Emrah Sahin graduated with a PhD in History in 2011 with a dissertation about the Ottoman imperial state responding to American evangelical missionary activities in the Ottoman world from Southeast Europe to Turkey and the Middle East. He is currently a senior lecturer at the University of Florida, where he is teaching international studies, Muslim-Christian Relations, and modern Middle East.
Q: What made you interested in doing a PhD in the first place?
I’m interested in history and how our human species lived in the past—it’s a longtime passion of mine. My teachers and professors also inspired me that pursuing a higher and advanced degree in my field of inquiry would make me a better person on an academic and personal level. So my pure curiosity in the subject matter and the inspiration I drew from my mentors and advisors helped to decide I should get a PhD in this field.
Q: When did you receive that inspiration and guidance from your mentors?
I was born in Turkey and I come from a poor family. The only way for me to go upwards, socially and economically, would be to acquire good education. In Turkey, you need to take a test administered on a national level. If you scored well in that exam, you could go to any school you want to—this was my only ticket out. So I did well and went to Ankara, the capital of Turkey. I went to an English-speaking university where I learned English the first year in the school, then I studied history, and I got my degree in history. In my undergraduate program, I was able to learn a second language in a proficient way so that I could communicate with that. This would be a life-changing experience for me.
But, initially, I was not inspired or enthusiastic about the field I was studying. A number of factors went into this. I was really struggling with the language because acquiring material in a written form in a second language is really difficult, and I couldn’t really catch up with the rest of my class. That definitely had a negative influence on me. So I had mixed feelings when I graduated. I had two options after getting my degree: I could be an English teacher in a high school or I could get a Master’s degree in history. I kept both possibilities open, but I eventually went with the latter option as I applied and got admitted to a fully-funded master’s program at a private university in Ankara, Turkey, whose faculty included some leading professors in my field. When I went there, I worked with several of them who changed my whole perspective on life and on the discipline I was studying in. I had access to important resources while in that program all the while having these world-renowned professors as instructors, advisors, mentors, and friends! One of the professors, Stanford Shaw, told me to do my PhD outside of Turkey, saying McGill University would be a good fit for me.
Q: Did you come into the program with financial support?
One of the things I didn’t predict was that I would have financial challenges when I started at McGill. In Turkey, if you are a TA, the money from your teaching service would be enough for you. But at McGill, that is not enough because you still have to pay tuition. I worked on campus part-time at the McGill bookstore, where they had the shipping department downstairs. I was working around 20 hours a week there, and it was really challenging for me, particularly in my first year when I was supposed to take my qualifying exams by the end of the year. I had all these books waiting to be read and I was working part time and all.
But I started to improve my language skills, practice patience, and had perseverance through the program. After all, people started to appreciate me, not just my supervisors in the department and at McGill, but also everyone else around me. I started to develop a good network of friends. And everything turned out well.
Q: What do you do currently?
Currently I am a senior lecturer at the University of Florida. Originally, I started here as a visiting lecturer teaching Turkish language courses and also studies related to Turkey and my field of expertise, which is basically the Ottoman Empire, Middle East, and modern Europe. I recently got promoted to senior lecturer and I am serving across multiple departments such as History, Political Science, Religion, and Sociology, as well serving in the advisory board of a new center that was established in 2015 called the Center for Global Islamic Studies.
I am an old-fashioned intellectual and a new-brand transdisciplinary historian—that is what McGill gave me. Indeed, I had started out as a historian with a local focus and at McGill, I learned about and studied the history of the U.S., Europe, and the Mediterranean. I ended up being a versatile kind of a scholar. And, even though research is not part of my job assignment, I still keep an active research agenda that I undertake at my leisure—my latest major project was a 2018 book that I published with McGill Queen’s University Press!
Q: What did you value most about your time in graduate school?
Everything; everything was valuable for me. Looking back on those years, I would say that everything contributed to me as a person and as a scholar. One thing I would say is like when I was teaching at McGill with these great professors, I used to go audit the class. It’s not an obligation, but if you’re a TA, you could go and listen to these classes. I was sitting there with this idea that I am going to teach this rather than just learn it. That really helped me to learn and acquire the material. I also studied the way my model teachers were teaching their material as an experienced teacher—I was studying and observing their teaching.
Q: What were the biggest challenges for you during your PhD?
As a History PhD on the market, it’s very difficult to find a job. This is true across the board in the social sciences. For those interested, the American Historical Association analyzes the data and you can see tons of PhDs graduating every year at a time when the jobs continue shrinking. That was my main challenge. I had several options: I could go back to Turkey and find a job there; I could leave academia and find a job in Canada where I really wanted to live; or, I could just keep on looking for possibilities to teach. I remember an idealistic professor in the history department named Lorenz Luthi, who ran a workshop for us called PhDs on the market. That was a really effective workshop for me because I didn’t know how to pull together a CV, how to prepare for a job interview, and how to market myself and advertise my qualities as a scholar and teacher. But again, the realities were still out there and we’re still looking at this elephant in the room. In my case, I have applied, I think, to over 300 positions from postdocs to lecture positions to visiting adjunct to tenure-track.
Q: What advice would you give to someone working on their PhD?
It is a process that goes like a marathon, not a sprint. So rather than focusing on the daily challenges and the long term results of your work, you focus on the daily advantages and having the pleasure of being in that state of mind and enjoying the moment. Just keep on grinding.
On a side note, it’s difficult to stay in academia so there is a discussion to be made. Students should be realistic in that respect and have backup plans. Graduate programs should specifically caution candidates that are interviewing about the realities of what they will face after they get their degrees. I don’t know what can be done as an institution, but I think the first step is to be transparent with students and let them know how tight the academic job market is.
Q: If you could go back in time, is there something that would tell yourself before you started your PhD?
Based on all the challenges that I told and did not while in my PhD program, I would say “use your time more efficiently, do not waste a single moment.” That’s what I would tell myself ten or fifteen years ago. Surely enjoy the moment but be engaged; and present in whatever you are doing.
This interview took place in March 2020. Interviews are edited by the TRaCE McGill Editorial team for length and clarity before publication.