NU Step to PhD: Zhanibek Arynov, a postdoctoral scholar at NU GSPP

Our next NU Step to PhD rubric guest is Zhanibek Arynov, Postdoctoral Scholar at the NU Graduate School of Public Policy. Zhanibek obtained a Ph.D. degree in International Relations from the University of St. Andrews, in the UK. His research interests include Central Asian geopolitics, Kazakhstan’s foreign policy, EU-Central Asia relations, and international identity, image, and perception studies. Zhanibek joined the Graduate School of Public Policy in July 2019.


Could you please tell us about your educational and professional background?

My educational background is in International Relations. I was one of those naïve youngsters who truly believed that an educational background in International Relations would help me to become a diplomat. With this childish dream, I went to Al-Farabi Kazakh National University in Almaty from 2008 to 2012. However, I quickly realized that becoming a diplomat is not the only or even the main path for graduates of schools of International Relations. After my undergraduate studies, I worked as a junior researcher in the Institute of National Studies, an Almaty-based small research center, where I was introduced to the world of academic research. This experience inspired me to pursue a PhD degree. I obtained my doctoral degree in International Relations from the University of St. Andrews, in the UK.     


Tell us about your doctoral research?

My doctoral research scrutinized relations between the European Union (EU) and the Central Asian states. The reason that I chose this topic was twofold. Firstly, as students, we grew up reading the textbooks and articles about the ‘New Great Game’ in Central Asia, which implied that Central Asia was the ‘heartland’ of the Eurasian landmass given its strategic location and rich natural resources; thus, major powers were said to compete for influence over this very important region. In this regard, the academic focus had mainly been on the US, Russia, and China, whereas the EU was a relatively less salient topic, which did not attract much scholarly attention. I was curious to learn and study more about the EU and its roles in the region. It was more of a subjective choice. Secondly, the ‘New Great Game’ narrative mainly focused on external powers and what they wanted and did in Central Asia. The Central Asian countries were merely treated as ‘pawns’ of that ‘game;’ accordingly, their agency was not paid enough attention. My intention was to study EU-Central Asian countries through the eyes of Central Asians, that is, I focused on how Central Asians perceived the EU and their relations with the EU. In that sense, the general idea behind my doctoral thesis was to emphasize the limitations of the ‘New Great Game’ narrative, so popular in the past. 


What is the applied value of your work?

International relations are always a two-way movement. Therefore, mutual perceptions, how actors perceive each other and how they interpret each other’s intentions, are critical for the development of their relations. The applied value of my work, I believe, was that it showed to what extent the EU and the Central Asian countries have similar and different views on the state of their relationship. It showed that there was a visible mismatch of perceptions on certain issues, for example, on norm promotion, which was hindering the improvement of mutual relations in this sector. Based on the empirical findings of the paper, some policy recommendations were made to the EU.  


What can you tell us about the process of writing your thesis?

Writing a thesis is a long and thorny path, which requires effort, perseverance, confidence, communication skills, diplomatic skills, interest in the topic, passion, and also much caffeine. It is always a back-and-forth process, with lots of ups and downs. The most important in this process is the movement – you have to always be on the move. The final product is the outcome of this constant movement, with both failures and successes.    


Please, tell us about your future plans?

My only future plan is to develop as a researcher and professor and become a recognized scholar one day. Currently, I am in the process of expanding my research interests to look beyond the EU-Central Asia relationship, and even beyond the Central Asian region, which has been my main geographical interest so far. I will be mostly focusing on cross-country and cross-regional comparisons in the coming years.  


What would you advise to future doctoral students?

Firstly, pursuing a Ph.D. degree should be a deliberate decision. Secondly, I personally think that PhD is more about a process rather than a topic. Of course, studying a topic of your interest makes the whole journey more enjoyable. But, still, I don’t think it is the most important aspect. You can study EU-Central Asia relations or relations between ants and bees, or any other topic – the topic is not the most critical aspect. For me, learning how to independently do research was more important than the topic as such. Thirdly, I would also advise making full use of the networking opportunities that a Ph.D. journey provides. Your academic networks will help you a lot later, so consider this from the very beginning.