Meet Our New Faculty Member: Melis Laebens

September 27, 2023
  • Please tell us a bit about your background and academic career so far.

After finishing my undergraduate studies in Economics and Political Science and International Relations in Bogazici University in Istanbul, I obtained my Masters and PhD degrees in Political Science at Yale University. Before coming to the CEU, I was a Postdoctoral Prize Research Fellow in Politics at Nuffield College, University of Oxford.


  • What has influenced your main research interests?

The political transformation of Turkey and its tragic decline into authoritarianism has shaped my research so far, and perhaps also played a part in my decision to pursue an academic career. My PhD project tried to understand why some governments or leaders that attempt to expand their powers at the expense of democratic institutions are able to do so, while others fail. It was for me a way of processing what happened to my country.


  • May we ask, what were you like as a student?

I was an attentive and eager student with high grades, but I was also chronically late to my classes - that probably really annoyed some of my teachers (and rightly so). I really enjoyed my academic studies at Bogazici, in particular the broad and diverse readings our professors assigned and the liberal arts spirit of the curriculum. It was a wonderful period of expansion; I still miss that feeling - PhD studies are much more professionalizing, there is less space for curiosity. Being able to pursue the double degree in Bogazici was a privilege, and so many faculty supported me in exploring different things. I feel very lucky about that, and it makes me even angrier and sadder that Turkey's government in the past years has been set on destroying this old, world-class and very special public institution, taking away the opportunities I had from thousands and thousands of deserving students.


  • What attracted you to CEU?

CEU's identity and experience have some parallel's with Bogazici's, just like Turkey's and Hungary's trajectories have parallels. I wanted to be here not just because this is an excellent institution to conduct research and to teach in, but also because I felt that the institution and its members stand and fight for the things that I also care about. The political science department is excellent, and my research interests, democracy and regime change, fall in the department's area of expertise. 


  • What are you most looking forward to during your time in Vienna and CEU?

Meeting students is a delight, I look forward to getting to know them better and seeing them progress in their studies and lives. I hope to be able to support students and researchers I meet, just like many of my professors did for me. I also look forward to collaborating with colleagues here in the department and at the Democracy Institute in Budapest. Vienna has so much to offer, I wouldn't know where to start! I look forward to discovering its local communities and culture.


  • Do you have any advice for current or prospective political science students at CEU?

It is understandable if you are impatient to further hone the skills you bring with you and to specialize. But while you do that, also keep an open mind, I would say. Make the most of your time in this world-class, highly international research environment by discovering new subjects, new countries and new methods. Don't be afraid to try something new in your studies, you never know what you might like, and what other abilities you may develop. We all have our strengths and the things we are not so great at, but this is still a stage where you discover those, and so what if you are not great at something? It still pays to have tried and learned things. Of course, be mindful not to stretch yourself too thin. It's nice to try different things but one simply cannot do everything at the same time, you do have to prioritize. One way to strike a balance might be to take, every term, both classes that you are comfortable in, and some classes that might be further out of your comfort zone. Another dimension to pay attention to when you pick classes might be to balance methods courses (which can get a bit dry) with substantive ones in your areas of interest, so that you will have some fun things to read.

My second piece of advice would be to help each other with your classmates and ask for help when you need it. Studying is more productive and more fun when one can support each other and work with others where possible. 


  • Why do you think people should study political science? And why at CEU?

Why study political science... I think we do it because we have some kind of passion for politics, and political science provides analytical frameworks and other resources to turn that passion into understanding. We cannot control political events, sometimes they take over our lives, but it helps I think to see things coming, to grasp why they happen, and to understand the conditions under which some things are more or less likely. In more practical terms, a political science degree provides not only knowledge of how politics works and an understanding that messy and sometimes nasty democratic politics is the only way to preserve political freedom (and I wish more citizens had those), but also a range of diverse skills that can be applied in different kinds of work, including professional writing, analytical thinking, professional communication and data analysis skills.

Why at CEU? CEU is perhaps uniquely placed between American and European research traditions, with command of both and networks spanning these two continents (and reaching beyond). Accordingly, students are exposed to different ways of thinking about politics and of conducting research. This probably makes the programs more challenging, but graduates are very well-prepared to continue their studies in different countries, or to pursue non-academic careers in different contexts. Furthermore, the high faculty to student ratio means that students are likely to get a lot of attention during their studies. The CEU's other advantage is its diversity - navigating very international environments is also a skill that one needs to build. Finally, the CEU's educational excellence is widely recognized internationally, which means a degree from the CEU likely to open many doors for students.