Doctoral studies offers a good mix of guidance and freedom


As a doctoral student (PhD) in political science Luca Versteegen conducts research on right-populist voting. He thinks a doctoral position is a fantastic opportunity to work on something that is societally relevant, intellectually challenging, and often fun.

Luca Versteegen
It is hard work pursuing a Ph.D. Research is often about rejection, criticism, and uncertainty. But according to Luca Versteegen research is also about creativity, clever thoughts, and coffee!<br /> Photo: Emelie Asplund
Photo: Emelie Asplund

Can you describe your research?

"What are experiences driving right-populist voting? There are several lay theories – “the old white men,” “the left behind,” frustrated singles, etc. – and there is scientific research, which has established various predictors of right-populist voting. However, we know little about where these objective predictors and general experiences come together. In my Ph.D. project, I argue that to better understand right-populist voting, we need to study experiences resulting from single predictors, which then motivate voting behavior. More specifically, I plan to test various concepts that may help to approximate such experiences, such as subgroup identity, inclusion, and nostalgia."

I think it is a gift that we are allowed to conduct our own research!

What makes your research interesting?

Right-populism is highly relevant in many societies across the world. My research is closely intertwined with everyday life. Tweets, media reports, and interviews with politicians constantly help me to not get lost in theoretical models or scientific analyses but to stay in touch with the purpose of this project. I want to understand why some groups in society feel the need to vote right-populist. Ideally, understanding these experiences may help to reframe them, which, eventually, could lead to making right-populism unnecessary.

What made you apply for a Ph.D. position?

Since my Bachelor’s, I am interested in scientific research. Since I first realized that there is something like politics, I want to know why people vote the way they do. What drives them to vote right-populist? A Ph.D. in political science offers the fantastic opportunity to work on something that is societally relevant, intellectually challenging, and often fun. The Department of Political Science here in Gothenburg offers a cool environment for a Ph.D., such that it gathers a crowd of smart, inspiring, and engaging researchers. Moreover, because of my research interest, I figured Gothenburg to be an interesting context, as its culture and societal structure may contribute to experiences explaining why people won’t follow right-populists the way they do elsewhere, for example, in the US (and, also interesting, when they actually vote right-populist). Finally, whereas Gothenburg is beautiful and close to nature, the fact that a Ph.D. is time-consuming and challenging in itself suggests that you better live somewhere undisturbed by sunny beaches.

How is this education structured?

The 4-5 year program offers a good mix of guidance and freedom. Several courses in the first year help to flesh out the research proposal, to challenge one’s ideas, and search for alternative accounts. Still, the program is centered around your project and interest and helps you to find relevant materials for subsequent years. The Ph.D. supervisors further guide the process, streamline the research and cool down the researcher when needed.

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

I think it is a gift that we are allowed to conduct our own research! Pursue what you are interested in, understand better and try to improve what you think is highly relevant for society, interact with inspiring people, meet for conferences, and talks, teach others what you’re passionate about, and get paid for that! – to me, that’s a combination rarely seen in other professions.

Pursuing a Ph.D. also means very hard work. Research is often about rejection, criticism, and uncertainty because things often are not as simple as we initially thought. But research is also about creativity, clever thoughts, and coffee! And there’s good news: often, when someone outside academia approaches me saying that there’s a problem, I already think of extensive lit reviews, series of talks, and unpublished manuscripts, and then I realize that problems outside the academic world are often solvable. I feel that while being lost in one’s project, it is important to occasionally step outside and see that things are actually not that difficult, especially when there’s creativity, clever thoughts, and coffee.

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

Having started my Ph.D. during the COVID-19 pandemic, I can only say that the university’s internet tools seem to work well. People are friendly, open, and supportive. The city is cool (cold and nice), and the living conditions are quite good once housing is found. I’d suggest building a third bridge across the river, but that may be beyond the scope of this interview…

What plans do you have after the dissertation?

Right now, I’m just happy that I’ve started a Ph.D. that I like. I can imagine studying all the questions raised during the Ph.D. when I’ve completed it. Alternatively, I could also very well imagine leaving academia after some years or at least combining it with some work in other fields, where people are less skeptical about the newest results that you’re so enthusiastic about.

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

People should be enthusiastic about what they do. Research tends to own both professional and private life, meaning that I even read about right-populism during my leisure time. However, this also means there is sometimes too much overlap between work and private life. I’d emphasize interest, a good personal structure, creativity, and persistence. And you mustn’t take criticism too seriously: people will always criticize your work, but this doesn’t mean they criticize you. A good dose of self-enhancing strategies is an asset to enjoying this amazing field.

More about Luca Versteegen

Age: 26

From: Hamburg, Germany.

Do: Doctoral student (PhD) in political science.

Former education: B.Sc. in Psychology at the University of Hamburg. Research Master (M.Sc.) in Social and Behavioral Sciences, Tilburg University, The Netherlands.

Three words describing the Department of Political Science: Supportive, challenging the status quo, international.

Unimagined talent: I’m good at writing short stories. If my academic career doesn’t work, I’ll become an author and make all the non-supported hypotheses from my research true in fiction writing, perfectly supporting my keen theories.

Best activity during leisure time: Running! Running is always the best activity; Running away from challenging tasks during working hours, running to explore the city and forests during leisure time.