Un regard en arrière - entretien


Susann Heinecke is Programme Director of CIFE's trilingual Master programme – MAEIS European Policy and Governance, and coordinated the PhD Support Programme EUCACIS (2016-2020) until its conclusion in August 2020. Previously, she was contributing to the Horizon 2020 project SEnECA (Strengthening and Energising EU-Central Asia Relations).


How did CIFE come to develop a PhD support programme for Central Asian PhD candidates?
Susann Heinecke (SH): The PhD Support Programme “The EU, Central Asia and the Caucasus (EUCACIS)” was a follow-up of the master programme “The European Union and Central Asia in the International system (EUCAIS)” which CIFE organised together with the IEP from 2010 to 2015. EUCACIS was enriched by the Southern Caucasian region, which in many respects is linked to both Central Asia and Europe. The initial idea was to develop education on the master level towards the postgraduate research level, striking a balance between individual support of PhD candidates and institutional cooperation between CIFE/IEP and partner institutions in the target regions. Therefore, the programme did not only offer training and coaching to PhD fellows, but also aspired to involve the respective thesis supervisors and their chairs in the programme activities. This aspect was viewed very positively on the side of the partners. 

Which strengths did the programme have in comparison to other structured PhD (support) programmes? 
Tatjana Kuhn (TK): From my point of view, the EUCACIS programmes has two strengths in particular. First, the “sandwich character” of the programme permits the PhD candidates to stay anchored in their academic contexts in their home countries because the programme foresees only short-term capacity development visits to Europe. I am convinced that this approach to a structured PhD programme reduces brain-drain in partner countries which have weaker structural capacities in the field of higher education and research. After enhancing their methodological, writing, presentational skills etc., the fellows can apply this knowledge as policy advisors, researchers or journalists in their home countries.
Second, the active involvement of the fellows in the programme – e.g. their participation in and co-organisation of the final EUCACIS conference – is another advantage of the programme. Such inclusion surely strengthened the fellows’ personal capacities and their confidence as young researchers.

Which lessons have you learned during the programme? 
TK: I have learned that it is only possible to establish a successful PhD support programme when 1) being continuously open to feedback and incorporating it in the strategic planning, 2) identifying and curating good relations with professionally and pedagogically highly competent and reliable lecturers and 3) seriously considering the intercultural dimension of the programme by recruiting staff members who possess intercultural sensitivity and experience with non-European cultures (e.g. from studying or working abroad). The feedback loops had been strategically integrated into the programme so that the PhD schools and research training stays could be tailored towards the actual needs of the fellows. Last but not least, the intercultural sensitivity aspect needs to be an open point for discussion in the very onset of the programme design. Here, CIFE and IEP already build on excellent capacities and can recruit new staff if necessary. These lessons learned are important pillars for developing qualitatively ambitious academic programmes at CIFE in the future.

How do you feel about the intercultural dimension of the programme?
SH: After having worked with students from Central Asia for several years, I was experienced with and prepared for the cultural peculiarities of the region. I was also aware of the conflicts and animosities in the Southern Caucasus and of the fact that they might have an impact on the inter-personal relations within the project. The persisting conflicts in the Southern Caucasus have, for instance, very practical consequences such as access or no access to a visa for travelling to a certain conference location. Fortunately, we ended up having enriching academic debates about conflictual topics rather than intercultural conflicts within the group. For the European programme staff and involved academics, it was exciting to work with young researchers with different cultural and academic backgrounds who brought in perspectives which are usually less visible in Europe.  

During the course of the programme, we organised face-to-face events in different locations in Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia bringing senior and junior researchers from all three regions together. The result was an intense and striking academic exchange across all kinds of borders that we would not have expected when outlining the project. For some fellows, EUCACIS-related travels were the first occasion to visit a neighbouring country. This made us realise that both Central Asia and the Southern Caucasus are far from being as integrated as the EU is.    

Which moments will stay in your memory most?
TK: One moment that will definitely stay in my memory is the evening where we took the EUCACIS fellows to the Piano Salon in Berlin. The Piano Salon is quite an unusual, somewhat alternative location for classical music, predominantly piano music. On that evening, Rachmaninov’s third piano concert was playing and some smaller pieces by German composers. The fellows were mesmerised. Some of them had never witnessed European classical music live before. We took a long walk afterwards along the canal in Berlin’s Wedding district and talked about the importance of music for the wellbeing of human beings and about music as an intercultural bridge. That was a truly moving experience for me. I had the feeling of having gotten much closer to the fellows and their personal life stories on that evening. Such extracurricular events are quite important for establishing long-lasting bonds within the group and between academic staff and programme participants.

"The EU, Central Asia and the Caucasus in the International System EUCACIS (2016-2020)" was a PhD support programme for postgraduates and doctoral researchers from Central Asia and the Southern Caucasus.
The project was jointly organised by CIFE and the Institut für Europäische Politik (IEP) and funded by the Volkswagen Foundation and the Erasmus+ Programme of the European Commission. EUCACIS has offered scholarships for three years to excellent postgraduates who were working on a doctoral thesis in political science, contemporary history or economics on a topic related to the programme's thematic focus at a university or academy of sciences in the target region.
The programme provided intensive PhD research training and support until the programme participants submitted their doctoral theses, and helped them establishing their own networks with other young researchers in Central Asia, the Caucasus and in Europe. For this, it used a blended learning approach and combined conferences, workshops and a research training stay with online training and coaching.
You can read more about the programme here.


Tatjana Kuhn is Programme Manager of the Overseas University Programmes at CIFE. Previously, she coordinated the PhD Support Programme EUCACIS and was co-lead of the work package on awareness-raising in the Horizon 2020 project SEnECA (Strengthening and Energising EU-Central Asia Relations).