"Train the next generation of political scientists"

Interview with Colin Hay, Director of Doctoral Studies in Political Science
  • Colin Hay, Full Professor at Sciences PoColin Hay, Full Professor at Sciences Po

Are you interested in pursuing a PhD in political science? A key discipline taught at the college level, political science is also one of the pillars of research at Sciences Po. What kind of research in political science does Sciences Po do? How does one select a PhD topic in this discipline? Colin Hay, director of studies in political science at the Doctoral School, offers some advice and answers.   

Tell us a little about your career up until this point and your research interests which seem to focus much on the politics of economic choices

Like many things in my career, it was largely by fortuitous accident I ended up studying Social and Political Science at the University of Cambridge.  And it was, again, good fortune that led to me being offered a funded doctoral studentship in the Department of Sociology at the University of Lancaster doctorate under the supervision of the incomparable Bob Jessop. My work has always cut across interface between disciplines – initially sociology and political science, but increasingly political science and economics. I have, in short, been no lover of disciplinary boundaries – which is part of the attraction of France and Sciences Po in particular, where such boundaries are more porous than they are in the Anglo-sphere!

The early part of my career (gosh, that makes me sound old!) was split between the US and the UK. I taught at the University of Birmingham whilst having visiting affiliations at, first, Harvard’s Center for European Studies and, subsequently, MIT’s Department of Political Science. After three years I returned full-time to the UK where I eventually became head of the Department of Political Science and International Studies at Birmingham, before taking up the post of Professor of Political Analysis at Sheffield. There I co-founded the Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute (SPERI), a little like our own MaxPo. It was also there that, for my sins (clearly considerable!), I was appointed to chair the committee responsible for evaluating the quality of research in UK politics and international relations departments from 2010-15 (the famous REF). In addition, I now edit or co-edit three international journals: New Political Economy, Comparative European Politics and British Politics.

My research interests are diverse, ranging widely from the contemporary condition of political disaffection that affects the advanced liberal democracies, via the development of the state and the welfare state in the post-war period, the comparative political economy of neoliberalism, European integration and globalisation, to the ontological and epistemological foundations of political analysis. These seemingly disparate research strands are linked by a common concern to interrogate and elucidate processes and mechanism of change together with a desire to identify, discern and draw attention to the politics inherent in all socially consequential choices. That approach is often described as ‘constructivist institutionalism’. It is developed in a number of books, including, Political Analysis (2002), Why We Hate Politics (2007), The Political Economy of European Welfare Capitalism (with Dan Wincott, 2012), The Failure of Anglo-Liberal Capitalism (2013) and, most recently, Civic Capitalism (with Anthony Payne, 2015). With Andy Smith (of the IEP, Bordeaux) I am currently completing the co-edited Dictionnaire du Capitalisme for Les Presses de Sciences Po.

At the beginning of the academic year you were appointed director of doctoral studies in political science. What do you find interesting about supporting the studies of PhD students?

The first thing perhaps to say is that I am deeply honoured to be invited to direct the doctoral programme in political science, which is rightly famous and deservedly so. I feel an appropriate sense of responsibility! But it is also an extremely exciting role, in that one is (hopefully) helping to support the next generation of political scientists at a time when, at least in my view, political science is as important as it has ever been. Of course, political science is important precisely because of the profoundly challenging nature of the times in and through which we are living – political science is important, if you like, because our political problems are immense. I hope that the next generation of political scientists are rather better at fashioning solutions to the problems that I fear my generation has been better at describing than resolving. And if that proves to be the case, they deserve every support we can give them, making my responsibility all the greater!

What do you believe are the keys to successfully completing a PhD? 

That’s a good question. I am not sure that general advice is always that useful – what works for someone doesn’t necessarily work for everyone. But a few things do immediately strike me. First, a doctoral thesis is an intervention in the scholarly debate and a contribution to that debate - and it is and should be assessed and evaluated in those terms. A thesis is not (and certainly not just) the demonstration of an expertise in a specific and often highly specialised field. It needs to tell us something that we would not otherwise know or to encourage us to think about a problem or issue in a way we would not otherwise think about it. As such, having a thesis is about having a position and having an argument to defend – and only then about defending the credibility of that position. It helps, I think, to be clear about that from the outset.

Second, a doctoral thesis is a long thing (especially in France!) – almost certainly at the moment it is finished the longest thing one has ever written. And that means that it needs to be written differently from the much shorter things one typically writes. It needs to be highly and tightly structured and, above all, the argument made needs to be very clearly identified and sign-posted throughout. If one is in any doubt, just return to an academic book that one really likes and re-read it not for the argument, but for the form in which the argument is presented. A good piece of advice is to strive to emulate that form.

Finally, good doctoral theses are easy to read and easy to understand. Erudition is great but there is no reason, in my view, for erudition to become an excuse for inpenetrability. A good argument can be simply stated. Or, put differently, one does not have a good argument (worthy of defence as a thesis) if one cannot state it simply. That is perhaps the best advice of all – but it probably applies to my colleagues and myself just as much as anyone else!

What advice would you give to students seeking to pursue a PhD in political science at Sciences Po? 

Again, that’s a great question, but not a simple one. The first piece of advice I would offer is perhaps slightly controversial. It is try to chose not only a thesis topic, but a thesis topic in combination with a supervisor. The supervisor-doctoral student relationship is crucial (or at least should be) to the thesis written. So, read the work of your potential supervisor, try to get to know how she or he thinks and ask yourself the simple but crucial question, ‘could I work with her/him’?

And the second piece of advice is just as simple: share your enthusiasm and passion for the topic you have chosen in your application. In the end, a doctoral thesis is and must be an argument (and the defence of that argument). That implies a certain passion for the subject-matter and a desire to resolve the puzzle that animates the thesis. If one can encapsulate that in one’s thesis proposal one is half-way there already. One needs, in short, an answer to the following question: given the near infinite number of things I could propose to study, why would I pick this and choose to devote 3-4 years of my life working on it? Most students wishing to write a doctoral thesis know the answer to that question; but relatively few manage to share it with us in their application. 

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Photo: Colin Hay, Full Professor at Sciences Po

Credits: Caroline Maufroid / Sciences Po

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