote my doctorate on Yemen. And through an acquaintance from Bonn University - where I studied - I had contact with a Yemeni research institute that does mainly quantitative social research. When I went to Yemen for field research for my doctoral thesis, the only contact I had there was the Yemen Polling Center (YPC). I made contact with the YPC, and they helped me a lot in establishing contacts for my doctoral thesis. In return, I helped them and started writing project proposals for the institute. The first proposal I wrote for the institute was an EU project proposal, which I just thought of: Oh, I'll manage. I mentioned myself in the application as a consultant. The project application was accepted, and I am still working with the YPC.
What does your work look like now?
Marie-Christine Heinze: To give an example: At CARPO, we have a project that aims to bring together Yemeni experts from business and development. We are implementing this with two Yemeni partner institutions. To this end, we organise many meetings: between these experts, but also between the experts and the international community. And we produce publications: both to provide facts and to make policy recommendations for the international community, for the Yemeni government and for other actors who can improve the situation in Yemen.
Group picture at one of CARPO's bi-annual Development Champions Forum, at which CARPO and its project partners have been bringing together Yemeni experts from business and development since 2017 to draw up recommendations for action for national and international stakeholders.
What tips do you have for colleagues from sociology or history who are interested in a career in your field?
Marie-Christine Heinze: So, I think that first of all it helps to gain knowledge about the actors in the field through some form of cooperation with institutions, through internships or short residencies. Secondly, a good knowledge of the content is a great advantage. So, in my case that was my knowledge of Yemen: I did my doctorate on that and I worked a lot with Yemeni research institutions and also with other actors from Yemen. I think that's the most important tip I can give: find something that you find really exciting - that's what you'll be good at. Which is perhaps also interesting: For example, I supported partners at the YPC for a long time without any financial consideration, and in doing so I developed the networks I am now working with.
Did you already have the goal of founding your own think tank during your dissertation?
Marie-Christine Heinze: No, no. I didn't know what I was gonna do afterwards. It simply became clear during the dissertation that I was doing a lot of consulting. Before the end of my dissertation, I joined a research project at the University of Bonn: a VW project that I implemented with the YPC. And actually I assumed at that time that I would acquire such projects at the university because I was good at it. My own research institute on Yemen: That was a secondary consideration, not a concrete plan.
Marie, thank you for the conversation.
The interview was conducted by Ulf Ortmann.
The complete conversation is available here (only in German):