Preparing PhDs for non-academic careers

Bringing together 20 partners across sectors and disciplines, the PhD network PLATO equips 15 researchers with innovative training at doctoral level. We asked our project partners about the benefits of collaborating with other sectors during a doctorate.

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Mobility is a key feature PLATO's PhD training - not only across borders, but also across sectors.

The 15 PLATO PhD candidates are in the last year of their doctorate, dealing in one way or another with the EU’s legitimacy after the financial crisis that started in 2008.

As part of an Innovative Training Network (ITN) (see box), where partners from different sectors and research disciplines cooperate in offering a unique PhD training programme, their doctoral training includes several innovative elements. One is practical work experience from non-academic sectors, gained through what is called ‘secondments’ in the EU-funding jargon.

Non-academic secondments

Innovative Training Networks

The Post-Crisis Legitimacy of the European Union (PLATO) is an ITN coordinated by Chris Lord at ARENA. 

An ITN brings together universities and other sectors to train researchers to doctorate level. Collaboration between the academic and non-academic sectors and across research disciplines and countries are important.

ITNs are funded under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions, which are part of the ‘first pillar’ (Excellent Science) of the EU’s framework programme for research and innovation, Horizon 2020.

At the beginning of 2020, each early stage researcher stayed 4-5 weeks at one of PLATO’s non-academic partners, which are leading European think tanks, civil society organisations and a consulting firm for trade associations. The aim was to broaden the future doctors’ career prospects by building hands-on work experience, expanding networks and exploring collaborations with a closely related, yet distinctly different sector.

For the PLATO PhDs, this not only meant a break with the regular work routines at their home university. For most of them, it also meant moving to a different country.

Camille Dobler, a French citizen doing her PhD at Jagiellonian University in Poland, moved to Cologne to work with Democracy International (DI). The NGO supports democracy initiatives and coordinates transnational campaigns – for electoral and institutional reform, freedom of information, increased participation and direct democracy.

Julien Bois also tried the ‘third sector’ during his work with the European Citizen Action Service (ECAS). He is a French PhD candidate at Freie Universität Berlin and moved to Brussels to stay with an umbrella organisation that provides advice, research and advocacy to a network of about 150 European NGOs in the field of EU citizenship rights.

Joris Melman is a Dutch citizen who does his PhD at ARENA Centre for European Studies, University of Oslo. Like Julien and several others, he moved to Brussels for the secondment. His host was Bruegel, a leading economic think tank, which contributes to policy-making through fact-based and policy-relevant research, analysis and debate.

We asked them what they learned, and how the experience may be of value to their future career. How did work in the other sector differ from academic life, and what was the most interesting – or surprising – part of their stay?


Smiling people Joris Melman (back left), Julien Bois (front left) and Camille Dobler (front right) share their thoughts about the value of collaboration with the world outside academia during a doctorate.

Understanding the dynamics of the ‘Brussels bubble’

Joris enjoyed the experience of suddenly dropping into a different working environment for a brief period. ‘Both the professional focus and social dynamics of Bruegel are quite different from an academic institution like ARENA. It provided me with new perspectives on my research as well as the functioning of the Brussels bubble as a whole.’

He values highly his improved understanding of the dynamics of the ‘Brussels bubble’; what the different interests of the different actors are, and how they communicate. ‘In addition, being surrounded mostly by economists improved my understanding of Eurozone politics. For example, I now follow all corona-related news with a different perspective and even higher interest.’

It provided me with new perspectives on my research as well as the functioning of the Brussels bubble as a whole.

Joris Melman

Julien realised how close academic research and advocacy actually are. ‘One may expect scholarly advances to remain very abstract when doing advocacy for a new legal instrument, or clarifying the Commission’s position on certain policies,’ he argues. ‘But connecting my own work on the EU Court to ECAS’ activities proved surprisingly smooth. I could pretty much use all of my research on EU citizenship case law to help ECAS substantiating its position on the subject.’

‘Unlike doing history of some ancient century or geography of some far way continent, doing EU studies implies a very close link with the world you are studying,’ Julien explains. The actors – from technocrats and lobbyists to judges – have a political science or law background and do not mind sharing their experiences, he adds. They often invite researchers to European Parliament hearings or civil society events.

Expanding their writing skills

When reflecting on learning outcomes, Camille emphasizes various types of campaigning strategies, different direct democracy mechanisms worldwide, the European Citizens Initiative Forum, and how the European Commission ‘delegates’ to NGOs to run it, beyond the more general knowledge of the daily routine of a small NGO.

Another important learning outcome she points to is elaborating and writing position papers. The secondments took place shortly after a two-day policy and media training tailor-made for PLATO PhDs, and for many they provided an opportunity to put their training into practice. For academics, writing skills are crucial, but the researchers quickly realised that the style and purpose of writing are different across sectors.

Julien explains: ‘There certainly is a major difference in the message you want to get across. In academia, we take the time to expand on a single subject. Advocacy, on the contrary, requires a sense of directness we scholars are not used to. You use a simple message to explain complicated ideas and indicate further sources to interested readers, and show the side of the world that helps you ground your position.’

‘The writing style is also very different. Messages aim at impacting the reader at the very first moment. The first words of a position paper, blog post or report are the most important when doing advocacy, and it is up to you to choose the key message and put it in the first lines,’ he continues.

Learning better how to write for a larger audience is also valued by Joris: ‘I published a blog post with Bruegel, which was a useful exercise in making my research results relevant to a different community, and also gave a good platform to communicate these results more widely’. 

