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Doctoral studies is a great investment

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Her research interest is on corruption and clientelism, and when doctoral student (PhD) Aiysha Varraich has defended her thesis at the Department of Political Science her plan is to work in a place where research and policy making meet.

Can you describe your research? 

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Aiysha Varraich
Aiysha is interested in the process of people’s decision-making, from a holistic point of view, especially in trying to understand how our personal relationships, especially religious ones, affect our voting choices.

I should start off by mentioning that my overall research agenda focuses on two main topics – corruption and clientelism. The former, corruption and quality of government, was the main focus of my masters’ thesis, and this continued during my tenure as a research associate at the Department of Political Science prior to my PhD journey. The focus of my dissertation is on the latter subject – i.e. clientelism. Overall, I’m interested in the process of people’s decision-making, from a holistic point of view, especially in trying to understand how our personal relationships, especially religious ones, affect our voting choices. During my fieldwork in Pakistan I had noticed that many politicians also were considered Sufi saints that had disciples, and word on the street was they had an edge over other politicians because their disciples voted for them. This claim intrigued me, and I wondered, first of all, is there any truth to the claim, and if so, why are these people voting for them?

What makes your research interesting?

Personally, I find people fascinating, and the fact that choices don’t always fit the mold that we political scientists concoct in the comfort of our offices. It’s interesting because it brings new attention to religion outside of formal institutions and examines it through personal relationships and how these relationships affect political choices. It’s a reminder that choices are messy and complex. Perhaps, for me, the most interesting part is to be in the thick of it, using interviews and fieldwork to understand these choices, bringing together so many topics – political behaviour, religion, clientelism and the nexuses between these subjects.

doctoral studies at the University of Gothenburg is paid, provides structure, a safety-net and the work environment is not hierarchical in the way many non-Scandinavian universities are.

What made you apply for a PhD position?

That’s actually a funny question. Prior to being a PhD candidate, I had worked as a research associate at the Department of Political Science, and during this two-year tenure, I was convinced that the PhD route was not for me. But as time passed, this idea that had sprung up during my masters’ fieldwork, kept coming back to me. I also realized, that not anyone else was really researching the topic. So, I gave it my best shot, and decided to apply. I should emphasise, that my route to the PhD, much like other friends and colleagues I speak with, was coincidental, and not necessarily a predetermined professional goal. It was a matter of being at the right place at the right time.

How is this education structured?

Surprisingly, we have a terrific balance of structure and freedom. The first year is quite course-heavy, where the load of taking fulltime courses and focusing on designing one’s own research can sometimes become overwhelming. This can become much easier, if we are reminded that we are being trained, and honed to become scholars, and that it is a process.

What is the best part of being a doctoral student? And, is there maybe anything about it that is less enjoyable?

The freedom. Both to research the topic that matters most to you, but also the fantastic connections you make across the board. Personally, I loved the ability to travel and gain more tools to my methods toolbox – where we were enabled to take summer and winter school courses across the board. Another favourite is the networking and inspiration gained through the attendance of international conferences across the globe as well as within Sweden itself.

The biggest drawback of being a PhD student is the overall mental stress. Many students, including myself, can undergo mental health issues where it leads to levels that actually can be handicapping. Although there are excellent provisions by the Department to seek help and to do so in an anonymous manner, the main problem is the associated stigma, where most people at the Department do not openly talk about it. This can have dire consequences where the silence reinforces the already lonely position of us students. I have been lucky, with a group of friends and senior colleagues at the Department with whom I could confide and get support.

What do you think about the University of Gothenburg and the city of Gothenburg?

The University of Gothenburg, especially the Department of Political Science, is a fantastic place to be. Both intellectually and socially – people are open, kind and curious, all qualities that make for a great experience, one solid example is that we have a common lunch room where everyone (pre-Covid) can gather to eat and chat together. Gothenburg is by far one of my favourite cities in the world. It has world class restaurants and museums (who would have thought we have 5 Michelin star restaurants!!!). The access to nature from the city and within it, is incredible, and it is extremely walking friendly. And did I mention the public transport? It always has a lot of events happening across the board and much of it is free to attend.

What plans do you have after the dissertation?

I intend on working within a think tank environment for a while, pursuing policy-making jobs, where research and policy making meet.

If you were to encourage somebody to apply for doctoral studies, which attractive, strong features would you emphasize?

It is a great investment, even if you do not intend to go down the academic route. I would emphasize that doctoral studies at the University of Gothenburg is paid, provides structure, a safety-net and the work environment is not hierarchical in the way many non-Scandinavian universities are.

More about Aiysha Varraich

Age: 36

From: Sweden (with Pakistani and Irani heritage).

 Do: Doctoral student (PhD) in political science.

Former education: LLB Law (Bachelors of Law), London Metropolitan University, UK, 2007. MSc International Administration and Global Governance, University of Gothenburg, Sweden 2011.

Three words describing the Department of Political Science: Inspiring, cutting-edge, fun

Best activity during leisure time: Being out in nature or cooking.