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Find a job in humanities and social sciences outside the academic world: luck or strategy?

Clarisse Faria-Fortecoëf

Studies in political sciences between France and Germany, PhD in Sweden with stays in the U.S. and Poland, then return to the native country, Germany.
Career path of Barbara Kunz, political scientist and currently project leader at the Geshagen Foundation (Berlin), which objective is to contribute to the debate on the political, economic and social future of Europe, its internal cohesion and its role in the world.

Born in Germany, Barbara Kunz arrived in France when she was ten years old and studied political science between both countries, first at Ludwig-Maximilians University of Munich, then at the Institut d’Études Politiques de Paris. After participating twice in the Erasmus programme in Warsaw, Poland and Stockholm, Sweden, she did a PhD in Sweden on American foreign policy in relation to Central and Eastern Europe countries after 1989.

From France to Sweden

Having discovered Sweden (2001/2002) thanks to the Erasmus programme and learned the new language on the spot, Barbara chose to do a PhD in this country. It was the opportunity to change from France and Germany, as well as a good compromise in financial terms.
"Although there is a significant selection (only 4 or 5 people from political science each year), the Swedish system is quite favorable. Writing a thesis is considered as a full-time job for which the PhD student gets a salary". At the academic level, Barbara was attached to the University of Stockholm and at the administrative level at the Centre for Baltic and European Studies (CBEES).
"It's great to do a PhD in Sweden, you don't have the same in other countries, except perhaps in other Nordic countries such as Norway". Furthermore, it is also possible to teach, what Barbara did and better yet, in Swedish!
She was thus able to benefit as part of a fixed-term contract of one year renewable and covering the period of her thesis (2005/2008), from an office at the university and a decent salary allowing to meet her needs (housing, etc.). "The absolute dream compared to colleagues in France or Germany. I enjoyed working in Sweden, this is much simpler, for example, to be taken more seriously as a woman. The human dimension is quite important. As a PhD student, I could choose the supervisor I wanted and change him for another one along the way. I had rights. At the same time, I had to wait several months to defend my thesis because the pre-defense's president and responsible for the defense's authorization (Swedish system feature), was in paternity leave".

Furthermore, this Swedish experience will lead Barbara to the United States in 2007 and Poland in 2008.

Stays in the USA and Poland

With a nationality which did not match with her residence country, Barbara have never been able to get a scholarship - this is also a feature of her career path - and had thus to finance her trip and stay in Washington with her Swedish wage in 2007 autumn and for 6 months.
Reporting to the Center for Transatlantic Relations (a research center depending on the Johns Hopkins University), Barbara among others, produced a follow-up work of the American political system in relation to Central and Eastern European countries and attended conferences in this field.

After Washington, she went to Warsaw in April 2008 and for one month, to work in the Research Centre of International Relations (CSM). Her main activity was to meet and interview – main material of her thesis - representatives of embassies and ministries.

Between Sweden and Germany

Aware that it was not possible to complete the thesis in four years and facing the housing problem, Barbara had to find a job. "Housing is a disaster in Sweden, because you have to buy and it was not possible for me. As I was employed at the university, I had an housing, but from the moment where this was no longer the case, I had to seek a job and a new accommodation".
After applying for a position at the Bertelsmann Foundation (Gütersloh) in Germany she was recruited in 2008 as project Manager in the "Good Governance" field. "This is a great foundation. I was not sure to pursue my career in research and "Foundations" seemed to me a good compromise. It was close to international politics. And then, unexpectedly, I was offered the opportunity of a fixed-term contract for 3 years. I think it would have been possible to renew it, but I felt it was time to move".
After the year 2010 dedicated to the preparation of her thesis' defense while at the same time, she was working full-time at the Bertelsmann Foundation - the Swedish system requires that the thesis be published before the defense - Barbara went back to Sweden in 2011 to finalize her PhD which she defended in Swedish.

On her return to Germany and the Bertelsmann Foundation, with a PhD in the pocket, her first goal was to participate in a project, "a big conference" which was to take place in March 2011, and then seek a new job.
"The Foundation was located in a small town, I knew no one but my colleagues who also thought to move. It was an "Erasmus" atmosphere. And then, it was the logic of the Foundation: recruiting of young academics over a period of three years and then renewing teams for the same period and so on".

Moving back to the native country

After her mobility's experience, this is in her native country, Germany, that Barbara will be recruited in June 2011 in the Genshagen Foundation in Berlin, where she now works on the following topics: foreign policy and European security, transatlantic relations and Franco-German relations. For Barbara, this is a kind of "miracle". After the conference of March 2011 above mentioned and as she prepared to return to a job seeking logic, she receives against all odds, a call for applications by e-mail, for a position of "Dialogue European" project leader at the Geshagen Foundation. Initially, it was a part-time fixed term contract until the end of 2011. Despite the precarious aspect of this position because of its status and term, as well as her family advice, Barbara will accept the job and prove thereafter that she was right. "I felt that this job was designed for me. After, I have again been lucky. A person working full-time with a permanent contract left and I was able to recover 50% of this job. Through this and other annual external funding, I work 80% for over a year now". At the same time, and although there was not really a clear strategy at the beginning, "you can call it luck, yes and no. I was quite active in the "Dialogue d'avenir franco-allemand " association. Each year, a program gathering 10 German and 10 French is organized in the framework of this Franco-German network. I participated in this programme in 2005 and I am part of the alumni". This is through this network, that Barbara received the call for applications for the position she currently holds. In parallel, she is involved in various research projects and is lecturer at the University of Potsdam.

Which advice would you give to a PhD student, a young researcher?

"The thesis in Sweden, I advise it to everyone, at least in my discipline. Conditions are so favorable to focus on the thesis. It is a small country in which it is not easy to find an expert in a specific field, but where you can easily finance your research".
For Barbara who never got a scholarship, to be paid for his PhD, represented a real opportunity. At the level of advantages or not of the mobility, her advice: "do not be restricted to the international skill. Importance of learning English especially for Franco-German students. Try also to do more than two countries. Personally, this helped me to go out of the France/Germany dichotomy". See other countries, it is very rewarding on personal and professional level. Learning and practicing a new language, such as the Swedish, was for Barbara, a "pleasure".

The above comments were collected following the participation of Barbara at the European workshop "Encouraging creativity and innovation through researcher mobility: strategies and best practices" which was hold in Paris on 3 and 4 June 2013.