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The State of Doctoral Research
on Contemporary Ukraine
by Dominique Arel

Chair of Ukrainian Studies, University of Ottawa, Canada

Presented at the Conference “Ukraine in the World: Fifty Years of Ukrainian Studies at Harvard University,” Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute (HURI), 11-12 May 2018

Since 2005, the Chair of Ukrainian Studies at the University of Ottawa in Canada has had the privilege of hosting an annual international research conference on contemporary Ukraine, called the Danyliw Seminar, named after a foundation in Toronto. The Seminar includes a number of doctoral students. As we are taking stock of the state of Ukrainian Studies at this conference, I thought that I could rely on the participation of these doctoral students at the Danyliw Seminar to assess trends that may not be apparent to most of us.


The first caveat is that the Chair in Ottawa is in the social sciences. I am attached to a political science department, and so are my students (except one who is in sociology). HURI, CIUS (and other programs at the University of Alberta), as well as the Toronto Chair have built their reputations in the humanities, and we saw our mission in Ottawa to focus on social science research. We thought initially that this would exclude history, but it took us only two years, by 2007, to realize how mistaken that was, with historical memory being thrown at the center of post-Orange Ukrainian politics. We quickly realized that the study of contemporary Ukraine had to include contemporary history, which in practice meant the study of 20th century Ukraine. In other words, the cohort of doctoral students that we are examining are from the social sciences and the history of the past century — not literature, linguistics, folklore, or pre-20th century history, generally understood as the humanities.


Between 2005 and 2017, 196 people were on the program of the Danyliw Seminar, an average of 15 new participants every year, which is itself is a sign of the vitality of the field. (Several made repeat visits over this time span, but they are counted only once). Of this number, 58 were doctoral students (at the time of their visit if they came back later). On average, thus, between 4 and 5 doctoral students present their research at the Seminar every year. The database I will be using for my remarks is thus based on 58 doctoral students over a period of 13 years. I could have used a larger database, since I have also been in charge of the academic program of the ASN Convention for the past two decades, with a large Ukraine section (we had 24 panels/events on Ukraine in early May in New York). An ASN database would probably yield three to four times as many doctoral students working on Ukraine, and I could certainly build one in the near future.


Yet there are definite advantages in relying on a Danyliw Seminar database. The first is funding. The Seminar covers all expenses for participants that are selected, which is not the case for a large Convention like ASN. This makes quite a difference for graduate students, especially those from Ukraine, as it is rare that Ukraine-based students can get funding on their own. The Danyliw Seminar has the means to identify very good students from Ukraine and bring them over – enabling us to draw inferences on graduate student research in Ukraine. 


The second advantage is that a Seminar, by definition, is much more selective than a Convention, as there are far fewer slots available. Overall, only between 15-20 percent of applicants are accepted by the Seminar. What this means is that those making it are cumulatively the strongest with, in principle, greater opportunities of remaining active in academia, and in Ukrainian studies in particular, after their doctoral studies. I could add that a cohort of 58 doctoral students is large enough to make some general observations.


The first observation concerns gender. Forty of the 58 doctoral students are women, a proportion of 68 percent, a complete reversal of the older generation represented on panels at this conference. From the beginning, I could always see with my own eyes how the field had changed since the mid-to-late 1990s. Among all Danyliw participants (nearly 200, as I indicated earlier), the proportion of women is actually at 55 percent. But I never realized, until I computed the data, that it was so high among doctoral students. Upon closer inspection, however, we can detect a definite ethnic factor (or more broadly ethno-territorial).


As we all know, Ukrainian studies in North America (or before the war, in Germany and Czechoslovakia) was a creation of the Ukrainian diaspora. (I didn’t mention interwar Poland, since to categorize Polish Ukrainians as a diaspora is obviously problematic). We learned at this conference of the extraordinary fund-raising effort in all corners of the Ukrainian-American diaspora to make the creation of HURI possible. Understandably, the first generation of Ukrainian studies scholars were almost entirely from the diaspora, first and second generation, with a few notable exceptions. The demography of the field began to change dramatically in the 1990s after Ukraine became independent and an increasing number of non-ethnic Ukrainians, or people whose relatives did not hail from the territory of Ukraine, became interested in the study of problems that could be investigated in Ukraine. In our Danyliw doctoral database, a slight majority (53 percent, or 31 of 58) do not have a Ukraine connection. Roughly speaking, we can say that the field is now half connected to Ukraine by biography, and half unconnected, which is probably the sociologically normal equilibrium for an area study. In other words, the field has become legitimized among graduate students. It has a lot to do with statehood, but also with the fact that, when everything is said and done, Ukraine is an open society, which allows for a great variety scholarly research. Unlike Russia, there is a dynamic civil and political society to investigate in Ukraine.


The other half, those doctoral students with a personal link to Ukraine, can be divided in three different types. The first is the Ukrainian diaspora, which is by far the least numerous, with only 2 of our 27 students. The field used to be dominated by either first generation (born in Europe) or second generation scholars (born abroad of parents born in Europe), but there are very few third generation doctoral students. They have been replaced by students either from Ukraine or born in Ukraine while residing abroad at the time of the Danyliw Seminar that they participated in. We had 10 Ukraine-based and 15 Ukraine-born students at the Seminar. (I should add that a few of these Ukraine-born students were borderline diaspora, since they came with their parents as teenagers before they embarked on graduate studies).


