Name: Thomas Dörfler
Field: Political Science
Location: Tokyo, Japan
Occupation: JSPS-UNU Postdoctoral Fellow with the United Nations University Centre for Policy Research

+ Thomas' Alumnus Profile


▐  Thomas Dörfler tells us about the struggles of finding your own voice, his fascination with international relations and the UN in general and why he chose to go to Japan.


   Thomas, what drew you to your current field? And what interests you most about this field?

   T.D. I'm a scholar of international relations and for the last years I've been focusing on issues surrounding international organizations, particularly the United Nations Security Council. I've been interested in this topic since I started studying Political Science in Bamberg and, later, at Leiden University because it says a lot about different cultures and how the population of this planet can work together and live together. There are many issues in world politics and this has always fascinated me. Conflict and human rights violations, underdevelopment and climate change…that is why I began studying international organizations because they focus on what potential solutions to these global issues could be.


   Was there a special moment, for example you read something or heard a theory, and decided that this is the field you want to specialize in?

    T.D. I've been interested in this subject for a long time, even before I started studying it scientifically. But the moment where I started developing a scientific interest was in the second week of my bachelor's degree when I had to give a presentation on regime theory, which is one of the core international relations theories developed in the 1980s. It really fascinated me: How does international cooperation between states work, when does it work, when does it not work, why does it work, and so on. This was the moment when I realized that this is the direction I want to go in. In my second semester, I participated in the University of Bamberg's National Model United Nations programme and with this practical experience I was even more interested in what the United Nations can do about global problems. I was representing the Republic of Zambia, a country of the global south, in a committee in New York with about 200 students. Representing our country and simulating international politics is how I got connected to the UN in my studies early on.


    Yes, we saw that you stayed quite consistent all the way from the beginning of your studies to your dissertation topic.

   T.D.Yes, indeed. People sometimes lose their interest after a while but luckily, I didn't (or haven't yet).


   How exactly did you choose the research topic for your dissertation?


   T.D. I knew that I wanted my project to revolve around international organizations, the United Nations particularly. Thomas Gehring, who became my supervisor, had done a lot of research on committees, such as how committees in international organizations work and how the institutional structure of an organization affects the policy decisions made. He basically brought me to the idea for my research project when he told me that there are certain kinds of committees in the Security Council, the so-called sanctions committees. I found them quite fascinating and started to further develop this idea. This case was particularly compelling to me. The decisions taken within these kinds of committees are very important to states; decisions taken there are about matters of international security, about "high politics". Thomas Gehring's work was a good starting point and my work was a great addition to what he had been doing. He had the initial idea and then, of course, I took over from there and developed the theoretical and empirical work connected to the project.


   How did you manage to find your own voice within this dissertation? Maybe you can walk us through the process of your dissertation.

  T.D. It all started out with this rough idea: Let's look at these committees, how do they work and how do they shape the decision making of great powers – China, Russia, the US, etc. At the beginning, I knew nothing about these committees so it was difficult to get into it. I asked myself: What do I do? I went to the literature in search for answers: What kind of scholars have worked on this? How did they work empirically? What kind of data did they use? Did they use interviews? How did they approach their subject? What is missing in the literature?, and so on. And this is where I started: mainly reading a lot. You always should develop your own style and research approach because all the subjects covered in the Graduate School are special and there is no 'one size fits all' solution. Having a rough theoretical concept in mind, I scheduled interviews with the diplomats that work in such committees, as a kind of pilot study. I chose one of these committees that covered sanctioning Al-Qaeda terrorists, or suspected Al-Qaeda terrorists, and the questions were: How do sanctioned individuals get on the list? How do they get off the list? Basically, the procedural aspects behind these decisions. I went to New York for about 6 weeks in Spring 2012, so at the very beginning of my project, to meet with the diplomats who make these decisions. I conducted around 30 interviews during this trip. That is how I started. After that, I finished this first case study, then refined the theoretical concept and replicated the research approach for the other case studies of my dissertation.


    So you mainly relied on expert interviews?

