Academic Role Model (ARM) is The Political Science Club’s latest series in which various professors, researchers, and academics from the field of political science, international relations, and any related inter-disciplinary social science, are being interviewed by the members of our community with the sole purpose of presenting a potentially-inspiring life story that shows just what it takes to succeed in the world of the academia.
Our first Academic Role Model is J.D. Eyassu Gayim, Senior Lecturer at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden.
The interviewer is Vlad Costea, founder of The Political Science Club and master student in comparative politics at the Faculty of Political Science, University of Bucharest (currently studying at Sciences Po Paris as an exchange student). He has had the pleasure of meeting Associate Professor Gayim in February 2013, when he took one interesting course which professor Gayim gave at the Institute of Global Studies – which left a long-lasting impression.
Vlad: Professor Gayim, it’s a great pleasure to have you for this interview as an Academic Role Model. Of all the professors I’ve had the chance to meet at the different institutions I’ve attended, you are definitely the one with the most diverse background. Prior to this interview, I took a look at your resumé and was intrigued by the diversity of your academic credentials. From the homepage of the University of Gothenburg I learned that that you studied in Ethiopia (Haile Selassie I University), France (International Institute of Human Rights in Strasbourg), Norway (University of Oslo), and Sweden (Uppsala University) and that prior to getting your current senior lecturer position in Gothenburg, you were not only a visiting scholar at San Diego State University, University of California in Los Angeles, University of California in San Diego, University of San Diego, and California Western School of Law but even taught in some of these universities. Are there other institutions that I have missed?
Eyassu: Thanks, Vlad. I am flattered to be included in the list of inspiring teachers. You have certainly identified most of the academic institutions I was connected to – except perhaps the different Finnish universities where I worked for some years as senior researcher or teacher.
Vlad: How did you manage to fit in so many institutions in your portfolio?
Eyassu: I had a strong desire to exploit what was available far away. However, I should also confess that the difficulty of getting academic positions locally after I defended my doctoral thesis has also served as a powerful push to aim for the outside markets. If there was an academic position in Sweden at that time I would not have taken my first post-doctoral research position at the University of Lapland, in Finland. I am glad I took that, not just because I learned a lot from the experience of living in the Arctic, but also because it later opened for me the doors in other Finnish universities. In fact, all the American visiting scholar positions you referred to earlier were tied to the completion of my research tasks for these Finnish universities. The take from this to your colleagues is simple. If you find the local markets drying up, look elsewhere. What you find over there may well be more important in the long
Vlad: How did you manage to develop the confidence which this kind of competitive lifestyle requires?
Eyassu: Studying in one American high school when I was only 17 prepared me to not fear the world outside. Again, when I was a doctoral student, I was also fortunate enough to get encouraging supervisors who would tell me to follow summer courses in Europe. The more I benefited from such exposure, academically and socially, the more I wanted to do it again and again, especially when I started to recognize that my CV too was changing positively. In the process, self-confidence gets lift off.
Vlad: What do you teach right now and how do they differ from your earlier teaching experience?
Eyassu: My earlier classes were concerned with international law, focused on international human rights law. I still give human rights courses at the School of Global Studies. However, I am also responsible for coordinating courses related to conflicts, economic development in Africa and ‘The Globalization Key Concepts’ course which you took.
Vlad: Did you have any other professional experiences prior to your university works? If so, how does it compare with your present profession?
Eyassu: After graduating from the law school in Ethiopia I started out as a bank attorney. That experience was not very stimulating or challenging intellectually but it was rewarding financially. I prefer the teaching profession, except for the stress that comes with it.
Vlad: What kind of stress are you referring to?
Eyassu: Most university teachers are caught up between different currents: the departmental requirements to discharge the usual obligations linked to the employment, the extra efforts one makes to satisfy the growing demands of the students, and keeping up with the competitive research work. All these come with deadlines – be it when preparing and posting the course modules, guiding the students in preparing their thesis, reading the paper assignments, exams, grading thesis or coming ready for the lectures. This stress is handled differently by different teachers. Some handle this with ease, while others get easily burned out. Needless to say, there are also teachers that admit they have never been stressed since the burden of workload placed on their back is simply not very heavy or shifted elsewhere. Hope this description of the teaching profession will not scare your colleagues from choosing it. There are, as well, many other positive sides to it.
