Alen Shadunts

Alen Shadunts (MPSIA ‘15): From AUA to Oxford and Back

5 min read

AUA alumnus Alen Shadunts (MPSIA ‘15) recently completed Ph.D. studies at the Faculty of Oriental Studies, St. Antony’s College of the University of Oxford in England. His Ph.D. dissertation was on Iranian foreign policy in the Post-Soviet South Caucasus. Alen talked to us about the role the MA in Political Science and International Affairs (MPSIA) program of the American University of Armenia (AUA) has played in his academic career, highlighting that AUA has provided him with a solid background and helped him pave his path into academia. We met with Dr. Shadunts to learn more about his academic journey, his experiences at AUA and Oxford, his research interests, and future plans.

How did you start your academic journey?

It’s been quite a long journey. Before studying for my master’s in the PSIA program at AUA, I received a bachelor’s degree in international relations from Yerevan State University (YSU). After graduating from AUA, I went to the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) and then to Oxford University, where I pursued my Ph.D. 

A lot of people have helped me in this journey. I’ve been in the education system for eleven years, and there are many people who guided me through my path. I want to emphasize that I haven’t done it all alone. It’s a humbling experience, and I think it’s important for me to acknowledge that many people were there for me. I too want to be the kind of person who is supportive of motivated students and aspiring scholars. 

What influenced your decision to pursue an academic career?

I started my bachelor’s degree with the idea of becoming a diplomat, but soon I realized that it was not for me. I just don’t have the kind of personality that it takes to be a diplomat. I was more driven by the curiosity of exploring a certain topic than socializing with people and cutting deals. The exploratory aspect of my studies was more appealing to me, that is why I decided to pursue a career path in academia and become a scholar. This is the place where I feel the most comfortable doing research and just following my curiosity. 

What role did AUA play in your life and your career development?

AUA’s role was very substantial. Studying there was a stepping stone for pursuing my studies in the United Kingdom. It provided familiarity with important matters, such as understanding how to do research, what methodology is, how to build an argument, how to engage with the existing literature, and so on. These are crucial skills for any aspiring scholar. So, my education at AUA was a type of a gateway to academia, I would say. 

My AUA professors, particularly, Dr. Vahram Ter-Matevosyan, Dr. Arpie Balian, and Dr. Jenny Paturyan are among those who had a big impact on my progress. They helped me develop a critical approach towards the materials and issues we were studying — not just for the sake of acquiring information and then reproducing it but to engage with the content, juxtapose it with other sources, and come up with your own interpretation.

Perhaps the most precious things I got from AUA are my friends. Some of my strongest friendship bonds were created at this university. My former classmates are now among the closest people to me. These friendships started with our shared struggles trying to figure out how to deal with the unconventional courses taught at AUA. Late nights at the library, group projects, jokes — these are the most pleasant memories from AUA. 

Tell us about your experience at St. Antony’s College, Oxford University. 

Education at Oxford is very different, especially for doctoral students. You receive guidance from your supervisors and feedback from your examiners, but most of the time, you’re on your own, investigating certain issues of interest. At the same time, Oxford gives you a sense of community. Aside from your independent work, it provides you with a space to engage with other scholars, fellow students, and recent graduates. The university has a great environment for conducting research. 

I spent four years on my dissertation, and I know what it means for a scholar to stay committed to a research project for a long period and not quit. It’s important to feel supported by the institution itself, as well as by individuals, including one’s supervisors, and I was lucky to have all that support. 

What are your research interests? What are you working on at the moment?

My research interests are at the intersection of international relations (IR) theory and area studies. I have been conducting research on the foreign policy of the Islamic Republic, as well as on topics of non-western identity and foreign policy. 

At the moment I’m looking into how the selves of a non-western state are performing in the encounter with modernity and how in this move to a multipolar world non-western players, such as the Islamic Republic, are redefining their identity and role in the international system. These topics sometimes take me to fundamental sociological and philosophical discussions in academia, showing that there is always room for exploration. 

My dissertation starts with the question of how Iran behaves towards the South Caucasus. There is one general answer in the literature  — Iran is pragmatic. I started to probe this argument, engaging with the literature and then building an unconventional conceptual framework, a post-structuralist approach to researching an issue. I went into archives and studied over 3,000 units of texts to construct a narrative of Iran’s behavior, questioning the conventional argument that Iran is a pragmatic actor in the South Caucasus and showing the more nuanced, sometimes ambivalent, sometimes path-dependent nature of Iran’s policies in the region. This is the gist of my work in the last four years. 

What has been the most memorable moment of success and the biggest challenge you’ve overcome in your path?

The biggest success was accessing materials and incorporating them into my research. The data that covers the period from 1989 onwards (especially the materials produced in the 1990s) hasn’t been explored by many scholars. The fascination that comes with it is just hard to describe. This exploration resembles detective work, and it has been a thrilling experience for me. 

The biggest difficulty was traveling to Iran and accessing the materials needed for my research. There have been many bureaucratic complications. I have some fascinating stories from my trips to Iran. 

What are your plans for the next couple of years? 

The general answer would be to stay in academia and continue my research, doing the kind of work that makes me happy. I wish to explore the foreign affairs of non-western states, dig deep into Iran’s behavior in this region and beyond, engage in more research, publish, as well as teach. For me, teaching is a very gratifying experience. Walking into the classroom and seeing a lot of curious people is something that I wish to pursue. AUA has given me a lot, and paying it forward is very important to me.

What would be your advice to current AUA students majoring in social sciences?

They should expect to have more questions and ambiguities the more they study. You try to get answers to your questions and end up with more questions. My advice for them is to find something they love and stay curious. That’s a very important force that helps one to go through difficulties and to persevere in one’s journey. Sometimes, that journey can be very long, especially if one is pursuing a career in academia. You should have a fascination for the issue you are exploring. I think this is the most important thing.