   T.D.  Yes, I did more interviews for the other cases but did not use them to the initial extent anymore because I had learned a lot already and knew where to look. I also had used the interviews to obtain information on where I could find new sources. Interviewees directed me to documents or where to find special material that I was unable to access from Bamberg. I interned at the United Nations Security Council for two months. That opened some doors as well. You could go to the colleagues working in the committees and just ask them directly. I was also able to attend a sanctions committee meeting as an observer, which are not open to the public, just to get a feeling for it. So, I was really in the middle of it all.


   How important was having those interviews and meeting people, not only in the framework of your dissertation but also to establish connections and build a network to rely on later?

   T.D.  What's problematic about interviews is that these individuals, diplomats, or all kinds of interviewees, are very busy. They will only make time if they really want to help you or if they think they can get something out of it. And this second point was quite important in my case. At some point, I had already published an article and I sent it to the interviewees and got really good feedback. One of my papers was actually circulated within the Security Council as a must-read. Which is great. You can see that the work you're doing is also beneficial for professionals. I've been returning to New York every year and I still meet experts I interviewed or worked with, they remember me and surely, it's nice to know that my name is known to some degree. I've also been at the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs and they had great interest in my work as well. I sent them my papers and we met for a two-hour discussion. It's beneficial in terms of career development, absolutely, no doubt about it. Yet, all of it is based on my research that is of interest to others. 


   You're going to Tokyo next, right? How did this come about?

   T.D. When you know that you're about to finish – I got some final comments by my supervisors beginning of this year – then you know your financial support is running out and you need to look for new opportunities. I was introduced to the programme that I applied to by my second supervisor, Monika Heupel. She held the position that I'm now going to hold ten years ago. She pointed me to it and said she had a really good time there and that I should look for vacancies and apply. They did, coincidentally, have an open position. So, I took a few days and wrote my application, not knowing what my chances were. I had previously collaborated with my future supervisor on a book project and when I met him in February this year, I asked him about this opportunity. He was quite positive and said that my profile is a good match and he encouraged me to apply so that really left me with no alternative but to apply. The position I'm going to have is a Postdoctoral fellowship at the United Nations University and their Centre for Policy Research. The United Nations University was created to give the UN system an academic background. I think previously their focus was on issues of environmental protection and sustainability but they have a new rector and his approach is to do more policy research because it is a political institution. But that was missing, so, a few years ago, he created the Centre for Policy Research. It's quite a new institution and it's somewhere between a university and a think tank. They do in-house consulting for all kinds of UN agencies such as the Department of Peacekeeping Operations, the Department of Political Affairs, Economic and Social Affairs, the UN Development Programme, etc. These agencies could, for instance, request background studies or policy advice which is what part of my work will consist of and on the other hand I will be developing my own research project. It's a nice balance between working in a think tank and having an academic career.


   Do you already have an idea of the research project you will develop there?

   T.D. Yes, I already touched upon it during my dissertation because I was working a lot on an Al-Qaeda committee. When I thought about my potential topic in Tokyo, this is what came to mind first. I'm planning on researching multilateral cooperation in counter-terrorism. There is a growing number of research on how spheres of international organizations overlap in an issue area forming of institutional complexes. This may create new opportunities but also new challenges for global governance. I would like to focus on a case that is particularly difficult because it touches upon international security, transnational terrorism. For instance, there is the ISIS, Islamic State, militias that fund themselves mainly through exploitation of natural resources and trade in antiques or cultural heritage. I will look at how forms of cooperation between international institutions look like that counter that source of income or even how we can potentially constrain terrorist organizations from getting income from these sources. That is the idea I proposed and I'm hoping I can pursue this. I'm also doing interviews in New York again and writing policy papers so it's close to what I did but it's also something new.


   What kind of impact would you wish your work to have?

    T.D. I think it already had two kinds of impact and this is also what I aim for. The first is obviously an academic impact in international relations theory and advancing the study of international organizations in the broadest sense. This is the academic side, the academic contribution. But there is also the policy practitioners' side. I mentioned the article that was passed around in the Security Council, so my work is of interest to people who work in the field. For instance, those how work on sanctions, involved in the debate on whether sanctions work and or not, also practitioners in the field such as law enforcement, diplomats, foreign ministries and so on. It has been of some interest in the past and I hope it will be in the future.


   What kind of influence did the Graduate School have on your dissertation?

