Utilising the potential of doctors in the maritime sectors

prof. Barbara Pawłowska

Dr Beata Czechowska-Derkacz talks to Dr Barbara Pawłowska, prof. UG from the Faculty of Economics, about the potential of the blue economy, 'maritime' PhD graduates, the competencies of the future and the SEA-EU DOC project.


Dr Beata Czechowska-Derkacz: - You are the Director of the Doctoral School in Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Gdańsk. The new doctoral school system became operational on October 1, 2019. Can we make a preliminary assessment of it?

Dr hab. Barbara Pawlowska, prof. UG: - When setting up doctoral schools under the new system, we hit a very difficult time - the time of the COVID-19 pandemic. The lockdown made it difficult for doctoral students to conduct research and to go on scientific trips. In many cases, the group of doctoral students who started training in 2019 had to revise their research plans, often leading to the need to extend the deadline for dissertation submission. It is, therefore, too early for summary evaluations of the new system, but one can be tempted to assess the first training cycle, which ended on September 30, 2023. It is quite different from that associated with doctoral studies. Doctoral studies were conducted in faculties, whereas doctoral schools are university-wide units where training is conducted in disciplines but is oriented towards interdisciplinarity. The UG Doctoral School of Humanities and Social Sciences trains doctoral students in sixteen disciplines. This is a major challenge because doctoral students' needs have to be met, whether in terms of research methods, doctoral labs or familiarising doctoral students with the latest trends in the disciplines. However, the interdisciplinarity that was at the heart of the new system has been ensured. Doctoral students have the opportunity to work in teams, bringing together members of different disciplines; they write joint projects and submit them to the National Science Centre, and scientific articles are written in which doctoral students from different disciplines are co-authors. Classes provide the opportunity to exchange views and consider scientific issues from the perspectives of various sciences.


- What kind of candidates seek admission to the doctoral school? 

- They are primarily people who are determined to do research. They understand that training in a doctoral school, conducting a doctoral project, and writing a PhD involves a dedication to research. During their recruitment interviews, most of these people declare that a love of science and a desire to do research were at the heart of their decision to apply to doctoral school.


- You are also the head of a project team at the University of Gdańsk that worked on a project specifically for doctoral students: 'Beyond academia: broadening the career horizons of doctoral students in marine and maritime sciences in Europe' (SEA-EU DOC). This international project was carried out in the consortium of the European University of the Seas within the framework of the Erasmus+ programme. Where did the idea for this project come from?

- Its concept was conceived in 2019 when a competition was launched under the Erasmus+ KA203 - Strategic Partnerships for Higher Education - to study the competencies of PhD graduates seeking employment outside the university. It is a well-known fact that not all European doctors are guaranteed jobs at universities or research institutes. Many of them have to find their place in the economic environment. This raises the question: are PhDs prepared to work outside academia? In the summer of the same year, before the doctoral schools had even started, we decided, with our partners from the SEA-EU consortium, to carry out a study on the careers of doctoral students who had completed their doctoral studies and defended their doctorates: we were interested in how their career paths were shaping up and whether they had acquired the competencies that the labour market expected of them. As the partners in SEA-EU are coastal universities where research on maritime issues is carried out, in the SEA-EU DOC project, we focused on analyses of PhD employment in the broader maritime sectors. The results of the surveys showed that PhDs who have been educated in doctoral studies do not fully obtain the competencies that the labour market expects. They develop a lot of so-called hard competencies, but these do not always coincide with the expectations of employers outside academia. We, therefore, decided to submit a project proposal, and in September 2020, we received funding to implement it.


- Which universities besides the University of Gdańsk have participated in the project?

- These are the partner universities that are part of the European University of the Seas consortium within the SEA-EU project: the University of West Brittany from France, which was the coordinator of the work in SEA-EU DOC, the University of Cádiz from Spain, the Christian Albrecht University of Kiel from Germany, the University of Split from Croatia and the University of Malta in Valletta from Malta.


- What is the project concept based on, and what was its main aim? 

