Imre Gergely Szabó (Political Economy track, 2016)

Imre Gergely Szabó is a post-doctoral research fellow within the ERC project 'Labour Politics and the EU's New Economic Governance Regime' at the College of Business and the Geary Institute for Public Policy at University College Dublin. His main research interest is the politics of labour and public service provision, with a focus on healthcare, education and the water sector.

DSPS alumnus Miklós Zala (Political Theory track, 2017) caught up with Imre at the beginning of 2021 to talk about his experience at CEU and his career after graduating.

Thank you very much for being available to us for this interview. Let me start by asking how did you end up at the Central European University? And why did you choose the Political Economy track?

For me, CEU was always on the radar as the best university in Budapest for postgraduate social sciences. My first experience with CEU was when I was doing my bachelor's degree at the Corvinus University of Budapest in international relations. In the first year, we had an introductory course on research design. We were told to go to CEU and ask for a visiting status at the CEU library to find the relevant international literature on our subjects that we wanted to research.

When I went to CEU for the first time, I ended up at CEU's dormitory on Kerepesi road because I lived in that neighborhood in Budapest, and I thought that that's CEU. They directed me then to the main Nádor building; this is how it started. And then fast forward to 2009 when I was graduating in international relations at Corvinus University.

I was also a member of a student-led college, "Társadalomelméleti Kollégium" (College for Advanced Studies in Social Theory). There we had very good courses in political economy, critical political economy and we invited great guests from CEU to hold public lectures, Béla Greskovits, for example. I also studied comparative political economy at Corvinus. CEU was always a career trajectory for those students who were members of these colleges for advanced studies at Corvinus (this is true for the other colleges, Rajk and Széchenyi too).

Then—long story short—I got into the one-year master's program in Political Science in 2009. The MA program was really formative to me and also very intense. After finishing the program, I did not apply to the PhD immediately. I took one year off, and then I decided I want to do a PhD. I also applied to other places (even abroad), but I knew that CEU would be high on my list because I had the experience. My decision was greatly influenced by the fact mentioned already that CEU was the best university in Hungary in the social sciences for postgraduate studies, in the sense that it had a well-structured PhD program with faculty I already knew, very good research infrastructure, international links, and a generous financial package. So, after my MA in 2009, I continued in the PhD program in 2011.

I remember that very well because—fun fact—we were peers both in the 2009 Political Science MA program and started our doctoral program in DSPS the same year.

Yes, we were!

You also slightly touched upon the second question: you had a serious interest and previous training in political economy. 

Yes, as I mentioned, I had previous experience in the field, and I always found political economy interesting. This interest had become stronger during my CEU MA. Most of my electives were in political economy.

It was almost an automatic direction that you continued from your undergrad studies through your MA to the PhD program with this research focus.

Exactly. And the work of the faculty at CEU also proved that it is possible to do comparative political economy on the discipline's own terms (rather than copying economics), and still achieve international success. I think Dorothee Bohle (who in 2017 moved to EUI Florence) and Béla Greskovits have been pursuing their career along these lines, and it was very important that this ideal was there for us at CEU. 

In my interpretation, this ideal is built on very high professional standards without being fixated on methods. Methods can be eclectic, and they should not take precedence over actual content. You have to be disciplined in doing your research, but you can rely on a variety of methods and sources: the analysis of the historical development of a case and descriptive statistics can yield just as valid insights as sophisticated econometric modeling and "big data." In the end, what matters is that you tell a logical, convincing, and readable story that speaks to the literature and is supported by traceable empirical material.

So, CEU proved that there is an alternative approach, and I already saw that from the beginning, and that's what made it appealing for me.

So, you started your doctoral program in 2011, and your first year was about intense coursework. How did that go for you?

The coursework was fine for me. But it was a difficult year for me personally, which had an impact on my studies too. Coursework wasn't really an issue for me because I came from the MA program, which was already very intense. If I had to compare the PhD coursework with that of the one-year master's, the latter was more intense than the former. If you got through the master's, then the PhD program coursework was not that difficult after all because you already had the previous experience. But what was challenging for me was the prospectus. The coursework was also fine because I was always good at processing a lot of information and engaging with the relevant debates. Still, when I had to develop my own research proposal and defend it, that was much more challenging. I think I could have focused a little bit less on the coursework and more on the prospectus in hindsight. But when you have coursework until April, you even have the comprehensive exam, and after that, you have only one or two months to submit the prospectus for your dissertation; this makes you very busy.