A stunning statistic is that 84 percent of these Ukraine-based or Ukraine-born doctoral students are women – all but four in a group of 27. This in itself explains why more than two-thirds of our Danyliw doctoral students are women. As I mentioned earlier, the gender breakdown of the entire Seminar over 13 years is 55 percent-45 percent favoring women. The same proportion applies to doctoral students without a personal connection to Ukraine. Those with a direct Ukraine connection, however, are overwhelmingly women. Why? I can only hypothesize that socio-economic conditions in Ukraine have an asymmetrical effect on gender, with young Ukrainian men disporportionately not opting for an academic path, either in Ukraine or abroad.


The discipline breakdown is also surprising – certainly to me. All but three students were from four disciplines: political science, sociology, anthropology and history. The surprise is that only 22 percent (or 13) were in political science. Yet the Chair is based in the political science department, four of the five scholars on the selection committee are political scientists (and so were two of three others who were members in earlier Seminars). A plurality of our doctoral students were historians (20), with 13 sociologists and 9 anthropologists. What accounts for this relative downgrading of their own discipline by Seminar organizers? The first point is that it is not a self-conscious effort. As with the gender breakdown, it is only now that I realize that the proportion is so low. Doctoral students are on average one-third, sometimes less, of the overall participants in any given Seminar, where political scientists tend to be well represented, which is why these trends may not be obvious even to us. More substantively, what makes proposals stand out is a promising theoretical argument with a solid empirical base. It is the latter criteria that appeared to have given a comparative advantage to historians and sociologists. Put differently, political science applicants are not as strong as they should be on field work. A caveat is that the boundary between political science and sociology is porous, particularly in Europe. Two of my French colleagues on the selection committee actually call themselves political sociologists.


The European factor is significant. If we include those based in Ukraine, a touch over half of our doctoral students are from Europe. If we exclude them, a little more than a third are Europeans, 40 percent of whom are Ukraine-born. This points to a clear shift from the previous generation: Ukrainian studies outside of Ukraine is no longer predominantly North American. Expectedly, the UK, Germany and France are of doing well. The outlier remains Russia. Prior to Maidan, we never had a single proposal from a Russia-based doctoral student that we considered strong enough for an invitation. In fact, we received comparatively few proposals to begin with. The remark by Sherman Garnett, twenty years ago, that hardly anyone in Russia is seriously studying contemporary Ukraine remained true well before the tension between the two states reached a breaking point. We had our first student in 2015, and would have had two more in 2016 and 2017, except they could not get a visa – at all or on time. These three candidates were affiliated with the European University in St. Petersburg, whose existence is now under threat in Russia.


How well are these students faring on the job market? Fifteen of them, or about a quarter, have found tenure-track appointments in universities. An additional five are affiliated with research institutes, all in Europe, but I do not have additional information to establish the degree of job security that these appointments bring. While these numbers may appear to be on the low side, I must point out that we are dealing with a moving target: a dozen of our doctoral students are still doctoral students, six more have postdoctoral fellowships, and four have teaching contracts that may or may not lead to a more permanent situation. We could plausibly get to a point where half of the cohort, perhaps a little more, have secure appointments. Three more have institute or programn staff positions that keep them connected to academia. Overall, only 13 of our cohort, or 22 percent, are either no longer in academia or could not be accounted for. 


In closing, a few observations on the research agenda. Nearly 30 percent of our students work on topics related to civil society, with a core on protests (Orange, Maidan). This reflects the strong presence of sociologists and anthropologists in the pool. The flip side is that only a couple work on regime politics (democracy, authoritarianism), the kind of research that Lucan Way and Serhiy Kudelia have been leading. And only two touch on the rule of law. In other words, our students shy away from the state and are attracted to non-state actors. Access to respondents and data may be a factor at play. Fourteen, or almost a quarter, work on World War II, often with an additional focus on how war events are interpreted in memory narratives. They touch on all the difficult questions: the Holocaust, the police, the Diviziia, the Polish-Ukrainian war, and the deportation of civilians. Seventy percent of our history doctoral students work on World War II.


Three final remarks. First, the study of the Holodomor at the graduate level is only beginning. We have had two candidates and there appears to be quite a few more in the emerging cohort. Second, the study of gender is on the rise. I can see that among my own students at the Chair and on ASN panels. Third, the most glaring absence is that of security studies. The proposals are not lacking, but we have not had a single paper-based presentation over the years by a doctoral student. This could be a bias on our part, as the political scientists in our group are all in comparative politics, and not international relations. There are, however, persistent methodological issues: either too descriptive (such as following the conditionality process in the EU), lacking originality (as in the discourse analysis of dominant tropes), or normative (oriented more towards policy than theory).


Running the yearly Danyliw Seminar is an exercise in discovery – discovering the rising generation. The findings have been most encouraging.

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