- The project concept is based on examining the demand-supply match mentioned earlier regarding competencies: what the labour market expects and what is offered by PhD graduates coming out of university. The basic assumption was that not all doctoral students would find jobs in universities and research institutes after defending their doctoral theses and completing their doctoral studies. This is due to the limited number of positions the European academic labour market can offer newly promoted PhDs. Young doctoral candidates are often unaware of the possibilities for developing their careers in the non-academic labour market. The main aim of the project was, therefore, to investigate the correspondence between the competencies and skills held by PhDs and those expected of them, to develop good practices based on the experience of the partners, and to offer European universities standards for training and equipping PhD students with the competencies needed for employment in the non-academic labour market in the broader maritime economy. An important aspect of our activities was also to strengthen cooperation between partners, promote development, test the implementation of innovative practices, and develop entrepreneurship and active cooperation in various areas among doctoral students and graduates.


- What activities were undertaken to achieve these ambitious goals?

- The project was divided into three research areas, the so-called intellectual outputs [IO1, IO2, IO3 - editor's note]. The first involved research into the competencies acquired by doctoral students during their studies: we looked at the competencies that enable them to work in the non-academic market and whether they had developed them during their doctoral studies. The second area concerned employers: we identified what skills they expect from students completing their third degree, which of these skills they value most and whether the labour market is interested in employing PhD graduates. The third area was networking between doctors, doctoral students, employers, partner universities and others interested in the subject who are willing and able to help PhDs enter the non-academic labour market more easily, especially into maritime-related businesses and institutions.


- I have had the pleasure of interviewing PhD graduates from the University of Gdańsk who have found employment in the non-academic market in sectors and professions related to the sea. They wrote their doctorates at various faculties of our university: the Faculty of Oceanography and Geography, the Faculty of Economics, the Faculty of History, and the Faculty of Philology, and the subjects they undertook were related precisely to maritime studies and marine research in the broadest sense. Their career paths have not always been easy and straightforward. Can we already say today what would be worth changing in the system of training doctoral students and promoting PhDs?

- The experiences gained in the second research area were very interesting. In addition to the questionnaires sent to employers, we organised focus group discussions. These were online meetings because they coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown. During these meetings, we had the opportunity to discuss with maritime businesses their expectations of PhDs who would be looking for work outside the university. It turned out that the competencies doctors acquired while conducting research for their PhD projects were beneficial for employers. In particular, they appreciated their professionalism, state-of-the-art industry knowledge, and way of talking about scientific issues. What the graduates lacked was, above all, the ability to speak about their research and projects in simple language that was understandable to people outside the industry. A person who leads a doctoral project focuses on their research work. This is individual work. On the other hand, when they start working in a company, they must adapt to team activities and learn to communicate with colleagues, be flexible, and cooperate in different conditions with different people. The ability to deal with difficult situations and take risks were also important. These are soft competencies. When educating doctoral students, especially in the sciences, these soft competencies are often forgotten or not given due importance. And according to the expectations of the labour market, we should strengthen them.


- Has the project provided any training for doctoral students to strengthen soft competencies?

- In the project, we planned several so-called training events: three for doctoral students and one training event for promoters. Each was dedicated to a different skill that a doctor should be equipped with when entering the labour market. I attended the first and second one, which seemed to be about simple, basic things: setting up a LinkedIn profile and presenting your strengths in a job interview.  You might think everyone has picked up such skills already at university. What surprised me was how committed the doctoral students were to participating in these activities and how important it was to them. It turns out, therefore, that this knowledge and these competencies need to be addressed and structured; effective solutions need to be suggested, and advice needs to be given from the point of view of technological and labour market changes.


- Seventy-two interviews were conducted with PhDs who had taken up employment in the non-academic labour market, in one of the maritime sectors. Each of the partner universities conducted ten written interviews and two video recordings. This is a broad overview of those who have managed to find work outside the university. As far as the University of Gdańsk experience is concerned, these are extremely interesting people who hold senior positions in various companies, offices and institutions. Do we have any ideas on how to work with them further to fulfil this potential? 

