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GeoPolicy: What does working at the European Environment Agency look like? An interview with Petra Fagerholm

GeoPolicy: What does working at the European Environment Agency look like? An interview with Petra Fagerholm

This blog post features an interview with Petra Fagerholm who is currently leading the team on public relations and outreach in the communications department of the European Environment Agency (EEA). Petra gave a presentation about the EEA during the Science for Policy short course at the 2018 EGU General Assembly. In this interview, Petra describes her career path, what it is like to work at the EEA and provides some tips to scientists who are interested in a career in an EU institution or who would like to share their research with policymakers.

Could you start by introducing yourself and the European Environment Agency (EEA)

My name is Petra Fagerholm, I have worked at the European Environment Agency (EEA) in Copenhagen for 14 years. Currently, I am leading the team on public relations and outreach in the Communications department.

The EEA is an EU agency, which was set up in 1993 to inform the policymakers and the citizens about the status of the environment and to contribute to sustainable development. In addition to the headquarters, a ministerial level expert network across Europe was also established. This network is called “Eionet” and it ensures dataflows for reporting and quality consistency of the assessments we produce.

How does the EEA use science and research?

Experts at the EEA use science and research material when producing reports, briefings and assessments. The EEA translates science into tailor-made knowledge needed for policymaking at a European level.

How did you become the Head of Group for Public Relations and Outreach at the EEA?

I studied Biology at the University of Helsinki, in Finland, where I come from. My University pathway was far away from communication and environment. After a year of exchange at the University of Neuchâtel, Switzerland, I became really interested in human physiology and subsequently I graduated a couple of years later from the University of Strasbourg with a French DEA degree in Neurosciences. I was part of the research group on visual psychophysics when Finland became a member in the EU. Finnish politicians were hiring assistants and out of curiosity (and being young… and fearless…), I applied and got the job. I think the drive for change came from the fact that I felt my research topics and hypothesis were very difficult to solve and funding was hard to get in the area of fundamental life sciences research. I aspired to be part of the new “European Project” for Finland.

After my job at the European Parliament, I was lucky to be recruited on a short-term contract at the European Commission as Scientific Officer in the area of Neurosciences. After a break of 1 year during which I was pregnant with my daughter, I worked for 2 years at Merrill Lynch Investment Bank in London. During that period, I came across the announcement for recruiting new staff at the EEA.

At the EEA, I started at the Executive Director’s office working on strategic coordination and on several short-term projects in the field of sustainability. I have always been keen to lead and support others in their career. I lead the support team in that office for 8 years. After 11 years in total in the director’s office, I was ready to change career and was lucky to be transferred to the communications department. My new tasks were to develop stakeholder approaches to support the communication framework at the EEA and continue to lead the team of outreach.

My career path is far from a straight line. I have more often let my heart lead rather than my head on career decisions. People I have met over the years, or more precisely bosses I have had, have helped by always giving me a sense of freedom in my tasks, trusting and believing in me. I have avoided staying in a job where I did not feel my skills were valued.

What is your average day like in the EEA office?

An average day is when I interact across the organisation with experts seeking their input or advice into a stakeholder project I am doing. It can be either enquiring about stakeholder consultations of a report published or developing a programme for a visiting group coming to the EEA. I catch up with everyone in my team on a daily basis to sense if everything is ok. My boss is easily approachable and I speak to her every day.

Twice a month I organise a strategic communication meeting for the Communication colleagues where we share information on production, launches, press, speeches and project across the EEA. Sometimes I receive a visiting group from a university or a ministry. People from across the world contact us to ask for a visit. Usually I kick off the programme by giving a presentation about the EEA after which I am joined by a couple of experts on a specific topic that the visitors are interested in.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

I like to lead a team and see how the members complement each other’s competences.  Allowing each team member to use their full potential and develop new skills is rewarding to me.

Working in a European body and for the environment feels good. I believe the EU is the biggest peace project in the world.

What do you find most challenging about your job?

I find it challenging when it is difficult to measure the real and tangible impact of outreach or communication. It is also sometimes difficult to prioritise activities and to work within the limited resources we have available.