    T.D. Well I think there are two fields in which the Graduate School was very important. One is the financial side in terms of the financial, organizational support. I was a partly funded member so I didn't receive a scholarship but I used the funding to go to conferences and research trips. Also in terms of having your own office. This is crucial because obviously, you need to work somewhere. That was the institutional side. But the Graduate School was also very important in terms of an intellectual community because it gave you, in regular instances, the chance to present your project to an audience that was not necessarily familiar with your topic. People from the outside would give you advice on how to restructure your work and question what you're doing, your methodology, your data, your approach in general. The intercultural aspect is also very important. I can't really think of another place in a city like Bamberg where you can work with people from so many different backgrounds. That was fascinating. It was also a good place to get together and have a community of young academics. When writing your dissertation, you always write it for the first time so you don't know the dos and don'ts and there will be issues. There will be phases of frustration and it always helps to have good office mates to present your ideas to, that can help you if you get stuck with a theory or your empirics. It was very important for me to have a place to say: Can I talk to you? I am stuck; can you give me some advice?


   Did those internal conferences where you could present your work help?

   T.D. I presented a lot in the colloquiums and internal conferences. I presented something at least once a semester. I usually tried to present a whole chapter of my dissertation so it gave me an impetus to finish one chapter of the dissertation every semester.


   OK so it gave you structure, that's interesting.

   T.D. I think it was a good choice to do it that way, it's a lot of pressure but it also keeps you going. You always need to write something new or substantially revise your work and it's good to see what the feedback is. You're always working in your office, focusing on what you're doing and then suddenly you get feedback from someone who hasn't worked on the topic for six months and it's just impossible to write a dissertation without this kind of feedback. It just doesn't work. I don’t know anyone who can write an academic book from scratch without any feedback, this is essential.


   That would have been my next questions: How did you choose your supervisors and how was the work, the feedback?

   T.D.I've known Thomas Gehring for a while because I was a Bachelor student here. He supported my application to Leiden University by writing a letter of reference and he was generally very supportive. So, we knew each other for a while. I also wrote my bachelor thesis under his supervision, so he knew how I work academically. He had a vacant position that needed to be filled when I left Leiden, which was practical but I think we also work quite well in terms of our intellectual thinking. Of course, he had trained me but I think we share a lot in terms of how we see things and the research that we're interested in. That's very important for a doctoral student-supervisor relationship. I owe him a great deal for my dissertation, obviously. He was very supportive throughout the years. It wouldn't be the book it is without him. Clearly, he was very influential. You could always turn to him if you had issues: How could I approach this? What are ways to improve the thesis? Monika Heupel became my second supervisor. She had done research on UN targeted sanctions and the infringement of due process rights. She was an excellent mentor. Thomas Rixen completed a phenomenal PhD committee. He had the liberty to take a broader perspective on my work, which was extremely helpful, because you tend to get stuck on the details at times. I am indebted to all three for their excellent advice and support.


   How did you prepare for your disputation?

   T.D.On the one hand, it's an easy job but, on the other hand, it's an extremely difficult job. It's an easy job because you're the one that’s written all this so you're the one who knows your work best. On the other hand, it's extremely difficult to get 400 pages into a 20-minute presentation and picking out those aspects that you think are the best contributions to the field or those that stand out the most in your work. That was a challenging aspect. I asked myself what was revolutionary or a significant addition to the field. That's where I tried to lay the focus of my presentation and of the questions. You can't really prepare for the questions but you also don't need that much preparation if you've gone through the process. You will be very familiar with the type of questions you can expect. In the end, it was OK, it wasn't as scary as I expected. But that's probably the case for every examination you have. Simply go through your work, look at the points that you think stand out the most, that's a good strategy in approaching your defense.


   Well it was obviously successful. What advice would you give to doctoral students who are now in your shoes?

   T.D.  What I would recommend is that you need endurance and commitment. I think these are the most important qualities because all the other things can be solved along the way. It will be difficult if you're not fully committed and don't have endurance to go through times where there are issues or when you get stuck. You need to be able to get over it. You also need to go out and talk to people. You need to get out and expose your results to the world. That's the only way to improve your work: Talking to people, presenting your work to others, getting feedback. This is where interesting things happen, not in your office .



// Interview: Katrin Bernsdorff & Theresa Schmitz / Editing: Theresa Schmitz







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