- This is the task of each university, and the simplest way is to cooperate with such people within alum clubs or associations. At the University of Gdańsk, such associations exist and are quite active, and there is also the UG Alum Club. Our PhD students, who were involved in the project, cooperate with these associations and clubs to varying degrees. We also wondered how their research experience could be used in doctoral schools. However, this is not so simple. The doctoral school is a university-wide unit, and the training of doctoral students takes place within it, but the research is carried out by the doctoral students in their research units in the faculties. It is certainly possible to benefit from the experience of our graduates in entering the labour market outside the university. This is why a contact platform for doctors, doctoral students and employers was created during the project. It is a platform for companies and institutions that are looking for PhDs with maritime expertise, for PhDs who are looking for employment in such places, and for PhD students in need of professional support. It is a platform for the exchange of thoughts, contacts, and ideas. Our participating graduates have a huge role to play here as experts.


- Is this contact platform open to the public?

- Yes, and it works all the time. All you have to do is register at https://seaeudoc.sea-eu.org/interviews/ to access the news and the opportunity to communicate with other participants, exchange information, make announcements and keep up to date with what is happening in the area.


- I would like to refer to the motto of the University of Gdańsk: In mari via tua - In the sea thy way. Are we able to make full use of the maritime potential of our university?

- The location of our university, the history of the cities of Gdańsk, Gdynia and Sopot, as well as the Pomeranian region where we are located, makes our education and research naturally oriented towards maritime issues. When looking for doctoral graduates whose current work is related to the sea, we found them in very different places, such as museums in Gdańsk and Gdynia, water and sewage companies, meteorological companies, European institutions, and many others. Gdańsk and Gdynia are port cities, maritime cities, and any activity here will always connect with the sea, although the connection will not always be direct. It seems to me that our university uses the maritime potential of our region to a vast extent and is a leader in many fields. However, given the importance of the so-called blue economy for economic development, we should focus even more on these issues. The blue economy is currently determining the future development of Europe and, therefore, also of Poland. This applies both to traditional sectors and to innovative ones, such as energy, food production and the extraction of raw materials from the seabed. This is a huge potential. The labour market associated with all sectors of the blue economy is developing very dynamically. It will need specialists in the maritime economy, that is, our graduates from first- and second-level studies and from doctoral schools. We need to take into account the needs of this segment of the labour market and prepare our graduates to enter this market.


- The blue economy is, in simple terms, the sustainable use of the seas and oceans. As a scientist, you have been working on this subject for many years. Are you seeing positive changes in using the sea's potential for the economy? Are we moving away from the plundering of marine resources?

- These are difficult questions. The maritime economy comprises more than a dozen different sectors, including the sea, the ocean, the coastline, and land areas lying both directly on the coastline and inland, linked in different ways to the maritime sectors. All are vying for their own operating space. Very often, there are conflicts between the various uses of this space. Consequently, it is necessary to plan activities and developments in these areas in order to strengthen them, and not make them opposites. Maritime spatial planning under the principles of sustainable development is growing a great deal; it has accelerated, and it can be seen that it is an appreciated tool for sorting out contentious issues. However, this is only the beginning of the process, so let us hope this tool will effectively and efficiently tidy up the maritime space. It should be noted that Poland is a leader in this area.


- Are any further projects planned to develop the themes addressed in the SEA-EU DOC?

