‘I Learnt a Lot about Conducting Researches’: Mir Ali Askerov on Master's Studies and Changing Academic Track
A lot of prospective master's students would like to try a new academic track which is different from their bachelor's degree. Mir Ali Askerov, the graduate of Master's programme ‘Comparative Politics of Eurasia’, tells about his experience in changing the academic track, gives some tips to the prospective students and recommends books which would be helpful for future researchers.
— How did your journey at HSE – Saint Petersburg start?
— I graduated from HSE – Saint Petersburg Bachelor's programme ‘Asian and African Studies’. During the studies, I took interest in political processes in the Middle East and political culture of the countries I was studying. This interest helped me to focus on the Master's programmes in Political Science for my future academic career. I especially liked the syllabus of the Master’s programme ‘Comparative Politics of Eurasia’. The obvious advantage was that it is the programme of HSE — I did not want to leave this university. In addition, I knew some of the lecturers because they had delivered some courses during the bachelor's degree. It created a special atmosphere: I did not have to move to a new environment, but stayed in the place I knew, but transferred to the next stage of education.
— What is the focus of your research?
— By the fourth year of my bachelor's degree I had focused on studying various Islamic political movements. During the studies, I was paying more attention to terrorist and extremist organisations. While studying them, I took notice of moderate Islamic political parties which aim to participate in political processes with the help of elections and other legitimate tools. As time passed, I understood that this sphere is more interesting than the topic of prohibited organisations, as their trajectory of development repeats in most cases.
When I started my master's degree, I decided that it would be interesting to study moderate Islamic parties and movements. I chose a particular country, Tajikistan, because for a very long time, in comparison with other Middle Eastern countries, there existed a legitimate Islamic political party. When I was a first-year student, I wrote a term paper about it, but for my thesis I opted to change the thematic focus and concentrate on Tajikistan only. My academic supervisor and I arrived at the decision to dwell on the topic ‘Role of religious institutions in the internal policy of Tajikistan: from national consolidation to legitimation of a state’. This research focused on state religious institutions which were founded after the civil war in Tajikistan in 1997. I formulated a hypothesis on certain changes in the role of these institutions in the internal policy and tested it via expert interviews, qualitative content analysis, and methods of historical analysis.
Oddly enough, the topic of my PhD dissertation is related to the term paper of my first master's year: the dissertation is devoted to Islamic political parties in the post-Soviet area. At the same time, I understand that I should expand the research field on PhD programme without limiting it to one country. The topic of my research is up-to-date and, in fact, under-studied because the researches usually focus more on threats of extremism, an increase in religiously motivated violence and ignore moderate Islamic political parties. For example, such parties played a crucial role in the events of ‘Arab Spring’ that is why it is important and interesting to keep watch over them.
— What impressions do you have after studying on the programme ‘Comparative Politics of Eurasia’?
— I liked the academic staff a lot, and I enjoyed being in the same environment with the compassionate people who were ready to help. I did not look into Political Science on the Bachelor's programme, so firstly there were a lot of questions and misunderstandings while I was mastering the material. Each lecturer answered the questions in details, it was useful and pleasant.
While studying for my master's degree, I learnt a lot about conducting researches. After graduating from the Bachelor's programme, I understood that I had a good set of knowledge on the region I was studying, but lacked applied information. It was hard to turn the knowledge I had into a comprehensive research. As a result, everything I wrote back then was a summary in the form of a report. The Master's programme gave me an opportunity to develop my skills in this sphere due to the corresponding courses: studies of qualitative methods and research seminars with András Gál and Elizaveta Potapova. These courses intentionally focused on research methods and technology, which was extremely helpful.
The whole programme is delivered in English, which was a very interesting experience for me as well. I graduated from the Russian-taught programme, there were not so many English-taught courses. First, it seemed scary, but in the end everything worked out well: the level of my written English improved massively.
— Why did you decide to apply to the PhD programme ‘Political Science’?
— I had thoughts about building an academic career when I was a first-year master's student. But back then I did not know which direction and university to choose. At the beginning of the second year, I was offered to become a tutor in the Department of Asian and African studies, so I did not want to leave Saint-Petersburg. That is how I chose HSE University – Saint Petersburg again: I was familiar with the environment, lecturers with whom I had good relationships, and I even had an idea for a PhD research. I discussed it with Oleg Korneev, my academic supervisor, and after that I consulted Andrey Scherbak on how to apply. Oleg Korneev even recommended me a prospective academic supervisor–Stanislav Shkel.
— What advice can you give the prospective students of Master's programme ‘Comparative Politics of Eurasia’?
— The first thing I would recommend is not to worry much. It is a piece of advice especially for those who, like me, do not have background knowledge in political science. It will be easy to adapt with the help of introductory courses and responsive lecturers who are always ready to work with students and clarify complicated topics.
Another piece of advice is to take the choice of topic for your term paper seriously when you are a first-year student. Moreover, you should not postpone written assignments on the night before the deadline. It applies to master's thesis as well, especially if you want to pass the exams successfully and be enrolled in a PhD programme. It will be hard to do both at the same time. You should devote March and April to the PhD programme deadlines only. If you correlate the term paper topic of the first year with the thesis topic, you will put much less effort into writing the latter.
The curriculum is structured in the way that many courses require writing final essays. You can use them in the thesis if you decide on the topic clearly and in advance. In this case, willing or not, you manage to write it consistently and produce its constitutive elements within various courses.
The last recommendation is to pay attention to the quality of written assignments. It is better to write it in a good way right away. In that case, you do not have to correct it to add to the thesis chapter, which helps a lot.
— In your opinion, which three books should young political-science researchers have on their shelves?
— As I am a political scientist-orientalist, the books I will recommend are about the East. The first one is ‘The Impossible State: Islam, Politics and Modernity’s Moral Predicament’ by Wael Hallaq. In this book, the author explains many aspects of Islamic political culture. After reading it, you will have a completely new view on political movements and parties. The second book may seem trivial, but it is the classics: ‘Orientalism’ by Edward Said. The third one is ‘Understanding Political Islam’ by François Burgat.
In 2022 Master's programme ‘Comparative Politics of Eurasia’ offers prospective students state-funded and fee-paying places for foreign students. The detailed information about admissions is available on the programme webpage and in the section for the prospective master's students of HSE University in St. Petersburg.