Margaux Kersschot

Doctoral School Policy Officer

Former researcher in social sciences at the Catholic University of Leuven (KU Leuven) and University of Antwerp, (Belgium), working for the Policy Research Centre on Foreign Affairs (government)

Margaux KersschotAcademic research experience

After my masters, I started by doing an internship at the Belgian Permanent Representation in Geneva, working on trade topics related to my thesis. I then embarked on a PhD at the University of Antwerp and KU Leuven. The project was funded by the Flemish government’s Policy Research Centre on Foreign Affairs. This meant that, based on my research, I’d write policy papers with recommendations for the government. In addition, I gave a number of seminars and guest lectures in the field of international politics.

My doctoral thesis was on decision-making and lobbying on European trade negotiations. More precisely, I began by looking at the involvement of regional authorities and coordination with national trade administrations and the European Commission. Then I looked at where firms lobby and why: Did they target their actions at a certain level of government? Why? Did they prefer working through associations or directly, and why? Or, in cases where nothing happened, why didn’t they lobby? I loved being able to engage in conceptual thinking and satisfy my curiosity.

Transition from academic research

Although I really loved some aspects of conducting research and teaching, certain factors inherent to academic work and to academia’s way of functioning can be discouraging. Scientific work can only improve through critique. After having worked hard for weeks, months, or even years on a paper, you receive critical feedback and you have to improve the paper. This cycle can be repeated endlessly, which can affect your motivation.

Academia functions quite differently from how I imagined it would. Unfortunately, the person you are closest to in terms of research is, at the same time, your biggest competitor for positions. In addition, you need to deal with precarious jobs and temporary contracts.

Then one day, at a general meeting of my university’s local representative association, someone from The European Council of Doctoral Candidates and Junior Researchers (Eurodoc) gave a presentation. All I could think was, ‘Wow, I have to be in there!’ So I got involved – up to the point of being elected to the board and as president. The final year of my PhD thus coincided with the presidency. In Eurodoc, I got to learn a lot about the reality of research careers in Europe.

Somehow I managed to hand in my dissertation during the Eurodoc presidency (which is another full-time job). It’s something I am very proud of. Several colleagues told me it was too much work, and it wasn’t going to bring me anything. It turned out that they were wrong. I quickly landed a fulfilling and fun job after my doctoral defence, thanks to the network I’d created in Eurodoc.

First job after academic research 

Two weeks after my defence, a friend who’d worked with me in Eurodoc got in touch to say that Adoc Talent Management (the Paris-based firm that specialises in the career management of doctoral graduates) was looking for someone to ‘bridge the summer period’ and she thought it might be an interesting experience for me. The recruitment process involved several interviews, but I particularly remember the one with one of the company’s Chief Executive Officers (CEOs) where we talked almost entirely about values. We were compatible; that was clear.

Instead of a summer job, they proposed a long-term contract as Business Developer. I was in charge of partnerships, leading training workshops for doctoral candidates, and helping with the firm’s research activities.

When I arrived, I landed in an environment where I felt people cared. On the first day, new staff got a warm welcome, met everyone again and learned about what they did, and found a ‘welcome booklet’ on the desk. After two weeks, I had a fuzzy feeling. It was as if I’d run a marathon in the cold rain and someone at the finishing line was wrapping me up in a warm blanket and giving me a hot drink. I will never forget it because, at that moment, I realised how lonely I’d felt before.

Moving to Paris and starting over was fun and exciting, but also complicated. For example, it took months before I found a place to live. On the other hand, I was able to give presentations and courses in different parts of the country in lots of higher education institutions (both universities and grandes écoles). Running training courses is especially fun when you can look out of the window and have a view over the Luxembourg Gardens and the Eiffel Tower. It felt great seeing how excited a group of doctoral candidates were after a fortnight’s hands-on intensive training on how to create a business or be a project manager. In addition, I was an invited expert at several policy events about doctoral training and careers of doctorate holders. I got to travel to Toulouse, Lille, Strasbourg…

During my time at Adoc, I always felt that I could propose things freely and go for them. I did have a job description; it was tailored to my preferences and needs. I worked in tandem with the CEOs, albeit more with the one focusing on business development. I was in on many things: brainstorming new training courses; developing a partnership framework; searching for funding for our research projects… I felt free and enthusiastic.

Next move

Although I loved Paris and my job as business developer, there were some downsides too (as there are in every job). Combining work and personal life was complicated. I reached the point where I needed more stability and balance between work and private life. In addition, after certain events in my family, I just wanted to be home.

Two weeks later, the Antwerp Doctoral School contacted me for the position of policy officer. (I had applied for them once, at some point during the PhD, and I’d been kept on a reserve list.) I decided to take it.

Current job – and how it compares

This time, I had to adapt to going from a small to a large structure. It takes time before you get an overview of all the services, governing bodies and activities.

As a policy officer at the Antwerp Doctoral School, the position is still very much in line with my activities in Eurodoc and in Adoc Talent Management. I no longer give training courses for doctoral candidates; instead, I work on the entire programme we provide. My work is on a projects basis: one in the pipeline will be an evaluation of the competency profile of the doctoral training programme. I work on policy preparation and implementation, and represent the doctoral school inside the university as well as on external bodies.

This time, my personal and work lives are much more in balance. I am still engaged in a number of ‘extra’ activities (advisory boards, a seat on the jury of a doctoral defence…), which I now do just for fun.

Basically, I’m working on a topic I’m interested in, where I feel I can positively affect people’s (doctoral candidates’) lives.

Competencies old and new

I still use the skills I developed during my PhD: How do you develop and implement a new project? How do you analyse data and synthesise results? How do you communicate them to multiple audiences?

I still use the same tools to overcome hurdles and difficulties that I had to use in my PhD. One of the most valuable skills I still use is critical thinking. I’m very quickly aware of flaws in arguments and much better able to counter them. Being proud of my dissertation and defence is something that’s given me a lot of confidence.

Reflections on my career path

One of the things I’ve noticed in my path is that I ‘went with the flow’ – always following my interests and passions throughout my studies and my work. This has created many opportunities: an internship at an embassy, a PhD, a job in Paris,… I guess that is the basic storyline of my career path. As a consequence, it may seem as if I don’t have a ‘typical’ linear career path, as I’ve explored many options and worked in several contexts. It certainly prevented boredom, and has opened my eyes on quite a few things. For example, in all those contexts, I’ve found jobs that combined three things: content on an interesting topic (and going into relative depth); representational activities; and teaching or raising awareness. You just have to identify the right jobs, and then think about the context(s) in which you feel good.

My advice

Find out what you really love by experimenting in voluntary work, hobbies,…

Exploring options outside of academia does not equate to failure – you’re making a choice about what you’re going to do for the rest of your career, eight hours a day. Don’t let that choice be influenced by other people’s perceptions. Look for information on what exactly you’ll be doing and look beyond job titles! In addition, it doesn’t have to mean that you are fully excluded from all academic work. For example, I was invited to sit on a doctoral jury of a dissertation closely related to my topic.

I strongly recommend taking a break after the submission or defence! After I handed in my manuscript, I went on a long-distance trip for three weeks.

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