Constantin Manuel Bosancianu is a research fellow in the Institutions and Political Inequality research unit at the WZB Berlin Social Science Center. He received his Ph.D. in Political Science in 2017. In his current work, he focuses on the macro-level drivers of political inequality between socio-economic groups, the linkages between political and economic inequality, as well as how to experimentally disentangle dimensions of political inequality. He is interested in causal identification, data visualization, and the history of Leftist parties.
DSPS alumnus Miklós Zala (Political Theory track, 2017) caught up with Constantin Manuel at the beginning of 2021 to talk about his time at CEU and his career after graduating.
Hi Manu! Thanks for the opportunity!
Hi! Thanks for having me!
Why did you want to apply to CEU's Doctoral School of Political Science, Public Policy, and International Relations? Why did you choose the Comparative Politics track?
That's a great question. I'll start by saying that my trajectory is slightly different from most doctoral students, but it is not unusual. I first came to CEU in 2008 to the Political Science MA program. That was the first time I got in contact with CEU as an institution. I finished my undergraduate program in political science in Cluj Napoca/Kolozsvár, and there have been mentions even back then of CEU. That's where I first heard of CEU's academic prestige and the caliber of the Department of Political Science's faculty. My BA program was a general one, it did not have specializations, in time I was drawn to comparative politics and topics like voting behavior. But I couldn't say that I had a specialty back then.
So, in 2008, I had contact with the Department of Political Science, and I remember that I was mainly interested in the courses on methodology and voting behavior, and comparative politics. So I ended up taking the courses related to comparative politics, although I did not get a certificate of specialization, as they used to offer back then.
When I was choosing schools in 2011, thinking of where I would apply to a PhD program CEU was somewhere at the top of the list. I had this previous knowledge of how the Doctoral School works and the quality of the research that is done there. You might say it's a combination of first, word of mouth, but also personal experience.
To get to the latter question, comparative politics, in many ways, felt natural to me. I was always interested in things related to party politics, voting behavior, and social research. Although the School is a diverse one, comparative politics is one of its core areas of expertise. So, I gladly went through comparative politics training and never considered any other specializations as political economy or public policy. As chance would have it, what I am doing these days is closer to political economy than comparative politics. There is an area where these two join and cohabit quite happily. So, it's not a giant leap.
I guess your strong methodological background helps you in engaging with political economy topics.
In certain ways, it indeed does. But I also think that there is a lot of exposure to different ways of doing research in my current position. There is a lot more primary data collection involved, fieldwork, and experimental approaches, which I did not have contact with back then. It has been an exciting ride where I learned a lot about running a project from the ground up. But it's a bit different from what I used to do during my PhD.
You were admitted to the doctoral program in 2011.
Quite unusually, I was a very late addition to that cohort. I showed up on Tuesday of the first week, coming to the classroom straight from a Berlin train. I spent the first two weeks at a friend's flat.
That's an unusual arrival indeed. What was your first impression of the DSPS?
I was very impressed in many ways. The first thing that struck me was that there was a high degree of personal attention. That was different from what I have encountered before in my MA degree at Humboldt University, where the central administration is extremely large.
So, you had a second MA after your CEU one and before DSPS.
Yes, that MA program was a joint venture of Humboldt University of Berlin and the Middle East Technical University of Ankara. It was also a political science program, but focusing on the connections and challenges regarding Germany and Turkey's relationship. Back then, one was an aspiring nation to EU membership, the other was increasingly the most crucial country in the EU, as far as financial matters are concerned. So, only after finishing that program did I apply to the doctoral program.
As I said, what struck me about DSPS was the high degree of personalization. But even when compared to Humboldt, or just CEU's MA program, there were thirty of us; for many of us, the first time in Budapest.
But in the DSPS doctoral program, you have a small cohort. It's about half the one-year MA program's size, and early on, people meet at frequent welcome lunches and events, opportunities to socialize. In many ways, you felt that there was a serious attempt to create a community. I remember showing up in my first class, and it was on political institutions with Zsolt Enyedi. That was the first time when I met with my cohort. I remember being struck that their interests were quite varied. There were people interested in case studies, as well as people more interested in statistics or raw data analysis. It did feel like a heterogenous group. So, you had the opportunity to learn a thing or two about, e.g., Turkey or Bosnia through your peers' projects.
But perhaps that's not that surprising given the many types of research, which fits the comparative politics label.
