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Solène Baffi, from a PhD in geography to the NGO Codatu

Passionate about mobility and international development, Solène Baffi, holder of a PhD in Geography, is currently working for the NGO Codatu. She shares her experience and advice.


About your current position

About networking

Some advice..


Can you tell us about your career path and what motivated your career choices?

I am a geographer by training, and I now work in an NGO, Codatu. After my bachelor’s, I was in a literary preparatory class for two years and then I enrolled in a geography course in L3 at the University Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne. Indeed, like many others, I was oriented towards the prep class because I wasn't really sure of my post-bac orientation. In my case, this choice turned out to be beneficial: I discovered geography at the Lycée Fénélon with its teaching style that had nothing in common with what we were taught in secondary school. But this discovery was a kind of "revelation": this discipline brought together many of my interests and offered me new perspectives for understanding the world and society.

Indeed, I was particularly attracted by development and mobility issues. This is why I decided to pursue a Master's degree in Emerging and Developing Countries. During my Master's years, I dedicated my two Master’s theses to the issues of mobility and urban segregation in Cape Town, South Africa. These thesis-writing experiences also functioned as small epiphanies: immersion in the field, the possibilities of understanding such a complex society thanks to the theoretical tools of geography, the field approach in Humanities and Social sciences, and thanks to the social approach of research... All this really made me want to pursue a PhD. At the end of my Master 2, I obtained funding that allowed me to do so, with again a significant dimension of field work in South Africa.

After my PhD, I spent two years in Cape Town as a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Stellenbosch. It was an extremely rich experience, but with real barriers and frustrations that I encountered for the first time after several years of research. Despite nearly 10 years of expertise on mobility issues in South Africa, some things were still escaping my understanding because I did not have the tools to analyze them, and at the same time, my capacity for action seemed to be very limited: it was impossible to obtain sustainable funding to carry out research, for example. So, on my return to France, I decided to reorient myself and move towards a more operational path, still in the mobility and development sector.


Why a PhD? What did you want to do after it?

I had the luxury of making my choices according to my desires and the opportunities that seemed most stimulating for me. My Master's years were a real revelation from this point of view: research, fieldwork, living abroad for several months... It was also a time when I met PhD candidates, who told me about what they were doing. I also realized that I take a real pleasure in reading, analyzing, writing. I knew the ESR (Higher Education and Research) professions well, but I hadn't considered them very seriously until then. I had a short-term way of thinking, and I knew that with geography, different types of jobs were possible: engineering offices, NGOs, urban planning agencies, etc. I began to consider the PhD option during M2, encouraged by my supervisors, and the obtaining of PhD funding was the real trigger. I then joined an extremely dynamic research laboratory in Paris, an environment of excellence. Throughout my doctoral studies, my desire to become a researcher and teacher-researcher became stronger, to the point that I no longer saw much of an alternative. It was finally after two years of post-doctoral work and two tiring and frustrating recruitment campaigns that I rediscovered that there is a much wider range of options, and that the ESR positions are clearly not the most privileged today.…


What are you particularly proud of in your career?

I have had the privilege of being guided only by my aspirations. I was building my career in a pragmatic way, leaving as many options open as possible, since I didn't have a precise idea of a profession or skills I wanted to acquire. But every time I had a "crush" or a revelation, I focused on it and gave myself the means to get there. So, I’m very proud of having listened to my aspirations, and not just making rational choices or choices based on the fear of not finding a job. Once again, I know that this is a luxury and all of this sometimes comes with significant insecurity.

You are now working for CODATU. Can you tell us more?

Codatu is an NGO, whose objective is to promote sustainable mobility in cities in developing countries. It is a small association which is also quite old (founded in 1980), and which benefits from an international influence and a very extensive network. The NGO was born from a scientific event and maintains this activity through the organization of international conferences every two or three years. Our activities have been expanded since its foundation.

Today Codatu organizes training courses for experts on transportation and mobility issues, and for students through the creation of two master’s programs, in Rabat and Lomé, in partnership with Senghor University. With these Masters, the objective is to train local executives and decision-makers who can plan sustainable mobility in the cities of the South.

Finally, an important part of the association's activities consists in supporting international cooperation projects that have a transport or mobility component, by coordinating activities, building a strategic vision, or carrying out evaluations.

Amongst these activities, my responsibilities mainly concern the scientific aspect of the association, in particular the organization of the next scientific conference in 2020 and the coordination of the master’s programs. I also carry out other more specific training activities, such as the setting up of a MOOC on sustainable urban mobility in Africa, and I also provide technical assistance for different missions, especially in Dakar and Cairo. I therefore have a wide range of tasks daily, and I am never bored!


Of all the activities you do, which do you enjoy the most? And on the contrary, which ones do you enjoy the least?