It's just a very tight schedule. And it wasn't apparent to me that it would be so difficult even though it was. I think there was a little contradiction in the setup of the first year that the coursework was so heavy, but that even for me who didn't have any problem with the courses, nor with the comprehensive, they still had to be done, but then you had less time to focus on the prospectus. So, in that sense, it was a real challenge.

I agree; the first year was really a time-management puzzle for most of us. Nevertheless, you managed to defend your prospectus. How was the prospectus defense?

I had a difficult few weeks, but in the end, the prospectus was fine. Later my work deviated a lot from the prospectus, but that's not a problem. I also had full support from my supervisor, which helped with my prospectus.

Who was your supervisor?

Béla Greskovits, I think as long as you have your supervisor's support and they see that this is something doable, you are fine. Of course, the defense still had to be done, but I think I did a good job with the prospectus. It was just a bit challenging to get there. Retrospectively, my prospectus was a good basis, but it wasn't a detailed research plan. Because, as I said, the coursework was so heavy that if you wanted to do that very firm research plan, then I think the full first year should have been about that. But I prefer remembering my comprehensive exam rather than my prospectus.

So, you could imagine a kind of structure when you need to take courses in the first year with the comprehensive and get another half a year or so, to work on the prospectus?

Exactly. I think that could be a solution. Or just have less coursework. Or, another possibility: to have the research design course, not one but for two semesters. We started to work on our prospectus proposal in that course, but the class ended in January.  So, having the course from January to April would have been helpful. But this is just one idea.

You defended your prospectus in the summer of 2012, and from then on, you could start working on your dissertation. How did your work look like from then on?

I was working on the project, but I think I only realized what would be my research's core argument after the third year.

Before that, I had been digging deep in the same area, but I thought I was a little bit running in circles. I was writing my dissertation on public sector trade unions. And the idea was that trade unions, in general, are weakening all across Europe, but the exception is the public sector. Health care and education are still unionized in most countries. So you have strong unions of teachers, nurses, and doctors. At first, I tried to make a broader argument about how this affects national wage developments and bargaining systems. That would have been an easier way to tie my research into a specific debate.

But I didn't know what exactly my contribution would be there. Then in the third year, I decided to focus on protests. The shift in trade union membership towards the public sector also means a shift towards more strikes in these areas compared to the private sector.

And I was looking at it more from a social movements perspective. So, my contribution was bringing together social movements studies and employment and industrial relations. And I think I enjoyed it more in the end, and that pushed me through the line. That was my process of arriving at the final version of my project and managing to finish my thesis.

But as far as I can remember, the topic of social movements was also kind of home turf for you.

Indeed, but political economy as well. So I could have pushed it more into that direction. But I thought that in the end, that was not my contribution, and I felt probably a bit more insecure in the area of national wage systems and production regimes. Again, there are trade-offs because, as I said, if I went to the wage bargaining direction, I would have fitted a group of scholars who were already working on similar issues. I went into the direction of social movements, which is trickier in terms of who you can speak to regarding the literature. You do not necessarily have a ready-made academic audience there; you have to create your own audience in a way. But it was more fun.

Have you had any visiting research semesters during the post-prospectus defense period? 

I did my sandwich semester at the London School of Economics and Political Science. It was an excellent experience, but it was also when I decided that I would give up my dissertation's wage bargaining aspect.

Did the fact of changing your research focus cause you some difficulties at LSE?

No, not really. But while I liked doing research at the LSE, I didn't particularly like the city. London was a bit…

Too big, too busy?

Yes, I was living in the middle of nowhere, I was commuting at least two hours every day, and I think London is just not a friendly city, it can feel very alienating. Luckily I made some good friends there, which helped.

How was your work with your supervisory panel?