Vlad: What are these positive sides?
Eyassu: This is a respected profession that is given credit by societies not least because it is in universities that students get educated, shaped and inspired. Most of the studies benefiting our societies are produced by university researchers and teachers. Because such studies benefit others beyond the country, the credit that is given to researchers or teachers is often not limited to the locality where the research was done. This is why their contributions are praised globally (e.g. by awarding the Noble Prize) or why we see rivalry to attract known professors. Only last week, when I booked my Lufthansa flight ticket I noticed that the personal information which the customer is required to indicate includes a box to tick if one has the title of a professor or doctor, thus showing again the importance attached to this profession globally. Leaving this aside, there are other benefits worth noting. Some teachers appreciate their work because it enables them to give, to help and to shape the young generation. Most like the fact that it offers longer free days during the summer and Christmas vacations or because they enjoy being connected to the intellectual world by participating in conferences where papers are presented. The salary too is appreciated by some, although this is widely challenged especially because the extra hours put are not compensated.
Vlad: Were you aiming or hoping to be a teacher or researcher one day? What was it like when you first attended the university?
Eyassu: I never thought I would end up being a teacher. The more I gave courses here and there the more I liked it. Perhaps it was because I started out by giving courses that have something to do with my research work – making it easier or more comfortable to do so, or because I am not a very shy person. Political science was the field that interested me most initially. I even showed up for the political science orientation class first before moving to the Law School. When I pursued my doctoral studies I took up a practical case dealing with the tension between international law and international politics: going back to my initial academic inclinations. This prepared me for the conflict classes which I was giving later, including at the political science department of San Diego State University, in California.
Vlad: If I was to aim for your kind of profession, what would you advise me?
Eyassu: If this is what you want, it will be a question of time before it becomes a reality. All you need to do is secure the academic position for the post-graduate study you like most and give it the time and energy it requires, believe in yourself and persevere. I don’t see why you will not end up being as good if not better than those before you – provided that you are given means for achieving it. You may even break new grounds by focusing on topics not touched before. We live in societies that are constantly changing and which need replacement for the old ones. The profession itself has two complementary parts: the research, and teaching components. The broader and deeper the studies one makes, the easier and more beneficial the teaching will generally be. Lecturing skills can always be developed or polished gradually through practice and pedagogical exposure.
Vlad: From your experience, is the academic world entirely meritocratic in the sense that it gives proper credit and recognition to those who work hard?
Eyassu: Universities are not islands detached from the socio-political environment that surround them, although there are many who claim or aim to be so. It all depends on the situation one finds himself or herself in. Where discrimination against women or ethnic minorities is a serious problem, talented peoples from these groups are usually excluded or marginalized no matter what talents they have. I have seen institutions that give credit to those that work hard. I have also seen the opposite – where scholars with exceptional merit were treated unfairly. I am thinking of cases where the hard work of some scholars has even been perceived by some of their colleagues as a threat. Rather that rewarding them, they are given hardship including to force them to quit. We have heard the same story in many other work places as well: people being forced to resign or change their jobs, getting depressed, or hovering on the brink because of work place harassment. It is indeed unfortunate, but I still feel it is a mistake to quit when pressured by those that are determined to achieve this goal, or even to pick profession by avoiding places that are known for such experiences. That will be like refusing to sleep because of the fear of exposure to nightmare. We just have to deal with it when it comes.
Vlad: How did you finance your studies? Did you obtain scholarships or funds? Did you rely on your own or on your family’s financial resources? Did you ever take a job that wasn’t related to your qualification just to be able to support yourself?
