For Doctoral Program Applicants

Please consider this a personal reflection on the application process. As things change, some of my comments may become less valid. For any official or current information please contact the relevant people found through the official channels of the university. 

People from different parts of the world frequently send me and my colleagues requests about the possibility to apply for doctoral studies in world politics. This is wonderful. We are truly flattered by your interest.

It is, however, sometimes difficult to find time to respond in detail to everyone separately. Therefore I decided to spend a couple of summer mornings to write these lines, with the disclaimer that these are my personal reflections and do not necessarily reflect the position of the department nor that of all my colleagues.

World politics is one of the most popular study fields at the University of Helsinki, and we have over many years had an exeptionally high number of applicants (both undergraduate and graduate). As the resources for teaching and supervision are limited, we do not want to overcommit ourselves by taking in too many applicants. We want to be able to provide an inspiring atmosphere for those who do join us. For potential PhD students, this means we need to consider various factors before making a decision.

We have basically three different criteria for the acceptance. While it is sometimes possible to compensate deficiencies in one category by truly exceptional merits in another one, you do need to qualify on all three counts. Of the three criteria, the first two are more technical ones, and if you want more information on them, especially the first one, please do not contact me but the relevant people in our faculty offices.

A key requirement is that you need to have concluded a master’s degree with sufficiently high notes. In the Finnish system, we in world politics and other branches of political consider the grade magna cum laude to be the minimum requirement for the master’s thesis (in some other parts of the faculty, a slightly lower grade of cum laude is the minimum requirement). You can probably find out somewhere what these grades mean, but in any case magna cum laude is clearly higher than average, For foreign applicants, we will try to assess the level of the grades so that the requirement would be equivalent.

Another criterion is that you also need to have your master’s degree in world politics or a field in social sciences that is sufficiently close to and relevant for the study of world politics. Even if we aim at a transdisciplinary learning environment, we want to you to have a fairly solid knowledge of our field already before you come here. The field here in Helsinki used to be called international politics (near-synonymous with IR as in International Relations), but it was changed into world politics a few years ago. The latter is a slightly broader term than the former. I sometimes tend to emphasize that world politics is something quite different from IR and can therefore include a significantly wider variety of topics and backgrounds. Do not, however, count on excessive flexibility in this regard. Even if I said in the inaugural lecture of my chair that even Latin American rock music could be seen as a topic for world politics, you really need to work hard to convince me (not to even mention my colleagues) if you come from backgrounds that are not obviously world political.

The third requirement is in some ways more subjective, and it is the one I want to emphasize here. It is related to that we want to make sure we can provide the students with as good opportunities for learning and writing their theses as possible. Therefore we tend to take in only students who, apart from having all the other qualifications, present a doctoral thesis plan that is not only of high quality but also related to questions we feel qualified enough to supervise. In most cases this means that one of our own teachers needs to be able and willing to become your supervisor. It is sometimes good, but never necessary, if you have other supervisors also elsewhere.

The best way to find out if one of our teachers might be a suitable supervisor is to look at our websites and perhaps Google around. In my case, the parts of this blog where I tell about my research interests should give you an idea of the kinds of areas I feel I might be a suitable supervisor. I also have another site that deals with my research interests at and I often use my Twitter microblog for research debates. I do not want to discourage you from contacting us directly, but try to get all the relevant information before you do so.

Unlike some other universities, we want you to present a research plan already when you apply. Feel free to ask us about the relevance of your planned topic, but at the same time remember that we cannot start supervising the preparation of the plan. Also, we cannot fully commit ourselves to the project before you officially present your application. We can perhaps individually indicate to you that your project sounds potentially interesting. This kind of initial expression of interest is something you may want to mention in your application. The final decisions, however, always depend on our collective assessment which we make after we have all the applications.

We concentrate our assessment energies for the two moments of the year when you can officially submit your application. These are normally in November and May. Please do not expect us to go through elaborate documentation before that. In other words, in your possible contacts with us before the official application, try to be as concrete (and brief) as possible. If you send a provisional research plan before the official application deadline, please make an abstract of a few lines where you describe it for us who may not have time to read the whole thing very soon. Also, please state also briefly whether you have a master’s degree, in what field and with what qualifications, since we may not have time to find these things out in your attached documents.

Remember that sometimes people (including myself) may be hesitant to open attachments sent by friends they have not yet met. It is therefore great if you could squeeze all the relevant information in a few lines in the main body of your message. In the subject line, you may want to put something like “Helsinki World Politics Doctoral Study Inquiry” so the message will not get so easily lost.

One more thing is that we often get research proposals that can be wonderful and fascinating but really do not have a world political dimension. Even if it should sound obvious, experience tells me it is worth mentioning that the fact that someone does political research on a faraway place does not in itself mean that it is world politics.

Please think clearly about the international, transnational or global dimension of your doctoral research. If it is not really there, then you should probably present your application elsewhere. Sometimes the applications we receive can be more suitable for our colleagues in other branches of political science (political studies and administrative and organizational studies) or, for example, in development studies. We have various kinds of collaboration with our colleagues in these and other fields, so even if you apply for their programs, you are not necessarily all that far from us.

I will be happy to hear directly from those of you who feel I might be a suitable supervisor for your thesis. Please be clear and concise. I have probably overcommitted myself over the past years with many doctoral thesis projects. Therefore I have recently been very cautious not to take in new projects unless I feel very confident that I will be sufficiently motivated by the project. Now that various of my doctoral students are getting their degrees finished and defending their theses, I might be able to consider new projects, but still only very few.

My method of supervision is probably more informal than that of some others. I try my best to be tolerant of formality, but if you are intolerant of informality, you should find more suitable supervisors. I also find it important that I myself can learn from your project and this also means I want to be enthusiastic about the topic. Until now I have not been very active in trying to copublish things with my doctoral students (maybe also because I recently spent a period as Head of Department which limited my time for publishing anyway), but it is something I feel I should try more. Working together toward a publication might be a good way to deepen a dialogue about questions related to a dissertation.

As you may find out, I have been relatively active in some social movements and have various kinds of normative commitments (often related to questions of democracy and human rights).  This, however, by no means implies that I would want to supervise only like-minded people. Creative disagreement and debate also about normative questions can be very meaningful.  Just to give an example, even if I sometimes publicly express very critical comments on some nasty things transnational corporations might be doing, one of my doctoral students is a director of one of the biggest telecommunications companies of the world writing on things related to his company. Then again, the two doctoral students who quite recently defended their dissertation supervised by me worked on the Zapatista movement and on the clash between Finnish pulp and paper companies and the Landless Rural Workers Movement in Brazil.

Well, there must be other things I should have pointed out. Feel free also to suggest other questions that I should talk about here. One obvious thing is funding. As you know, one nice thing about Helsinki is that we do not charge a tuition fee, not even for doctoral studies. Then again, everyone needs to find food and shelter, and Helsinki is certainly not one of the cheapest places to live. There are some funding opportunities in Helsinki, but they are very seldom open for doctoral students at the moment when they apply. This is clearly a problem we cannot do much about. I am also not the most qualified person to give detailed information about general funding opportunities. About this you need to ask elsewhere.

For official information on the postgraduate studies at our Faculty of Social Sciences, see here:

For more information on the general admissions policy of the University of Helsinki, see here:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.