As I already mentioned, I worked with Béla Greskovits as my supervisor, and we had a very good relationship. He took me seriously from the beginning, and while we did not have weekly meetings, whenever we had time to get together, he was very diligent. He read everything I sent to him, it may have taken some time, but once he had that time, I got a hundred percent of his attention. And at the same time, he never wanted to work his will on me in terms of what I should research. The dissertation was my own content as an independent scholar. It was always my decision, where I steered my research, which direction I was going. He acted really like a facilitator rather than somebody who tells you what to do and what not to do. Probably the term advisor fits him more than supervisor, and I am very grateful for that. And I really appreciate that because I saw many examples where that's not the case, and I think that's also a big advantage of CEU that it was my own project. I got genuine support as an independent scholar from somebody who is an influential senior.

Who were the other panel members, if you remember?

Achim Kemmerling and Carsten Schneider. Achim had more specific expertise in my field, so he was more involved in the process than Carsten. Achim is a more quantitatively-minded scholar than me; at the same time, he had an outstanding ability to engage with a qualitative approach like mine. It was good to have him there as a reality check.

Then, your doctoral defense came in October 2016. What was the composition of your defense committee?

The composition was the same as my supervisory panel, plus an external member, Niamh Hardiman from University College Dublin (UCD), where I work now. The defense was an excellent experience because it was not just a formality, but she was grilling me for one hour. But she was fair because she didn't really ask much beyond the written questions, but she was straight to the point in terms of how she was examining me. It was a proper examination, but it was fair, and it was a sign that I was being taken seriously as an academic. The defense was a great—and successful—experience.

Many scholars believe that it's the sign of utmost respect to your colleague if you try to give them a hard time with your questions and comments. Still staying with the pre-defense period, did you experience any difficulties?

Maybe the stipend. The stipend, although back then it was generous, it only lasted for three years. I think it's unrealistic to expect people to finish after three years or so when the first year is basically only coursework.

CEU provides 36 months of guaranteed funding to doctoral students, but then you have the opportunity for the Doctoral Research Support Grant (DRSG), and possibly you can have six additional months of Write-up Grant. So, that's a few months shy of a full four years of funding (48 months).

Indeed. So, I was lucky to get both the DRSG and the Write-up Grant. And I think the Write-up Grant has a smart design that also gives you this important final push. But I still needed to have a complementary research position when my funding ran out, and I was not quite ready yet for the write-up. And I was fortunate because Doro Bohle hired me as a research assistant for a project that was not precisely about my dissertation topic, but it was closely related.

It was a part-time position, so I had enough time left to spend on my dissertation. And then I got the Write-up Grant. But I think it would be easier for everybody just to have at least a three-and-a-half year-long guaranteed funding plus the Write-up.

I never had any problems with making ends meet from my stipend. But I remember the first time when rental prices started to go up in Budapest, which was difficult for many people. For them, the stipend didn't have the same attraction as it used to have. Due to the sky-rocketing rents, the stipend became less generous in real terms.

Do you have any solutions in mind to this problem?

I think an indexation of stipends would be a good idea. It doesn't have to be always the initiative of students to increase the stipend. This process should be more standardized. So, I think a good option would be the indexation of stipends that considers the basket of goods that PhDs are likely to consume. Of course, that is mostly housing; that's what matters for a PhD student. But it shouldn't be that students always have to fight for this. When we were doctoral students, our stipend was raised by 10% from HUF 200 000 to HUF 220 000, and that also was just a very ad hoc decision.

That's an important point indeed. Did you publish any papers before your defense? And my follow-up question is that did you defend a monograph or an article-based dissertation?

I did a few. I was lucky that on the side, let's say, I became a country expert on employment relations in Hungary. So, first, on the invitation of Marta Kahancová—who is a CEU alumna—I got involved in projects by the European Trade Union Institute. I was also working with Marta on a research project already before my PhD, where the work package leader was Doro Bohle. From the ETUI projects, I published contributions to edited volumes and journal special issues, which was good because they also fitted my dissertation topic. Thus, I did not need to work on something completely different. But I didn't want to become a country expert purely either. My dissertation was looking at four countries, and Hungary was only one of them. After I defended, I published an article related to my dissertation in a special issue of Transfer: European Review of Labour and Research. I also had my first unsolicited, single-authored article coming out in 2020 in the journal Economic and Industrial Democracy.