Sometimes we cannot avoid influences from geopolitical storms – it is hard. Europe is about working together and building bridges for everyone.

What advice would you give to a researcher who is interested in a career with the EEA or the EU more broadly?

  • Firstly, you have to be an EU national to apply to the EU institutions. At the EEA, we have 33-member countries and you have to be citizen of one of these.

    Map of the 33-member countries

  • If you see an interesting job advertised in the EU institutions or EEA, apply as many times as you want.
  • Do not give up.
  • Keep your CV updated.
  • Follow EU politics.
  • Read up on EU affairs – it will make a difference in the interview.
  • Apply for jobs in national ministries or institutions – it can sometimes be a gateway to finding a short-term contract as a seconded national expert in the EU or at EEA. Look for a job in an EU lobby organisation who could benefit from your specific research.
  • Apply for the EU Blue Book traineeships https://ec.europa.eu/stages/
  • Register to EPSO – the EU portal for jobs: https://epso.europa.eu/apply/job-offers_en

Do you have any advice for scientists wanting to communicate their research with policymakers?

Less is more. Policymakers will find your research useful if you have concrete examples on how to contribute or solve some of the challenges a policymaker faces.

Use easily understandable language in your communication material. One A4 page is a good length for anything.

Is there anything else you’d like to say or comment on?

Surround yourself every day with people who are positive and who give you energy and pull you up. Believe in yourself and in your passion for what you do. Be proud of the choices you have made and trust in those you will make. There is a reason for everything.

Editor’s Note: since this interview took place, Petra has changed positions within the European Environment Agency and  is currently working as a stakeholder relations expert 

 

Give us the foundation to build our transferrable skills!

Give us the foundation to build our transferrable skills!

The EGU Early Career Scientists’ (ECS) Great Debates offer early career scientists at the EGU General Assembly the chance to network and voice their opinions on important topics in the format of round-table discussions. At the end of the debate, each table delivers a statement that summarises the discussion and recommendations. By publishing the results, we hope to highlight some of the needs of the EGU ECS community and how these matters should be addressed.

At this year’s ECS Great Debate, the topic was transferrable skills in science. The main question was “should early career scientists use time developing transferrable skills?” You may say this is a simple question to answer. Indeed, all the resulting statements indicated that the EGU ECS answer is YES. However, the simple statements hide a much more complex situation; a situation that varies considerably for each individual researcher. Different countries have different standards, different universities set different curricula, and different supervisors have different priorities. Some early career scientists are lucky to have many opportunities to develop transferrable skills, whereas others strive to gain these skills.

Groups defined transferrable skills as ones that could be used in other scientific disciplines and not least, in industry. Indeed, many scientific skills are transferrable. For example, data analysis and statistics were noted as valuable tools across various scientific fields and industry careers. Some groups gave extensive lists of transferrable expertise, and most were not strictly science-based. These included writing, presenting, social media, teaching, team working, project management, networking and critical thinking, to name a few. However, developing these skills do not traditionally fall into the curricula of the geosciences.

Early career scientists having round-table discussions on the importance of developing transferrable skills. (Credit: Olivia Trani)

It was evident that ECS in the EGU consider transferrable skills as extremely important to their careers and their science. They furthermore suggest that researchers should be given time and appropriate credit to develop these skills.

At the same time, many of the ECS debate participants believe in striking a balance between establishing these skills and the scientific skills that their PhDs and publications depend on.

Below you will find a list of the summary statements from the ECS that were present at the Great Debate. These reports, based on the discussions from more than 100 early career scientists, show solid support for transferrable skill training. These results are a clear indication that EGU must continue to work towards offering short courses at the General Assembly on a variety of transferrable skills. Additionally, these statements can help ECS persuade their universities to invest in opportunities to develop these skills if they do not already do so. It is clear that the EGU early career scientist community believes these skills not only help ECS develop their careers, but that they also benefit science and society!