Eyassu: When I first joined the university there was only one of its kind in Ethiopia. It was not only free, we were even given free accommodation and meal, including cash if we prefer to reside outside campus. During my post-graduate studies I benefited a lot from scholarships that were granted for doctoral studies. Being from a developing country also helped me to benefit from the scholarships that were extended by European academic institutions during the summer. Of course, showing a good academic record was also expected. However, there were also times when I had to cover my bills through student loans or by working part-time now and then – work that even included cleaning in one hospital. There is nothing wrong in taking up any work when there is the need for it. I gained a lot from that experience. There are many scholarships that are offered to Eastern European students – worth examining. There are also the Erasmus scholarships offered to EU countries. Another way of subsidizing studies abroad is through student loans, including for studying in the United States.
Vlad: Let me turn attention to your field of research and teaching. How did you end up in developing interest in human rights, conflicts, and globalization? Were there significant events in the world you grew up in which have ignited within you a spark and a desire to know about such topics?
Eyassu: Human rights abuses and conflicts have always bothered me ever since I was a child. I think it was because I was brought up in Ethiopia at a time when the country was engulfed by complex conflicts and the disregard for human rights was very common. In fact, that was why I left the country in the end: not because I did not like the country as such. This did motive me to conduct studies on conflicts and human rights. My interest in globalization is relatively new and arose from the fact that I was asked to give that course because I deal with global questions. Since then, my interest over this subject has grown considerably. Globalization is here to stay and the needs of understanding what it entails will surely grow in the years ahead.
Vlad: Is there a publication of yours that is available, you are very proud of and would like to have everyone read?
Eyassu: One of my post-doctoral publication entitled ‘Interpretation and application of concepts in the politics of human rights’ can be of interest to those who appreciate the intersection between law and politics. It is published and circulated by the Institute of International Law and Human Rights at Helsinki University, and is not expensive.
Vlad: There are many university students who disregard the options of becoming researchers or professors and prefer to settle for professions that do not require further attainment of knowledge. If you could present to them one argument for becoming academics, what would it be?
Eyassu: You are right. That is not uncommon. Some want to form family at an earlier stage, and prefer to settle for the minimum. Higher university education takes a long time to say nothing about the costs. Even after going through this lengthy and costly process there is no guarantee for a job or the pay may not be that attractive. There are also those who feel content with what they have achieved in terms of knowledge. However, one should not forget that the working environment is constantly changing and becoming competitive. Bachelor or even Master degrees are becoming common – making specialization very important. So why not take advantage of the post-graduate education that is available freely, at least in most of the European countries. This may well change in the future. In competitive days like these specializing gives a better guarantee for future markets either at home or abroad. The teaching or research profession is one such example. It opens many doors for growing constantly. Campus working environment is also often more inspiring and relatively simpler (less materialistic) compared to other working places.
Vlad: If you were to turn back time is there anything that you would do differently?
Eyassu: I am relatively content with the academic routes that brought me to where I am now. Of course there are times when I feel that I should have done this and that or shortened the time that took me to produce this and that, or why have I not taken advantage of this or that opportunities. We choose our natural instincts when deciding on such matters. Very often that is the right choice since we are best positioned to weigh the different options. However, mistakes are also made simply because we feel too confident and choose not to consult those who know better or even reject advice when are offered. While self-confidence is good and necessary, it does not hurt to open up for an advice. Information and time are precious. That is probably one thing I would have done differently. A good example is my refusal to purchase one apartment in Sweden for 130,000 Swedish Crown decades back when I was advised by one cousin and I could have done it then. It now sells for well over one million Crown.
Vlad: What are your future plans – both on the short term and on the long run?
Eyassu: If I secure a research fund, I prefer to turn more attention to research. That is less stressful and the results could be widely appreciated. I know I can give more if I get the possibilities of concentrating fully on research, by using my teaching experience in the field of human rights, conflicts and globalization.
Vlad: Mr. Gayim, I thank you very much for the effort of going through all of these questions and sharing with us some insights on your academic background, it certainly was a pleasure to have you as our first Academic Role Model. Hopefully, your story will influence present and future university students who are interested in or at least thinking about pursuing an academic career.
Eyassu: You are most welcome, Vlad. To be selected by you as a source of inspiration to your colleagues in central Europe is a special honor for me.