Contributed by Katie Low, a PhD who has found a genuinely enjoyable way of changing careers via an internship in Brussels
After an undergraduate degree in Classics, I embarked on a Master’s and then a doctorate in Roman historiography. During my doctoral studies, I spoke at conferences and held a part-time lecturing job, but I also spent a year in Paris as an exchange student. On completing my thesis, I continued to teach and work on articles for publication, and I applied for full-time posts, but a year or so after my viva I realised that I was doing this not so much because I wanted to but more as it was what my peers were doing and I felt was expected of me. Although I know that many recent PhDs are utterly committed to their subject and to the profession – and I have the greatest respect for this – I suspect some others may feel as I did. I know that it is hard to give up a life path on which you have expended a huge amount of effort and energy; at the same time, I think it is important to remember that leaving academia, for whatever reason, is not failing, and that there are rewarding options available elsewhere.
Having made my decision, I needed to find alternative possibilities. I had always been interested in European culture and affairs and had especially enjoyed studying and attending conferences in continental Europe, but I wasn’t sure how my doctorate in Classics could possibly lead to a job in this area. A friend working for the European Commission, however, then told me about the internship schemes organised by the institutions of the European Union. Twice a year, over a thousand people have the chance to spend five months as interns (usually referred to as trainees or stagiaires) at the Commission, the European Parliament, the European Council, and other bodies in Brussels (and, in some cases, Luxembourg or elsewhere).
The basic requirements are citizenship of an EU member state (there is a limited number of places for other nationalities), a university degree, and at least some knowledge of two of English, French and German, the EU’s working languages: to apply you need to fill in forms in which you set out your motivation, work experience, and skills in different areas (academic activities should give you plenty of material). Interns are paid a salary of about 1100€/month, which is enough to live on decently (though not extravagantly) in Brussels, and also receive a contribution to their travel expenses. They are mostly in their twenties and early thirties, although a few are older (there is no age limit), and come from a very wide range of backgrounds.
I applied to three institutions, despite worrying that not having studied ‘relevant’ subjects would count against me – and was fortunate enough to receive three offers (I ended up choosing the one from the European Economic and Social Committee, which provides a forum for employers’, employees’ and civil society organisations’ interests to be represented at European level). I subsequently learned that, although there are no official pronouncements about this, having a higher degree or degrees in any discipline is looked upon favourably by those assessing applications. My time studying abroad may also have helped, and without that I would have stressed the other international contacts I made in academia. I was also able to mention that I had studied German during my doctorate; while you do need to provide proof of your language skills, in my case a ten-year-old A Level French certificate and an email confirming my mark in a doctoral German exam were accepted without question.
So my academic experience opened up the world of the European institutions to me, and my time as an intern at the EESC was an exceptionally rewarding one. I was working in the EESC’s Department of Communication, where I was able to develop further the writing and communicating skills I acquired during my academic career, learn about the European Union from the inside, and make contacts within both the EESC and the wider Brussels ‘Eurobubble’ (the online and offline world of the EU institutions and the think-tanks, media outlets and other organisations that work with and report on them). My five months there were also a lot of fun – Brussels is generally a very pleasant place to live, and I was able to travel around Belgium, meet new people, and in sum enjoy life much more than when I was juggling teaching, administration, research and jobseeking in the aftermath of my doctorate.
At the end of the internship, some of my peers returned home and others went on to further study, but I was not the only one to stay on in Brussels, where I now have a full-time job in communications. I know that both the skills I obtained in academia and the professional reorientation that my internship allowed me to undertake were crucial in making my CV competitive. Being a native English speaker is also helpful on the Brussels job market (as English is widely used as a lingua franca) and can open up opportunities that might not exist in Anglophone countries.
I would therefore strongly recommend an EU internship as an option for PhD-holders looking to broaden their professional experience and explore alternative career options, while living in a very interesting city. Information about all the institutional internships available can be found at http://europa.eu/about-eu/working-eu-institutions/traineeships/index_en.htm, but I would be very happy to offer advice on the application process or any other aspect of the transition out of academia; please feel free to contact me at k underscore a underscore low at hotmail dot com, or via LinkedIn.