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MPSSA Spotlight Series: Michael Gordon

The McMaster Political Science Students Association’s Spotlight Series features in-depth interviews with faculty and graduate students in the Department of Political Science at McMaster University. This edition highlights PhD student Michael Gordon.

Mar 09, 2020

Interviewer (I): Thank you for reaching out and wanting to do this

Mike Gordon (MG): Of course, I’m down to help out

I: So, I have quite a few questions for you, mostly about your research but also touching on your experiences at McMaster. To start off, what is your area of research?

MG: I do work on search and rescue operations in the central Mediterranean. I look at the intersections of irregularized migration, humanitarianism and border security. Kind of largely looking at the central Med and largely focusing on non-governmental organizations and their role in the rescue process, both from the practical side of things but also from a political position.

I: So, we have heard you talk about your research before but how did you come to study what it is you’re looking at?

MG: (Laughter.) Somewhat randomly I suppose. So, I did my undergrad here at Mac, and there was actually a fourth-year class on migration that sparked that interest. I did my master’s at the University of Waterloo, the Balsillie school, and there I kind of focused on human trafficking, and the relationship of border policy. I decided to move away from that because part of my area of interest was mostly in kind of how, or at least in part, how we understand the distinction between sex work and sex trafficking, and sort of vulnerability around that and that turned into a very moral debate that I didn’t want to pursue, but the evolution of what was taking place in the Med was something that I had been following along as a point of interest, kind of sort 2013 and it kept going and going and going and I decided to sort of have a transition, part of that stemming from doing an internship in Malta during my Masters where I worked with an NGO doing refugee integration related projects and so I was there as a researcher so that was my introduction to understanding that oh there are NGOs involved in this rescue process side of things. Things kind of evolved from here, and now I am here so (laughter)

I: It’s really interesting that it’s just kind of a random, stumbled upon it process

MG: Yeah, I suppose the first sort of point at which I actually thought about this idea of borders was actually before I started university, I did a bunch of backpacking, avoiding real life, in Central America. There was this point that I was on a bus with what turned out to be a number of people who were basically making their way to the US, via irregularized channels, and so later on, on reflection of that, it was one of those moments where it was ‘huh this is interesting, I’m talking to this guy right now, where we are in the same position, we are on the same bus, going in the exact same direction, about the same age but in very different contexts in terms of how and why we are moving’. I’m there for pleasure, he’s there to return to his family, from which he was separated from when he was deported from the US back to Honduras and we’re now together in Guatemala and his journey looks a lot different from mine despite being in the same physical position. And I mean, why is that the case? So I started to think more and more about this idea of borders, citizenship and belonging, those kinds of things, a more nuanced thought came from that later, but it was one of those moments where you’re like ‘oh my god this is an interesting thing to think about’. But yeah, in terms of actually landing on the migration stuff, it was in large part just from a broad interest in migration and sort of following news stories around borders, migration mobility, at that point the Med happened to catch my eye and now I’m here.

I: Very cool, that’s very interesting. So, how far along in your PhD are you and what is some current research that you are working on? Are you all in on the dissertation right now, are there things that you’re working on that are going to be different chapters?

MG: So, I am in my fourth year at this point, so at least on paper getting close to the end (laughter). In terms of work, the dissertation is the main focus at this point, so trying to get some chapters written, but also trying to keep in mind publishing and taking some of those chapters and getting them published somewhere is also sort of on my mind, but it’s less of a focus and more of a side thought at this point. It’s basically just sorting through all the field work stuff from the last few months and trying to turn that into something that will get me out of here sooner rather than later.

I: You mentioned your fieldwork so, how long were you there, what was the process like in terms of ethics clearance, I know that you got SSHRC, so tell me about that whole process.