Teamwork and academic expertise

Camille sees the big difference from academia less in the type of documents produced, but rather in how people work. ‘In the NGO world, work is truly collegial and not individual,’ she adds. Julien agrees: ‘Doing academic research implies adopting a hermit lifestyle of solitary work. The "NGO world", on the contrary, is made up of frequent team work and exchanges of views on what you are doing.’

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Andreas Müller from Democracy International sees many mutual benefits of cross-sectoral cooperation during a PhD. 

Camille appreciates how her colleagues immediately made her feel part of their team, even if she was there for only one month. ‘I was much more enthusiastic and productive working at Democracy International. It felt good working on something concrete with a clear outcome at the end.’

Andreas Müller, Managing Director of Democracy International, adds that Camille made important contributions to the team. Her work provided the foundation for Democracy International's role in the Citizen Take Over Europe campaign, which engages 50 organisations across Europe and with DI as a leading organisation.

‘In particular, Camille's preparatory work for the Conference on the Future of Europe, as well as the elaboration of the 10 principles for a successful implementation of the Conference, were extremely valuable in the early stages of the campaign. These 10 principles formed the basis for negotiations with all other organisations on a common position and have been incorporated into the current campaign, including in an open letter to the EU institutions and a petition to the European Parliament.’ 

I was much more enthusiastic and productive working at Democracy International. It felt good working on something concrete with a clear outcome at the end.

Camille Dobler

‘It was apparent that, due to her academic background, she is experienced in arguing in a fact-based and at the same time political way, as well as representing her views in a clear and comprehensible way,’ Andreas adds.

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Andreas Müller and Camille Dobler (left) during the matchmaking event for PhDs and training partners in Brussels in December 2018. (Photo: Marit Eldholm)

Different pace of work

Joris was surprised to see that a prestigious and reputable organisation like Bruegel had a more informal working dynamic than he is used to. He enjoyed this aspect very much, as well as the different pace of work.

​‘The working dynamic of a think tank falls a bit in between that of journalism and academia. While it is not as fast-paced as journalism and research standards are closer to those of academia, the working cycle is definitely much faster than that of an academic institution. Work on a publication takes somewhere between 2 days and 3 months, and if a blog is finished, for example, it needs to be out today or tomorrow, not in a week.’

‘Likewise, there is more need to be in touch with the latest developments. After all, giving an expert view on developments currently taking place in media or the policy world is the core business. As a consequence, people working at think tanks have to be more directly connected with policy makers and journalists.’

Positive career impacts

Considering the PhDs’ future careers, what are the benefits of the PLATO secondments?

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Bruegel's Giuseppe Porcaro argues that a doctorate opens up for a broad range of careers.

Joris deems it a success. ‘Just getting a feeling of such a different working environment was already useful. In addition, getting to know different researchers and attending several interesting events was informative and fun.’ He believes both the network it connected him with and the experiences it gave him will benefit his career.

Giuseppe Porcaro, Head of Outreach and Governance at Bruegel, was Joris’ mentor during his stay. He adds that the stay also proved to be of value to Bruegel. ‘In his short stay, Joris proved to be a very valuable researcher, curious and ready to bring his specific field of research into the topics that we have been working on at Bruegel already. The fact that he managed to publish a co-authored article during his stay is definitely a good indicator for that.’

‘One month is a very short period to gain new knowledge and skills,’ Camille said, ‘so it is hard to say how the experience may affect my career. However, it is proof of an ability to go outside of a familiar environment and adapt very quickly, a willingness to share ideas outside the academic community and the capacity to create a professional network.’

The questions we try to answer in PLATO go far beyond scholarly exploration, and doing advocacy in Brussels quickly helped me realize that.

Julien Bois

Julien is still confident to pursue a career in academia. ‘Yet, it was very rewarding to discover that what you do in universities can quickly be translated to labour tools in an NGO. It also reminded me that EU studies are not only about abstract thinking, but also socially relevant.’

‘The questions we try to answer in PLATO go far beyond scholarly exploration, and doing advocacy in Brussels quickly helped me realize that.’

The value of a doctorate outside academia

Andreas at Democracy International is convinced that stays outside the academic world are crucial for doctors’ future career. He argues that the mutual exchange is enriching, not only for the PhDs but also for the hosts, and promotes mutual understanding and future cooperation.

‘The doctoral students can gain a direct insight into their future professional fields. At the same time, their scientific perspective from the neutral, independent academic world is contrasted with the views of interest groups and NGOs, which are often much more based on specific values and positions. The NGO sector often lacks scientific support due to financial but also human resources and can benefit from the expertise of doctoral students, who bring in new perspectives.’

He illustrates a doctor's skills set with an example from Camille’s stay: ‘It was impressive how quickly she became familiar with the subject matter and how she was able to analyse and compare the various positions of the EU institutions. Her academic and analytical skills made it easy for her to identify the most important similarities and differences in the political positions and to present them to the non-academic audience.’

A doctorate is more and more something that can open up a multidimensional career that includes paths outside classic academia.

Giuseppe Porcaro

Joris’ mentor Giuseppe agrees that stays outside academia can be useful because a doctorate opens for multidimensional career paths. ‘Experiences in think tanks or other organisations are extremely useful for a PhD student in order to orient themselves and open up the possibilities that they may be able to pursue in their career.’ 

Being a doctor can be a stepping-stone to interesting positions outside academia and definitely makes a difference in the think-tank world, Giuseppe argues. ‘As excellency of research is one of the prerequisites for think tanks to provide sound analysis and evidence-based policy proposals, the methodological skills and intellectual knowledge that PhD holders bring into the team is essential.’ 

Published Oct. 23, 2020 10:00 AM - Last modified Feb. 4, 2022 2:44 PM