Here are the table’s conclusions:

“Instead of currently developing random skills ourselves, on an ad-hoc basis, we need an environment to support more organized, collaborative, efficient, and recognized skill sets”

“We need transferrable skills to communicate knowledge and help society, therefore learn them, when you need them or want them, others will thank you”

“We should focus on developing these [transferrable] skills but we need to manage our time in order to go deeper into [our] own science”

“Yes, because whether you decide to stay in academia or in industry, these skills will help you be better in your field, help you work on interdisciplinary topics and communicate your work, thus increasing your success. The pros outweigh the cons!”

“Yes, to be a good scientist, researcher, or general human being, it takes more than one skill or field. It takes being open and brave to pursue new experiences to change both yourself and those around you.”

“Scientific careers are not just about getting specific knowledge in your field specialty but being able to adapt yourself to different disciplines.”

“Yes, because you get more job opportunities, it gives you flexibility, it’s fun, it makes you happy, it helps define you and strengthens your personality.”

“Yes, it is important for improving our possibilities after a PhD. We should take these opportunities as early career scientists [and] have more chances to learn these skills.”

“All scientists should be required to take time to develop useful skills for professional and personal development. These developments should not be exclusive to certain groups, should be obligatory with freedom to choose topics, should be offered to supervisors and managers, should include more courses at conferences and there should be more money for travel funding.”

“We need to find a good balance during PhD between doing science and attending courses about transferrable skills.”

“Yes, but plan which relevant transferrable skills you need to develop in the short term in relation to your project, and then update your long-term plan.”

“Transferrable skills will always be useful in your current and future situation. They should be learnt at university. It should be acceptable to spend time learning these skills in courses in tandem with your research.”

By Mathew Stiller-Reeve, co-founder of ClimateSnack and researcher at Bjerknes Centre for Climate Research, Norway

Editor’s note: This is a guest blog post that expresses the opinion of its author and those who participated at the Great Debate during the General Assembly, whose views may differ from those of the European Geosciences Union. We hope the post can serve to generate discussion and a civilised debate amongst our readers.

Head on over to the EGU Booth!

Head on over to the EGU Booth!

You can find the EGU Booth in Hall X2 on the Brown Level. This is the place to come if you’d like to meet members of EGU Council and Committees (Meet EGU) and find out more about EGU activities.

Here you can discover the EGU’s 17 open access journals, browse the EGU blogs (GeoLog, the EGU Blog Network and the EGU Division Blogs), catch up on the conference Twitter feed, and more! We will also be giving away beautiful geosciences postcards, which the EGU will post for you free of charge.

Beside the booth you’ll also find the finalists in the EGU Photo Contest, make sure you vote for your favourite images!  You’ll also find the Assembly Job Spot – be sure to check it out if you’re looking for a job in the geosciences, or someone to fill as spot in your research group.

If you have any questions about the EGU, or want to be more involved in the Union, come and ask us, we’re happy to help!

Short courses at EGU 2018

Short courses at EGU 2018

At this year’s General Assembly there are loads of short courses to choose from for broadening your expertise. You can supercharge your scientific skills, broaden your base in science communication and pick up tips on how to boost your career – be it in academia or outside. There is also a course aimed at making your time at the conference easier – be sure to take part, especially if it is your first time! And, if you do attend the short courses, don’t forget to share your experience with other conference participants on social media using the dedicated hashtag: #EGU18SC. Here’s a small selection of what’s in store at EGU 2018:

Supercharge your science – new techniques and dealing with data

Tips and tricks to boost your career

Being able to secure your own funding for research is key to a successful academic career and will give you important skills applicable to industry jobs too, so why not check out these three grant writing courses?

A selection of short courses focused on career development and improving your chances of landing your dream job. (Photo by Nick Youngson, distributed via Blue Diamond Gallery)

Additionally, you can also improve the chances of landing your dream job by attending these career development sessions.

You can also gain very useful insight from those who have done it before, so why not take part in your Division’s ‘Meet the masters’ session? Here you’ll be able to meet experts in the field who can give you tips on how to get the most out of your career.

Science communication skills

With a growing emphasis on engaging the public with science and research, we have many workshops designed to develop your communication skills.

The EGU General Assembly is taking place in Vienna, Austria from 8 to 13 April. Check out the full session programme, for a complete list of short courses available, on the General Assembly website.