Alumni Profile: Selim Sazak

13243670_10156841682480332_6965062839684363327_oB.A. Philosophy (Bilkent University, 2011)
M.I.A. International Security Policy (Colombia University, 2015) (with Fulbright Fellowship)
Ph.D. International Relations (Brown University, 2016 – )

1. Hi Selim! Tell us about yourself: What have you been up to since you graduated from Bilkent?
After graduating from Bilkent, I took up a research position at NATO’s Counter-terrorism Center of Excellence, where I worked as a junior researcher working on non-state political violence in Turkey and the Middle East. After close to two years in NATO, I joined Pugwash Conferences, laureate of the 1995 Nobel Peace Prize for its work to reduce the risk of armed conflict in nuclear-armed regions, where I helped lead the team that organized Pugwash’s 60th Biennial Conference in Istanbul in November 2013. The same year, I received a Fulbright scholarship and started my graduate education in Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. I graduated in 2015 with a degree in International Security Policy. I was also inducted into Columbia’s International Fellows Program and received the Dasturdaza Jal Pavry Award for best graduate paper in peace and understanding. Later I worked as a researcher for the foreign policy program at a New York-based think-tank, The Century Foundation, before starting my doctoral studies this year.

2. Where are you now and what are you working on?
I’m currently a doctoral student at Brown University’s Department of Political Science. I’m also still working as an adjunct fellow at The Century Foundation. My work broadly focuses on international security—ranging from nuclear nonproliferation to counter-terrorism to civil-military relations. I’m currently working on two major projects: one explores how natural resource cooperation helps prevent the spread of nuclear weapons in the Middle East, the other looks at the role Brazil and Turkey played in nuclear diplomacy with Iran to analyze how power differentials affect the production of norms in international politics.

3. Why did you choose to study philosophy at Bilkent University?
This is a story I love telling. I was always fascinated with politics and I knew even before taking the College Placement Exam that I will be going to Bilkent if I can.

I got a pretty high score in the exam—I was in the top 100–so I had almost full liberty over which department I could pick. So, I decided to visit Bilkent during the selection season: look around, talk with students, meet professors. Soon, I discovered that many of the departments I had considered were not that exciting for me. I wanted to have some liberty in designing my curriculum, which I couldn’t have done at the law school. I’m not a math whiz, so I wouldn’t have enjoyed economics. The programs at the political science and international relations departments were too exclusively-focused on Turkey back then, which didn’t appeal to me. And, the history department was quite impressive, but it didn’t offer an undergraduate degree.

By chance encounter, I had met the late Talat Halman—then the Dean of Humanities at Bilkent–a few months before at a talk he gave at my high school. Prof. Halman, ever the gentleman, had obliged me to stop by his office if I was ever on campus and so I did. When I told him about the quandary I was in Prof. Halman asked me if I had considered philosophy. Someone I met on campus earlier had said that the philosophy department focuses on cognition and neuroscience, and, therefore, didn’t have much to offer for someone like me. When I stopped by the department, however, I realized that it could not be farther from the truth. The first person I met was Simon Wigley: not only a political philosopher but one interested in the kind of questions I was wanted to explore further (who ended up being my thesis advisor and an invaluable mentor). I met Lars Vinx, whose work sits at the nexus of politics and jurisprudence. More than anything, this was, by far, the most welcoming atmosphere I encountered on campus: something that remained true for my entire time at Bilkent.

4. What was it like to study at philosophy at Bilkent?
Firstly, despite its small size, philosophy was the most intellectual diverse department on campus. I took courses from practically every department in humanities and social sciences. Most intellectually stimulating conversations I had were with my philosophy cohort. In my graduating class, we were around a dozen people, and each of us had different interests. One of my classmates wrote literary criticism in her spare time; another was a mathematician working on formal logic. I sat in the same class with people whose interests ranged from Sufi metaphysics to artificial intelligence to constitutional law to the Scottish enlightenment. That’s a mind-opening experience, especially if you’re viewing college not as four more years of school but as part of a lifelong learning process.

Secondly, unlike many other departments, philosophy was an environment where you can make a case for whatever you want to do, whichever course you want to take, and they would listen. It might sound unimportant but being in a department that is an ally, not an obstacle, to your dreams is invaluable. I was the captain of Bilkent’s Model UN team, the secretary-general of the student government, the founding editor-in-chief of GazeteBilkent, and the University senator. And I graduated with high honors––I was the salutatorian of my graduating class if I’m not mistaken. Never once did my professors question my ability to do all those things at once, or stand in my way as I did. Never once was there a class I wanted to take, and I couldn’t take it. “Let us know if you need help with anything, ok?” was often the only question they asked. I was in a department that empowered me, encouraged me, and always stood behind me. Had it not been the case, had I not known that they had my back, and had they not been there for me at every turn, I could not have done all the things that I did, and probably could not have gone the lengths I went in my career.

5. How has your undergraduate degree in philosophy helped you out in your work/ academic career?
A lot. A philosophy education teaches you less about the inputs and the outputs; instead, it trains you in an analytical process. There’s a metaphor I have to describe this: most other departments are like software; some play music, others browse the Internet, or help you take notes, and so on. They’re good for the one thing they’re good for. Philosophy is like a programming language. Once you know your way around it, you can write any software on your own.

As I described earlier, I’m wearing multiple hats, and each of my jobs involves a different set of tasks. In school, I write papers and teach classes. At work, I write policy reports, give briefings to policymakers, or offer commentary for journalists. Sometimes, I’m asked to consult for businesses planning a new investment or lawyers working on international litigation. Each of these requires mastery over different skills––using my analogy; they need different software. Had I studied in any other discipline, I probably couldn’t have transitioned from one to another with ease––I would have lacked the skills to do it. A philosophy degree gives you an analytical toolbox and teaches you how to use the tools inside it. The way a master carpenter can carve anything out of anything, a philosophy education equipped me with the skills to crack open any question, take on any puzzle.