- We have only just finished reporting on our project, so we need time to plan further. We want to continue this work,  however, no longer within the Erasmus+ programme but in other programmes offered by the European Union. We also hope to produce publications to disseminate the research results related to the SEA-EU DOC project. These results are, by all means, valuable and interesting for all universities that provide doctoral education, but also for employers and the maritime economy. We have shared the research results and experiences we have gained from the SEA-EU DOC project at various meetings and with various groups. Among other things, I spoke about our project at the Doctoral School Directors' Forum, which brings together around seventy universities. My presentation was received with great interest because - as it turns out - the need to include soft competencies is also emerging in other doctoral schools. The same applies to the implementation of doctorates carried out jointly by a university and a company. We discussed the possibilities and limitations of conducting such doctorates at universities, and here, too, the need to strengthen soft competencies was pointed out. A very interesting meeting was the final international multiplayer event that concluded our project. This was the 2023 EUA-CDE Annual Meeting, held in June 2023 in Lahti, where we presented the results of our research during a session on the SEA-EU DOC project. The meeting was attended by representatives of schools and doctoral studies from all over Europe, as well as from non-European countries. Our presentations attracted much interest and sparked discussions on the need to integrate soft skills into doctoral training programmes. We were virtually inundated with questions about research methods, tools, and possibilities for disseminating results. We also presented a booklet prepared by the University of Gdańsk, which features interviews with PhD students from all partner universities currently working in the non-academic labour market in the maritime sectors. It is a very interesting and informative read, worth disseminating.


- So it is worth mentioning our graduates, the PhDs who got involved in the project and gave us interviews....

- By all means. They are highly commendable people who today hold important positions in companies and institutions, also in the European Union, working for the broader maritime economy and sustainable development. They can also speak very interestingly about their professional path. They are doctors: Janusz Andryjenko, Tomasz Bednarz, Leszek Frankowski, Małgorzata Geringer d'Oedenberg, Andrzej Gierszewski, Waldemar Kunz, Dorota Lost-Siemińska, Joanna Maciak, Marta Potocka, Marcin Szerle, Michał Tuszyński and Cezary Wawrzyński.

[Booklet has been posted at:

https://seaeudoc.sea-eu.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/04/Inspiring-Alumni-Stories-Testimonials-of-Blue-Doctorate-Holders.pdf, and at link:

https://seaeudoc.sea-eu.org/interviews/ there are video interviews - author's note].


At this point, I would also like to thank the entire project team from our university. These are people from various faculties and units of UG: dr hab. Małgorzata Łosiewicz, prof. UG and dr Beata Czechowska-Derkacz from the Institute of Media, Journalism and Social Communication, dr hab. Dorota Burska, prof. UG and dr Anna Panasiuk from the Faculty of Oceanography and Geography, dr hab. Barbara Klassa, prof. UG from the Faculty of History, dr Olga Śniadach from the Faculty of Law and Administration, dr Olga Dębicka from the Faculty of Economics, mgr Julian Wierciński from the Development Project Management Office, mgr inż. Mateusz Byczkowski from the Promotion Office, mgr Dorota Hebel with the Film and Documentary Production Centre team and mgr Gabriela Bielińska from the Doctoral School Office. It has been wonderful working with you all. There have been many challenges, but we have always supported each other in our activities, and we can be pleased with the results. Many thanks to the whole team for their cooperation.


- It remains for me to congratulate you and wish you further projects and equally promising results.


Interview conducted by dr Beata Czechowska-Derkacz, PR specialist for research promotion, Institute of Media, Journalism and Social Communication, UG.


Dr Barbara Pawłowska, prof. UG


An economist, employee of the Department of Transport Economics at the Faculty of Economics, University of Gdańsk. Her research interests revolve around issues of sustainable socio-economic development with a particular focus on transport development policy. She conducts research on the methodology of estimating external transport costs, European integration in the field of transport systems, the blue economy and corporate social responsibility. She has carried out international projects under the framework programmes of the European Union and for the European Commission. She is co-author of a handbook on methods for estimating the external costs of transport for 28 EU countries, commissioned by the European Commission. She is a member of the Ministerial Working Group on Social Responsibility of Universities. One of the results of the work of this group is the Declaration on Social Responsibility of Universities, which was signed by 160 Polish universities, including UG. She is a member of the University of Gdańsk's Social Responsibility Committee, implementing the principles of the University's Declaration of Social Responsibility, and an organiser of the Sustainable Development Day at the University of Gdańsk as part of the European Sustainable Development Week network of activities. As of October 2019, she is the Director of the Doctoral School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Gdańsk.

dr Beata Czechowska-Derkacz, Institute of Media, Journalism and Social Comunication, PR specialist for research promotion