Sure, but as far as I am concerned, I, together with a closed group of friends, was deeply steeped into quantitative methodology. And many departments are known for their exclusively quantitative or qualitative program. By contrast, at CEU, there was an openness towards both quantitative and qualitative approaches and openness towards the CEE region and the Middle East or Latin America, or southeast Asia.
What was your impression about the courses you had to take in the first academic year?
I still remember a crucial distinction between core (mandatory) courses and elective (optional) courses. I usually tried to take elective courses in quantitative methodology. Then I took the usual core sequence of classes. With some of these classes, the general lesson settled in a little bit later, specifically for the political institutions course. I have to say that that is probably the most lasting course that I could have taken. It generated insights that you sometimes were aware of only a few months later. You thought of institutions and institutional change, and sometimes it does not happen very often, and it seems like it is not dynamic enough. Still, you realized how powerful institutions are in shaping political behavior and political dynamics over the years. You began to appreciate that that class had profound insights.
Then there was a class on the dynamics of political regimes held by Carsten Schneider, which was also very interesting. We studied democracies, challenges to democracies, autocracies, typologies of regimes. In many ways, I would say all of the classes had a very rigorous theoretical component and the desire that you would produce an empirical piece of research that would link those theoretical concepts to a real-life problem by the end of the class. In fact, in one of my courses in the first year, I wrote a paper on income inequality and challenges to political dynamics, and that later became the dissertation topic that I worked on for about five years. That was a new topic at that time, APSA had a task force on the challenges of income inequalities to democracy only in 2004 or 2005, and one of the big books on the topic had appeared in 2008-2009. So trying that in 2011 was a challenge.
That is usually an interesting research situation: if your topic is on a not-overcrowded topic, then it is more challenging, but the payoff of the research is also more rewarding.
It must be some Goldilocks principle there, as it cannot be too crowded, but it should not be completely empty either because then you don't know where to start it. So, there must be some hands that you can hold on to but also a large empty space to carve out a niche.
Who was your supervisor?
My main supervisor was Levente Littvay, Carsten Schneider was also in my defense committee. They and Gábor Tóka were my main contact points during my PhD. At the doctoral defense, there was an external member, Frederick Solt, from the University of Iowa. I spent one-and-a-half years as a visiting researcher during my PhD at the University of Mannheim, where Daniel Stegmüller supervised me. He was not my official supervisor, but rather my mentor.
Can you tell us how you got to Mannheim for such a long period during your doctoral studies?
As my third academic year ended in Budapest, I applied for an Erasmus scholarship to go to Mannheim. I chose Mannheim because it was one of the universities that CEU had an Erasmus agreement with. Maybe two months after getting there, I was informed by the academic coordinator there in Mannheim that there is a scholarship that the German Research Foundation offers for students who would like to be supervised by a local person, to apply and to come to Germany for six months to study. I was told that not many people usually apply because of the challenge of finding a German supervisor. Since I had this connection already, I asked Daniel Stegmüller whether he would be willing to sponsor my application. He told me that he would be thrilled to do so. So, I got an additional six months of funding to stay in Mannheim.
After that, I had the opportunity to teach workshops in quantitative methods in Heidelberg, which is very close to Mannheim, and this allowed me to stay a little bit longer in Germany.
When were you able to finish your dissertation?
When I came back from Germany in late 2016, I was sure that my comeback was about finishing the dissertation. Of course, I knew that there was still a lot of work ahead, but I intended to finish it. I started work on it; I added maybe one chapter to what I had initially planned as it felt that the dissertation needed a more qualitative chapter. I was able to submit the dissertation in June 2017.
At that point, around May, I had a job offer, from my current position at the Berlin Social Science Center (WZB). So, the goal was to defend my dissertation before my job was supposed to start in September.
How did you get that offer?
Around December 2016, I had to consider job market prospects and the places where I could go after the PhD. I started to apply for jobs. Perhaps an American scholar might find it funny that I hadn't submitted thirty-forty applications, only about five. I got an interview for this position, and I was informed by them a couple of weeks later that they would like to have me if I accept the offer. I accepted almost immediately, even though other applications were still on. So, I notified those other departments that I would accept this position. That was around June when there was a considerable amount of stress at the institutional level at CEU due to the Hungarian government's tactics. I remember needing to write a message to my current employer saying that I knew how this reads in the newspapers, but that I will definitely be able to graduate and take up the position; so, please bear with me!
Indeed. So, I submitted my dissertation in June and was able to defend in early August of 2017.
Since you had the job offer, you only waited to get the degree in your hands as quickly as possible?