MG: So, I mean getting to that point from the beginning of the program, all that stuff was sort of what pushed me through all the difficulties of course work. It was ‘ok if I can get through this, and get this done, if I can get coursework done, I will be one step closer to doing the fieldwork’. The first couple years of the program are somewhat rigidly defined in terms of what you do and then in terms of actually materializing that fieldwork I think I presented my dissertation proposal, which I had been working on for about six months in June 2018. I presented to the department, got approved to go ahead, then the summer was spent in the ethics process which takes time to do, it is a very back and forth process, but submission to acceptance on the ethics it took maybe two months. Then it was going into the planning stage. The summer and fall were also grant writing time for me, so I applied for SSHRC that basically covers training abroad, as well as through the Global Inc fellowship, that connects you with some sort of training abroad. I left in January for the UK; I was at the University of Warwick for a couple of months working with Vicky Squire who is a big deal in the border research migration area. She was my mentor there, and then at the end of February I flew to Marseille to meet up with Seawatch, who I had worked with before, and that was the start of my connection with them. So, in total the field work was six months, three of which were with Seawatch. When I wasn’t with them then I spent some time in Malta interviewing people from NGOs.

I: A long process but you got there, got your data and made it home.

MG: Exactly.

I: So, was it always going to be the PhD route for you, going into university?

MG: I knew that university was something I wanted to do from high school, but I looked at a lot of my friends that had gone to university who did not enjoy the work they were doing, although the social side was more enjoyable. So I took three years between high school and university just to work and travel and enjoy myself a little bit, but when I started university I told myself that I would do it as long as I enjoyed it, which for me, is one thing that has always been very important. I have gone straight through since then, I felt it was a good opportunity to take some time before and do other things first and then get on with school. It’s not to say that I have loved every day that I have been doing this, but I thoroughly enjoyed my undergrad. Around third year I was thinking that maybe grad school was a thing that could happen, and by fourth year I had definitely committed to that approach. I got into my masters, after the first semester I thought maybe this will be the end of it, but I managed to push through and realized I still do enjoy this. And I ended up here for my PhD. As long as the good days outweigh the bad days in the process that’s the important thing to me, and largely I do love it. I get to research things that I am passionate about, I also got to travel with it. I get to think and write and engage in some really meaningful conversations which I really enjoy, and you meet some nice people along the way as well.

I: That’s awesome. So, you are in your fourth year, you are close to the end. What next steps are you thinking about? Is there going to be a Professor Gordon?

MG: I would like that, that would be nice. Mentally I am still committed to going the academic route at this time so likely that will mean doing a post-doc when I finish; where that might be, I am not entirely sure. And then, at least for a couple years, I will try for the professor route and see if I can land one of these highly-coveted positions. We will see if I am successful and, I mean, it’s not the end of the world. I can always move in some other directions and I think there are some really meaningful contributions to be made from academics turned towards other aspects and issues in society. PhDs can make contributions in meaningful ways outside of academia.

I: So, you mentioned you did your undergrad at McMaster, did you want to do your PhD here because of a specific supervisor, or the department?

MG: So, the primary thing was to come back. I am working with Peter Nyers, he is absolutely fantastic, he is a really super interesting and captivating academic which I really appreciate. I really enjoy his work and what he does, and he speaks to a lot of the issues I am working on. I think for PhDs that’s one of the most important things that you need in making your choice on where to study is having a good supervisor and a good fit for a supervisor. I had talked with Peter beforehand and it felt like a really good fit and I don’t regret it for a moment. All of my time spent working with him has been really really fantastic and really enjoyable. On top of that, I love Hamilton and McMaster, I really enjoyed my time here at McMaster during my undergrad. All of it factored in, but the biggest thing was Peter. Plus, he’s a cool dude.

I: What advice would you give undergrads in political science, having been one?

MG: That is a good question. My advice would be to keep an open mind to things. Not only in your ability to think about things and the complexity of them but also to be open to opportunities. Recognizing that plans change, and you need to be open, willing and able to adapt and recognize that that is a very normal part of the process. It might take you in some directions that you don’t plan but often times those can be some very fun and meaningful experiences and they can open up doors and opportunities that you didn’t anticipate. I would also add: Do this as long as you enjoy it. University does open particular doors that need to be open to go in particular directions, but if you are going to end up being unhappy in the process then is it really worth it? Some people may disagree and say you need to fight through it. I am not opposed to fighting, but I think there is a point when you have to ask yourself if it is worth it for you. If you don’t think that it is integral to your future success, or even recognizing that what you think you are going to do going into it and what you come out with may be a different thing. Which gets back to being open and flexible.

I: Well, thank you very much for taking the time to talk speak with me, I am sure our undergrads will appreciate hearing about the academic process from someone who has done so well.