“In the long term, I am sure that the doctorate is an asset in a professional career, especially if it is complemented by further training more oriented towards the work you want to do.“
Sabina Gani obtained her doctorate in social sciences with the Faculty of Social and Political Sciences (SSP) at UNIL in 2012. She is currently director of Lire et Ecrire Vaud, a non-profit association with a mission to support adult literacy.
Thesis title (our translation): A Europeanisation of policies to conciliate family and professional life? The cases of Italy and France.
GC: Can you introduce yourself in a few words?
SG: I’m 39, I did a doctorate in social sciences, and I’m director of the Vaud section of the association Lire et Ecrire.
Why did you decide to do a doctorate?
It was an opportunity that presented itself to me, as I hadn’t thought about doing a doctorate while I was studying (for the Licence, the degree which existed prior to the Bachelor/Master cursus, Ed.). I began a Licence thesis that I was really passionate about. My thesis director proposed a post as a research and teaching assistant with the possibility to do a doctoral thesis. Ever since high school, I had always worked to finance my studies – and for the first time, I had the possibility to combine salary and study. It was a great opportunity and I was really happy to accept the offer.
Did you have a career plan during your doctorate?
Absolutely not! My only career plan was to do what I was passionate about and believed in, and to stop the minute it didn’t interest me anymore – if I lost my passion.
You’re now director of the Vaud branch of the Lire et Ecrire association. The day of your defence, would you have imagined being in this position today?
Absolutely not! I had my first child during my thesis and my second ten days after my defence. At that time, I was torn between wanting to continue in academia, because I had always enjoyed it and I was still passionate about it, and wanting to discover something else. I chose to discover something else, also because I think at that stage I didn’t have the courage to launch into a postdoc abroad – something I saw as a big mountain to climb.
What are your main tasks and how would you describe your role?
There are a multitude of tasks. Lire et Ecrire is a non-profit that wants to change society – that is a huge driver for my role, which covers several areas.
There’s the financial management of budgets – managing negotiations and contracts with public authorities, the different cantonal, municipal and regional departments for social action, as well as seeking funding through private partners such as the Loterie Romande. There’s the financial aspect of making sure the money comes in so that salaries can be paid. I also need to maintain and develop trustful relationships with our partners, and to negotiate contracts.
Another aspect is awareness-raising and lobbying to improve recognition of the issues of illiteracy: relations with the media and with politicians, monitoring what’s going on at cantonal and federal levels that can have an effect on our mission and for those we support. Finally, there’s the management of people and teams – the Vaudois section includes 43 employees and 36 volunteers.
What do you enjoy in your role?
The diversity of tasks. There’s really a wide range of things to be done, as well as a big margin of manoeuvre in what can be developed. It’s difficult to be bored in this role. The world of associations offers a professional space in which you can really succeed if you like to develop projects and take the initiative. There’s a real engagement on the part of all the people who are employed by or who volunteer with the association, and that brings an enormous energy to what I do.
What skills are essential for your role?
You need to enjoy numbers. It’s impossible to do my job if you’re not comfortable with numbers. I spend a large part of my day with financial planning, budgets and analysis.
I’d say that organizational skills are also essential and that you need to be able to develop structures: my position was created in 2017, and I’ve had to put an organisation in place that allows a big team to function.
You also need to be self-aware and not take yourself too seriously – as well as have human and relational skills.
Can you describe the path that brought you to your current role?
I started my search for my first role after I completed my doctorate in 2012, which was a real challenge. It wasn’t easy to be on the job market and not as young as Masters graduates seeking their first professional experience. After the doctorate, we’re on the job market with a professional experience that isn’t always recognized as such.
At the end of my thesis, my objective was to work in an equal opportunities office. I found a post in Fribourg, but it was only part-time (20%). So I sought out an additional job, and that’s how I came to the Lire et Ecrire association, which I hadn’t heard of before. I was hired as coordinator for the Riviera-Chablais office. I had both jobs in parallel for three and a half years, which was fascinating. And in the meantime, I wrote a book as an extension of my thesis. It was a very exciting period, because there are numerous links you make while having several jobs. I think that it’s also very interesting for an employer to have people on their team who bring an external perspective and knowledge and practice from elsewhere. At that time, I really discovered the world of associations which I’d known about as a volunteer during my studies, but not really at a professional level. I was really drawn to the way this world works.
Later on, I had the opportunity to take on a new professional responsibility at the centre of the Lire et Ecrire association and to restructure it especially within the Vaud section. It’s seven years now since I’ve been part of the association, and four years that I’ve been director.
During your doctorate, did you prepare yourself for the job market?
Not at all – at least, not voluntarily. During my doctorate I was really focused on my thesis, on the research we were doing and on the teaching tasks I was given responsibility for. With hindsight, I can say that I developed many professional skills during my doctorate without necessarily being aware of them. These skills have been absolutely essential for the different roles I’ve had since then. There’s one skill that’s particularly transferable to all professional contexts – the ability to quickly research information and to be able to put it in perspective, to move back and forth between the micro, meso and macro levels, and to contextualise information relative to trends.
I also developed an ability to argue my point, which is necessary in negotiations. As part of the research I participated in during my thesis, there were also dimensions of project management, such as thinking about the resources that will be needed to achieve objectives.
Afterwards, it’s essential to be able to talk about your skills in a job interview and be confident enough to show that you have them, even if they don't come from the 'classical professional environment'.
What would you say to someone who considers that the doctorate isn’t relevant for a career beyond academia?
I don't think that's true. It depends a bit on the objective you have when you're doing your doctorate. Being able to start a thesis and finish it is a sign of endurance. It's still a big project that involves many years of work.
I would say that the PhD may not be a huge asset and may even be a barrier to entering the labour market because not all employers have the sensitivity and ability to understand the skills the PhD brings. But I believe that there are employers who are sensitive to this and who recognize all the skills that can be developed during a PhD.
In the long term, I am sure that the doctorate is an asset in a professional career, especially if it is complemented by further training more oriented towards the work you want to do.