In this interview, Coco Tait speaks with alumni Motasem Abuzaid (MAAS ‘22) and Azim Wazeer (MAAS ‘21), who are both currently doctoral candidates in politics at St Antony’s College at the University of Oxford.
Coco Tait: Tell me about yourself. Where are you currently and what are you working on?
Motasem Abuzaid: I am a DPhil student in Politics at the Department of Politics and International Relations (DPIR) at the University of Oxford (St Antony’s College), where I work on the intersection of identity, urban politics, and political violence in the Levant and Iraq. Specifically, I intend to examine how the built environment may shape the salience or resonance of ethnic or sectarian cleavages and generate divergent trajectories of urban violence in these states.
Azim Wazeer: I’m a DPhil (PhD) student in Politics at the University of Oxford. The route here has been circuitous to say the least; I was originally a business major at the undergraduate level, and worked for about a decade before I returned to academia (first at our beloved MAAS program, and now at Oxford). I also happen to be a Sri Lankan born Canadian, who grew up in Saudi Arabia. My project at Oxford revolves around new developments in state-society relations in the GCC states, and the political importance of sovereign wealth funds for their post-oil economies.
CT: What are your research interests, and if applicable, how have they evolved throughout your academic career?
MA: My research is broadly concerned with the study of local identities and political violence under authoritarian contexts in the Middle East from an interdisciplinary perspective. This includes the examination of coercive formations in such regimes and how they intersect with sub-national affiliations. Growing up in Damascus as a Palestinian, I developed an interest in understanding the multiple layers of surveillance in Ba‘thist states and their socio-economic roots in the post-colonial period. That was the subject of my first master’s research in Sociology at Marmara University. I built on that experience by exploring the varying patterns of hirak (sustained mobilization) in different cities and neighborhoods during the first year of the Syrian revolution. My master’s thesis at Georgetown, therefore, examined the spatial history of urban resistance in Damascus and Aleppo as a more nuanced interpretation of urban collective action. It relied on qualitative methods (drawing on interviews and political memoirs) in addition to spatial modeling and analysis (based on mobilization datasets).
AW: My current research interests include the broad study of rentier and monarchical political and social contexts, and more specifically their political economies. Of course, from a case perspective, I have long been interested in the GCC states, with a special focus on Saudi Arabia given that I spent twenty years of my life there. While my case focus hasn’t changed, I originally began my return to academia with an interest in studying nationalism through the lens of history. Eventually though, I grew to be more interested in how states and societies negotiate nationalism in their relationships across different aspects of social and political life in the present day. This prompted my journey into political science and my current research interests.
CT: How did your time at MAAS prepare you for your pursuit of a doctoral degree at Oxford?
MA: The MAAS program was critical in my understanding of the current theoretical debates and gaps concerning the Middle East. The interdisciplinary range of views helped me identify new ways to approach research questions that I have reflected on for some time. Indeed, in my MA thesis at Georgetown and ongoing research, I examine political science questions with combined insights from sociology and critical geography. Moreover, the program offered me the freedom to proactively explore and the chance to access a network of mentors and supportive friends in Washington. It also helped me understand the institutional landscape of doctoral programs in the US and Europe when it comes to Middle East-related research. For instance, there is a small network for the sociology of the ME as opposed to other regions (e.g. Latin America or Europe). So, given my research interest, I had to make a disciplinary shift to Political Science, operating within a growing subfield of urban politics that is more receptive to interdisciplinary methods. I only managed to learn these subtle differences through conversations with faculty members at CCAS, which proved very useful in polishing my applications for doctoral programs.
AW: MAAS was an ideal home for me as I returned from the cold of the “private sector.” While my business career was helpful and taught me much, academia was an itch I had wanted to scratch for a long time but had ignored. Upon returning though, I wanted first and foremost to study a region that fundamentally shaped me, as opposed to any specific social sciences or humanities discipline. In this way, I was able to explore diverse disciplinary approaches while constantly focused on a sense of place and community that mattered to me in a distinctly non-abstract way. The opportunity to engage with our wonderful faculty across anthropology, history, politics, and other disciplines ensured my return to academia was not siloed into one way of thinking, while the case-focus ensured I was always motivated. Once I knew I wanted to apply for doctoral programs in political science, MAAS provided a great community of peers and professors to support me through the journey, from sharing the misery of application seasons, to writing letters of reference on my behalf. And when I look back at the literature I read in my MAAS politics classes, I know I was well served in getting acclimated to what it would eventually mean to be focused on a discipline first; our professors knew how to get us engaged with the important discipline-wide debates while always drawing from MENA cases.
CT: Do you have any advice for current students and alumni interested in pursuing a doctorate?
MA: Try to develop, to the extent possible, a sociological understanding of knowledge production concerning your field of interest. This includes knowing the kind of networks (e.g., academic departments or research centers) involved in this process, available resources (e.g., funding, archival access, or datasets), and current debates or gaps in the field. The former two will guide your choice between institutions within and beyond the US, while the latter would help you signal your know-how of the discipline. Such a process may take some time, so it would be better to actively reach out to academics or doctoral students in related departments. Their insights can organically lead to better reflections on which research interests to focus on and where to pursue them. Lastly, give yourself some time (a year before application ideally) to understand the requirements of different programs and prepare accordingly.
AW: I went through two application cycles before I was successful so my first and most important piece of advice for anyone seriously considering this path is that you shouldn’t give up. There are so many contingencies at play when you’re an applicant that have nothing to do with how good your file might be that you shouldn’t be dissuaded. That said, I continued to learn more about what it meant to apply to doctoral programs and how to shape a profile by the time I submitted the second time around. In that spirit, consult widely: with peers who are applying, alums and other friends who are in doctoral programs, and your professors. Engage with them about the programs, the disciplines, and the debates you’re interested in, and feel free to ask if they’d take a look at your statement of purpose. Folks are happy to return favors they were likely paid when they were going through the application cycle. And do yourself a favor by getting a jump on it over the summer before the application season. Lastly, and this is cliché, but make sure your heart is truly in it – the life of a doctoral student is not for the faint of heart and the overwhelming majority of jobs beyond being a professor simply don’t need the degree.
Coco Tait is the CCAS Events and Program Manager.