In fact, the pace of submission and defense was just as planned. My job offer hadn't changed that. But yes, after the offer, I knew that I had to submit my dissertation in June at the latest to be able to defend in August.
Then you started your position in September.
Yes, on the 1st of September, 2017. I clearly remember that this was also the time of the American Political Science Association's meeting. In the first two-three days, my colleagues were still at the conference, so there were not many people from our unit in the hallways (laughing).
Is your job at WZB a fixed, short term position or a tenure track one?
This is a temporary job. It started as a postdoc with a three-year contract, which ended in September 2020. Then it was extended for a further three years, the maximum time it can be extended for.
In the current circumstances, getting a six-year postdoc is impressive.
Yes, you do get a chance to get involved in the institution.
Plus, it is also less precarious. It gives you some stability. You don't need always to keep your eyes on the job market.
True. Although many positions in Germany are structured like this, over two years to six years long, depending on the offer. Of course, this gives you more breathing room than some of the typical postdocs in the US, where such a position is frequently considered a layover station for a book project or for publishing a couple of articles on the way to a tenure-track position.
But having said that, there is a possibility to convert this position into a tenured one. Still, there are limitations to how many people could do this, approximately 20-30% of the current faculty. That is because we are a research-focused institution, so it's essential that new researchers come in with their new topics, and then they launch their careers. The further limitation is that only one person per unit can benefit from converting their contract to a tenured one.
In the light of your current position, what do you think about your CEU training?
That's a great question. Overall, the skills I learned at CEU were a great help to launch my professional career. There was always a focus on rigorous methods, academic honesty, productivity, getting papers out, and getting a wide knowledge of various political science areas. And that was true not only of comparative politics but of other tracks as well. In many ways, this is how current research is done: you take insight from psychology or political economy and try to adapt it to a new problem in public policy or comparative politics. From that perspective, the fact that DSPS allows students to venture into these areas represents a great asset, along with a focus on methodology.
I think—and this is true of every department, or institution—there is some space for greater efforts to prepare students very early on for the job market. I am saying this with the understanding that CEU has a specific place in the hierarchy of universities. By this I mean that a CEU graduate is unlikely to go straight to the US job market, though not unheard of. Instead, they might start somewhere in Western Europe or Central Europe and then venture out. So, for that component of the program where someone targets the US or the Western European job market, it would help to focus on practical workshops about coping with the job market. One always hears about the elevator pitch about your topic and things like that, but there was never a systematic emphasis on preparing a job market paper, which is more and more common for someone seeking a position.
Are you referring to a paper that you have to present at job talks?
Exactly. In my case, it was a chapter from my dissertation, but there are many other departments where students adopt a more paper-based thesis. They are always encouraged to carve out one of their dissertation papers and make it their "star paper." This "star paper" highlights what skills they have, what kind of thinking pattern they have, and what kind of research they do. That paper is then shopped around conferences and workshops, and more or less that single paper gets the most attention from the candidate's body of work during the PhD.
But you submitted your dissertation in the traditional monograph format. Did you have any publications before your defense?
That's correct. I opted for a manuscript-type dissertation. I remember being told something that I agree with even today—that a monograph is better for showcasing a student's theorizing ability. It shows one has the capacity to create a theoretical construct, take out parts of it, investigate them, and put it together to contribute to the literature. I think a monograph format does that better than a paper-based one. In the latter, the goal is to find interesting "nuggets" and results in different areas that might only tenuously connect.
I had a publication that came out before graduating in a mid-tier journal. It came out in 2017, but it was a long process. I started to work on the paper in 2014. That paper and the dissertation were the package I went to the job market with, along with my experience in teaching workshops. Having since heard about how other doctoral programs are doing this, I know in some departments, there is a much stronger emphasis on getting graduates prepared exactly for the specific job market they are interested in. First-year PhD students in a particular American economics program, for example, are asked to join job talks by senior PhD students who are just about to go on the job market. The first-year cohort is being told: "you have to work in the next six years to get to this level". In the last couple of years of their program, graduates are asked to continually work on their job-talk delivery and to refine their job market paper at several conferences and workshops.
I know that there is the Center for Teaching and Learning at CEU that does a little bit of that preparation, but I think it also would help to have more of this inside the DSPS as a mandatory part of the program. More or less like a job: it's a job from day one of the program, and you are constantly aware of the level that you need to reach, keeping in mind that your time is running out quickly. It also sends the message towards candidates that the job market is coming and that the process of selection for these positions is an even more competitive process. Because of this, it pays off to prepare early and thoroughly. However, I understand that DSPS is a relatively small school, and there are limits to what can be feasibly implemented.