As far as the format is concerned, I defended a monograph.

The Political Economy Research Group (PERG) is one of CEU's most prolific research groups. Can you talk about PERG and your role within the group?

PERG is a student-faculty research group with internal seminars and public lectures. The seminars were a forum where we discussed each other's work in progress, I got some invaluable feedback there on my own ideas, and I enjoyed the discussions a lot. During the years when I was active, we had a good balance between qualitative and quantitative scholars and between those who were researching Central and Eastern Europe and those who had a more global focus. As far as I can tell, CEU's regional focus has become less pronounced since then, and the global ambition has become stronger, but I think CEU should stand equally on those two legs.

Those years were also special because there was continuity across generations in PERG; we had a critical mass of excellent PhDs, early-career academics, and faculty. There was a solid generation of PhDs before me, our generation was also strong, but we could rely on the path that was already beaten by previous PhD cohorts.

Maybe one critique that I have towards CEU is that many of these early-career scholars should have stayed on. The rigid policy of CEU not hiring its own PhD graduates, I think, is mistaken. I'm sure that there are good reasons for not hiring our own graduates, but especially for a place like CEU, loyalty should matter. And these people were there for years, doing their job excellently. In the end, they got permanent positions at other top universities in Europe. It is a loss for CEU that these people could not stay even though many of them wanted to.

Can you elaborate on your chairing PERG a little bit?

I was chairing PERG for one year, and it was a great experience. It was a lot of work, but I also got a lot of support from the faculty and the coordinators, mostly the Political Science Department and the DSPS. My role was mostly about organizing the internal seminars but also making outside contacts, inviting professors like the biggest names in political economy to hold lectures. One thing that I figured out a little bit is that I should have kept and nurtured these contacts way more because it would have been just nice to go back to these professors. They probably don't remember me anymore. So we had many big names, and maybe we could have taken advantage of those opportunities more.

Overall, our generation was very lucky to attend CEU between 2009 and 2016. It was such a safe environment. I mean, the clouds were already gathering, but it was just a great environment. Also, we received a lot of support, for example, free-of-charge, five-days a week on-campus general medical practice. This is crucial because healthcare is an issue in many countries. Again, CEU is a relatively small university, but it spent many resources on academic infrastructure, especially the Center for Teaching and Learning. I wasn't doing the formal teaching certificate because it just started when we were in the program. I also benefitted from the advice of faculty at the Center for Academic Writing, Eszter Timár in particular.

Let's move on to the next stage of your career. After your successful defense, you entered the job market at the end of 2016.

I hit the job market before my defense, as I was involved in the project I mentioned earlier, titled 'European Legitimacy in Governing through Hard Times: the role of European Networks' – ENLIGHTEN. I started as a postdoc affiliated with CEU in that project, and I was spending one exchange semester at the European Union Institute (EUI). In the same year, I was hired for the ERC-funded project "Labour politics and the EU's New Economic Governance Regime" as a postdoc at University College Dublin. That is my current job; it is a five-year postdoc position. 

I think that's very generous and probably the longest period a postdoc can get.

It's terrific that I have five years of stability. The project is also very interesting and ambitious academically. I am happy to be part of the team. It is still a fixed-term position. There's no guarantee that I will get a permanent or any position after I have finished. And I do not qualify anymore for a lot of early-career research positions. They all have this cut-off point at three or five years after you graduate. So, it's "up or out" in a way. But it's definitely a good starting point.

There are different factors to weigh, I think. If you have a one-year postdoc position, then basically, you cannot entirely focus on your work because you need to keep your eye on the job market.

Exactly, then you need to apply for the next job basically from the moment you start your postdoc.

With a two-plus-year postdoc, I think that problem is just solved. But I can accept that this five-year-long position can create its own problems. How did you find out about the opportunity in Dublin?

It was a public call, and it was also advertised on industrial and employment relations mailing lists.

Then you applied and received an interview invitation.

Exactly, I applied to one position in the same project, and I didn't get that, but then I applied to this one, and I was hired for this one.

