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Getting practical with doctoral research

By Loe Franssen - Posted on 17 December 2015

Loe Franssen, a PhD student in the Economics department, shares his insights into how practical research and internships can benefit doctoral study

Engaging in practical work and carrying out a theoretical research degree might not be two things you’d put together but I’m now in my fourth year of my PhD studies, focusing on the effects of global value chains on employment and wages, and I have also taken part in two different internships which has had benefits for me in many ways.

One of my internships was with the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) in London and the other was at the International Trade Centre (ITC) in Geneva. The ITC is a joint agency between the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) and the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and provides trade expertise and assistance to developing countries.

For both internships, I benefited significantly from financial assistance by the Scottish Institute for Research in Economics (SIRE). Taking into account Geneva and London living expenses, and since the UN has a strict policy of not paying their interns, this internship would have not been possible for me without SIRE assistance.

During my most recent internship, I co-authored the ITC’s first ever flagship publication on SME competitiveness (published in September). The ITC also provided me with data that I am now using for an additional chapter in my PhD thesis. This data is the result of a labour intensive project where (other) employees went through the national laws of various countries and identified those laws that could act as non-tariff barriers to trade. For my research, I examine the effect of such barriers to countries’ engagement in international value chains. For example, if a country sets a regulation that certain intermediate products (say car engines) need to have a quality certificate before they import it, then this could subsequently affect the countries’ engagement in the global value chain of car production.

As this data is not publicly available, doing this internship offered me the opportunity to get a first mover advantage on the data, which is extremely valuable. Doing this internship has also led to an ongoing collaborative research with employees from the ITC. Besides a co-authorship on my most recent paper, members of the ITC will also visit Strathclyde to present at one of our seminars.

I cannot stress the value of engaging in practical projects during your PhD. Not only does it benefit your understanding of the topics you are studying due to seeing them from a very different and applied angle, but it also helps build up a network which can lead to job opportunities after the PhD, which, in the end, is what matters. By doing this internship, I have been offered various jobs as well as funded postdoctoral opportunities in Geneva after the completion of my PhD.

What I’ve come to realise is that internships are the way to get a more permanent job within the UN, and I am sure this is the case with many other big companies and organisations as well. It is extremely hard to go straight into a job with the UN via their published job vacancies or through various schemes such as the Junior Professional Officer (JPO) or Young Professionals Program (YPP) which are extremely competitive and difficult to get accepted onto.

However, if you are able to do an unpaid internship (ideally with some external funding where possible; for example via SIRE!) then it is a lot easier to roll into a job from that point onwards, as many interns seemed to be able to do. So my advice for anyone doing a research degree is – get practical!



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