I am now doing activities that I could have done in the ESR. Being in charge of the training and research aspects of the association, I continue to work with researchers, read articles and think about fundamental questions. I am now interested in the issues of training and professional integration in several African countries. I also acquire operational and relational skills through technical assistance missions in the framework of international cooperation.

I therefore particularly like the diversity of the activities I carry out on a daily basis, and the constant back and forth between theory and practice, which also raises specific ethical questions when working in developing countries, from a Northern country.

What I don't like is that in the end, as with everywhere else, you often have to think about the resources you have at your disposal, and therefore the funding. But again, even if it is a constraint, it is also very formative to learn how to organize and coordinate activities according to a budget, to learn how to look for funding and to build provisional budgets.


Is the PhD an asset for your profession and/or organization?

I don't think the PhD in itself is an asset. My colleagues are not necessarily PhDs and they are extremely competent. What is an asset is my understanding of the actors’ interplay, a general culture of my core business, and more generally of the dynamics of territories and contemporary societies that I have acquired through research, but also through the lessons during my thesis. The PhD program gets us used to absorbing a lot of information and restituting it, as well as to quickly understanding issues and developing a strategic vision. These qualities really facilitate integration into a new position. I think that one of my assets is the ability to analyze and synthesize, and especially the ability to do it quickly and easily. Finally, if being at ease in writing is an obvious asset, word processing is also an obvious asset when writing deliverables, especially when it comes to formatting several hundred pages (formatting a 500-page thesis only by yourself is, from this point of view, a real skill...).


Have you observed any similarities between your current activities and those you had during your PhD or postdoctoral fellowship? How were you able to transfer these activities and skills from one sector to another?

Some of the skills that I use today have been developed and used for several years. Whether they are scientific, teaching or organizing scientific events and more generally analyzing, synthesizing, and communicating information. Another of my current skills is a know-how that I acquired previously: while I have been analyzing the transportation and mobility sector for years, I am now at the heart of this system. More generally, my current job requires more operational skills. But understanding certain fundamental issues allows me to grasp certain challenges more quickly, and therefore to make decisions more quickly.

What role has your network played in your development outside academia? What the image you had of the non-academic sector? What has changed in your perception?

Clearly, I was not familiar with the non-academic sector. I was on a purely "research" path, and I was never really interested in anything that existed outside of this path. On the one hand because of my interest in research, but also because the non-academic world has scared me a bit. It can be a jungle in which you don't always have all your bearings! But in the end, because of some people who were already between the ESR and the non-academic sector, I also decided to make this transition.

First of all, meeting with professionals involved in cutting-edge research issues showed me that ESR is not the only place to do research. Secondly, I found that these same people were often better able to set up projects and take action, whereas the precariousness of my work contracts did not allow me to imagine long-term projects. Finally, it appeared to me that many of my colleagues and some of my supervisors had strong links with the non-academic world that was nourishing their thinking. These considerations changed my perspective.

From then on, I was looking to meet as many people as possible who are between research and operational work in transportation and mobility field. I discovered the diversity of the jobs that exist and the backgrounds of my interlocutors, even though many of them ended up doing a PhD and taking a different path than ESR. What they all had in common was their interest in these issues that varied according to their jobs.


Are you a natural networking persona? If not, how did you get started?

I'm a sociable person, but I'm not familiar with this approach. Until now, networking belonged to another world for people who went to "business schools". I know it's a very simplistic way of presenting it. It didn't go smoothly, I didn't really know how to go about it, how to ask for meetings with people whose profession seemed interesting to me. I even took several meetings during which I could not really see where my place in the world of work could be to be a bit of a failure. And at the same time, since the field I was interested in was quite small, I discovered a new professional landscape which stimulated me and made me curious to discover it.


What can you advise PhDs to do to effectively develop their network, while taking pleasure in it, or to overcome their fears and doubts?

The ESR environment contributes to maintaining personal insecurity. We are often led to wonder if we really belong there, and if we are up to the task. After at least 8 years of higher education, this question is even obsolete, if not completely irrelevant. In building a network, the objective is above all to meet people who are interested or even passionate about your field, and with whom it will be stimulating to exchange. It's a bit like enrolling in a theater class or a sports activity where you meet people with whom you have common interests and therefore things to discuss.

If you had to give PhD 3 pieces of advice, what would you say?


  1. The PhD program is not an end in itself; it is a step in the construction of a professional project (whether clearly formulated yet or not), and an opportunity to build a fine vision of society and the contemporary world.

  2. A PhD is a job, the purpose of which is not to evaluate the intellectual capacities of an individual, but to provide an original and novel reflection that will be added to already existing knowledge.

  3. It can be beneficial to know why you want to do a PhD (for pleasure, by default, to pay bills, with the objective of participating in the functioning of society, etc.). We can all have different values and motivations, but when you know what drives you, you can also build a professional project that is separate from your PhD.