How was the interview; was it difficult for you?

I don't know what constitutes a difficult interview, but my profile and research track record pretty much fitted the job description. But not fully, so I also needed to show some flexibility to start research on topics and areas that I had not been directly dealing with before. You probably never have a perfect fit when you are an external candidate for a job. So you have to prove that you have some fit, but also, because it's a group project, you have to make compromises and be ready to work on something that wasn't on your radar initially.

How did you find Dublin as a city?

I had some difficulties with Dublin, mostly because of its housing market. Again, we were so privileged at CEU because the quality of life that we could enjoy from our stipend in Budapest was really good. And for me, it was never an issue finding an apartment in Budapest because I was living there before. I had my network there, and I was sharing accommodation with friends. But in Dublin, it was just difficult to find a place to live in the first place.

Because is it too expensive or because there are not enough flats?

Both. So it's a real challenge; it was tough. I decided that I don't want to pay so much on rent in my first year. Thus, I moved in as a lodger to a family for the first eight months. It was quite far away from my workplace as well. And while the family I was living with was really kind, I thought at the age of thirty-two, with a PhD I would be able to afford to live on my own, which turned out not to be the case.

You were a bit too old for that.

Yes, and the first year of the postdoc was also very intense; I just had a lot of things to get used to. But then it was getting easier as I also had my own contacts, my supervisor there also helped me with contacts, and after a while, I was able to crack the housing market. It is still difficult and expensive, but when you see the options, then at least it gets a bit less tough. Housing is so fundamental.

It is slightly surprising because given that University College Dublin is a top-shelf place, you would expect that a postdoc salary is enough to rent a whole decent flat.

We are talking about Dublin, where it's tough to rent your own decent place close enough to your workplace. It's the housing market and housing policies' fault because the salary is not bad at all in a European comparison, but if you have to spend half of your salary on rent, it becomes less attractive.

It's similar to the situation in London.

I think it's worse because it's a smaller city, so there's less supply.

Can you talk a little bit about your future plans? I guess your main goal after this prestigious five-year postdoc, your primary goal is to find a tenure-track job.

Yes, that would be ideal, but as we all know, it isn't easy. I should start applying to posts as I have less than two years left from my current position. To be honest, I'm not looking forward to it, but it's inevitable.

You like the city of Dublin and UCD, where you would consider staying in the long term. Would you think about applying overseas, for example, to the US? Or if you cannot stay in Dublin or Ireland, do you still want to stay in Europe?

Starting with Dublin, that's definitely one option, and setting the housing issue aside, it's a very welcoming city, so I never felt discriminated against because I'm not from there. And UCD is also very conscious about being international. So it was never an issue that I'm not Irish, and that's an excellent thing.

Also, UCD is a big university that is strong in social sciences. So I could have my networks there. If I could get a tenure track in Ireland, that would be an excellent option, but I'm flexible. I would nevertheless be happy to be closer to Hungary. I'm also doing research on Germany, and I speak some German; I am also currently a visiting fellow at Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin. Therefore, going to Germany could be one option, but the academic job market is difficult there, apparently. Many of my former PhD colleagues got permanent jobs in the Netherlands and Switzerland, and I'm mobile. For me, the more important thing is that it should be a permanent position rather than where it is, but of course, it matters that it should be a university with an international outlook. But again, there are a lot of good universities now or all across Europe.

There are, indeed. Final question: what do you like to do in your free time?

I like swimming. I'm delighted to live close to the sea in Dublin; I love to swim in the sea. Swimming and seafood are two things that I like and, of course, reading and listening to podcasts. And while I don't do it too often, I also like cooking.

I'm sure that you read a vast amount of political economy literature, but what kind of books you like to read if you don't want to read something necessary for your work?

I do like infotainment books and pop-science. I recently read a book about medicine; it's titled Dr. Golem: How to Think about Medicine, by Harry Collins and Trevor Pinch. It's a very easy-to-read book on the scientific background and contradictions of medicine. But I also like reading fiction, but sometimes it's more effort to switch to fiction, but it's terrific when I do that switch because then it's very relaxing.

Thank you for being available for the interview!

Thank you very much for having me!

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