"The interpersonal skills developed in my tasks as a teaching assistant, for example when I supervised student work, are very useful in my role because they are key in teamwork."
Claudio Brenni obtained his PhD in Political Science at the Faculty of Social and Political Sciences (SSP) at UNIL in 2017. He is currently in charge of impact assessment at Velafrica, a non-profit organisation that collects old bicycles, refurbishes them and then exports them to Africa.
Title of the thesis (our translation): What food sovereignty? Indigenous and peasant issues in the governance of biodiversity (1970-2013).
GC: Can you introduce yourself in a few words?
CB: I did my thesis in political science at UNIL between 2012 and 2017. I have been working since 2018 for the NGO Velafrica in Bern.
Why did you choose to do a PhD?
Mainly because I was a bit stuck at the end of my Master's. I wanted to go deeper into the subject, and I was lucky enough to find a position at UNIL where I could propose my own research topic for my thesis.
Did you have a career plan during your PhD?
At the beginning of the PhD, I didn't really have a career plan. I told myself that I was going to do my thesis to find out more about my research topic and see if I was cut out for academic work. The career plan came after the PhD. But still today, I don't have a fixed or defined career plan.
You are responsible for impact assessment at Velafrica. On the day of your defence, would you have imagined you would be in this position today?
Not really. I was already interested in this organisation, because there was the possibility of combining development cooperation work with the aspect of cycling that I am passionate about. But in relation to the position I hold, I would never have expected to do impact assessment. It all came about by chance. While I was unemployed after my PhD, I was lucky enough to be able to participate in a labour market integration programme (BNF) in which I was able to propose an internship with Velafrica. My application was timely: Velafrica was looking for someone with research experience to do impact assessment. I was hired after this four-month internship.
What are your main tasks and how would you describe your role?
Velafrica collects bicycles that are no longer used in Switzerland. Once the bikes are selected and reconditioned, they are exported to Africa through local partners. The bikes are resold because the idea is to create viable social enterprises in Africa that can be self-financing within 3-5 years. My role is to organise the data that allows the organisation's activities to be carried out and presented. There is a monitoring part that is integrated into the project management activities: collecting data that informs us about the status and progress of the projects and fundraising. The other part of my work is dedicated to impact assessment: collecting data that demonstrate the impact on the livelihoods of the people involved in our projects.
What do you like most about this job?
I enjoy working in a small team (about 20 people). I have a lot of freedom in what I do, in the data collection and monitoring work. Being part of a small organisation has the advantage of being able to carry out a variety of activities, for example when helping colleagues. This position offers a good balance between practical and research work.
What are the essential skills for this job?
Quantitative and qualitative research and analytical skills are essential. I had to learn how to communicate visually, as the presentation and visualization of data is important. You also have to be interested in knowing different worlds. We are in regular contact with our partners in Africa, so that gives great access.
During your PhD, did you prepare for your entry into the labour market?
During the last two years of the thesis, I knew I didn't want to continue with a post-doc. That's when I started looking at the job offers. I also did some training offered by the CUSO to learn how to make the most of my transversal skills.
How do you respond to those who feel that the doctorate is not relevant to a non-academic career?
The doctorate - without being an obstacle - can make it difficult to enter the labour market. During the period of unemployment following my doctorate, I often had the impression that I was considered overqualified for certain positions. However, there are many skills acquired during the PhD that are very useful in my current job, such as project management and the ability to work and organise one's work independently. The interpersonal skills developed in my tasks as a teaching assistant, for example when I supervised student work, are also very useful in my role, as they are key in teamwork.
What advice would you give to a PhD or postdoc researcher preparing for the next stage of their career?
Look at the job ads before the end of the contract and don't wait until the last minute to do so. If you have to start a period of unemployment after your thesis, you can benefit from measures that can help you in this transition. There are integration programmes that offer the opportunity to do internships, particularly on the basis of a personal project. These are excellent opportunities to get a foot in the door of the world of work. If you are looking for a position outside the University, it is necessary to adapt your CV to a non-academic position and to be able to present yourself concisely.