What do you work on currently?
My research focuses mostly on theorizing about dimensions of political inequality and empirically analyzing what linkages are between these dimensions. My mentor emphasizes the value in focusing on the core or small dynamics that can be captured both at the level of a group and at that of a parliamentary meeting and turning these into a research project. One could then investigate why they vary across contexts, or whether there are any moderating factors, etc. Together with a colleague from the institute and with the head of the department, we launched a few years ago a project examining dimensions of political inequality at the scale of consultative meetings between citizens and politicians in Uganda. It was a bit of a leap for me because I had no previous contact with the region and because the research involves an experimental approach. We are randomizing bureaucrats' attendance to meetings and citizens' attendance to meetings, as well as examining dynamics and decisions made at these meetings. We believe that an experimental approach to the question of how to assess power dynamics will yield the most rigorous results. The completion of this project will hopefully be at some point this summer.
Moreover, the project will hopefully shape policy-making as well. The consultations are convened to get citizen input on a new citizens' charter at the level of the city, which will govern the relationship between the residents and the administration in terms of rights and obligations each side has. In a way, we are designing a data-collection process and generating insights that allow the administration to design a better document while also pursuing a theoretical topic in this context. This research yields great theoretical benefits and positive externalities in the sense of cooperating with public authorities, helping them do their job better in the light of the citizenry's expectations.
Do your colleagues have a thorough experimental background?
Yes, one of them is a behavioral economist, focusing on lab-in-the-field experiments, whereas my other colleague, the head of our unit, has been a leading proponent of field experiments in comparative politics for the last fifteen years. I am very fortunate to be able to work with them in this new endeavor. In the future, I hope to continue with experimental projects as I find them to be very rewarding; I'm hoping to focus more on economic inequality and perceptions of economic equality and how these spill over into political preferences. But I have to emphasize that the pandemic fundamentally hinders some experimental projects—you cannot make in-person interviews. It would also be ethically problematic to detract authorities' attention from their more urgent tasks. So, for several months our current project is paused.
What is the city in Uganda that you are cooperating with?
It's Kampala, the capital of Uganda, and the city hall is called the Kampala Capital City Authority (KCCA). In recent months we were able to secure funding for panel surveys in Kampala over the summer and fall of 2020 to assess how citizens cope with the pandemic and how it affects their household finances, mental health, and their preference for voting in the upcoming elections. So, since the summer, this was an additional project that we were involved with in Kampala. We are currently working on converting all the data that have been generated into publications and policy-relevant documents.
What are your plans for the future?
My first preference would be to continue here at the Berlin Social Science Center. But if an opportunity to do so will not come up for whatever reason, I will naturally look for positions at other institutions. My main goal is to stay in academia, and I would prefer to stay in Berlin. Even if I cannot stay in Berlin, I would prefer to stay in Germany, as I've been able to adjust relatively well to life here. But it is part of the profession that people need to move where the jobs are, and it is difficult to say where the opportunities will be given the disruption Covid19 caused.
What do you like to do in your free time?
Whatever free time I have—and academia doesn't allow for too much of that—I try to devote it to reading or cycling. One of the problems that many people are experiencing is pressure to put more time into research, so it becomes vital to carve out some time during the week when you say "no work will happen". That is very important for mental health.
What kind of books do you like to read?
I usually read non-fiction, historical accounts, for example. But I also like to read books that are academic but not directly related to my topic, such as historical political economy, e.g., how medieval cities developed, why the industrial revolution happened in Europe and not elsewhere.
I guess you are going to read some Polányi at one point.
Ha! Yes, there is one of his books on my shelves. The two recent books that I have read are the first volume of Hilary Mantel's Cromwell trilogy. That is a historical novel about Thomas Cromwell, a minister of King Henry VIII. The writing brilliantly captures the nature of political power. The other is non-fiction, by sociologist Didier Eribon's Returning to Reims. It is about his inner struggles of being an academic with a working-class background, understanding the linkages between his identity and working-class background, and how his professional development came about as a rejection of this background. I wouldn't say that these are fascinating hobbies, but the takeaway point is that it's crucial to make room for these in one's life because it is very easy to get absorbed into more work, which is detrimental to health. So, whether it is reading, or bungee-jumping, or cycling, or anything as extreme or dull as it might be, it is essential in one's life.
Thank you very much for the interview!
Thanks a lot for listening to me! I hope it will help future graduates.
No doubt, it will!