Mehrnoosh Azodi received her PhD from the Department of Civil Engineering and Applied Mechanics in 2017. In her thesis research, she studied the dissolution behavior of silver nanoparticles in environmental samples. After having worked for United Nations for two years as a consultant, today, she works as a policy specialist at Luxembourg Institute of Science and Technology.
Q: I’ll start with the first question. What made you choose to do a PhD?
My story is that I did my bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in chemical engineering back in Iran—that’s where I was born and grew up. By the end of my Master’s, I knew what I did up to that moment was not what I really wanted to do with my life. Within chemical engineering, you have this sub-area of environmental engineering. By taking some courses, I realized that I’m a lot more interested in the environmental engineering aspect of chemical engineering than the actual chemical/process engineering. Environmental protection was always something that I very much cared for—it goes way back to childhood. I thought it was a good time for me to do a PhD in environmental engineering.
Q: How did you end up in your current position?
I worked for the United Nations Environment Program in Geneva, Switzerland, as a consultant for two years. The way it started was that from second or third year of PhD I started looking for jobs in the environment sector. And that became one of my challenges, having job prospects after the PhD. The United Nations was one of my targets from early on from the second or third year. So I just started looking at what they do, different sub-organizations that they have, read up their activities in regard to the environment, and searched how you can actually work for them. Actually, I think my approach was very targeted from the beginning. I started reading about how I could get a job with them, and I first did an internship with them for six months. After I finished the internship, they asked me to come back as a consultant.
After two amazing years at the UN, I received an offer in Luxembourg where I live today. In my role as a policy specialist, I consult the Government of Luxembourg on the implementation of soil protection law.
Q: And could you briefly tell us what exactly you did in your former role at the UN?
That’s the interesting part. We looked at management of chemicals and waste—so that chemical engineering degree is helpful here. I worked with the chemical industry, the producers and manufacture of chemicals. I facilitated their engagement with the United Nations and supported them in implementing our policy framework on chemicals and waste. We developed projects, strategies to implement the projects, and we also worked with the chemical industry to help developing countries build the capacity that they need. It was a lot of project development and implementation from the very beginning to the end, all focusing on chemicals and waste management.
Q: It sounds like there’s definitely a link between what you did in your PhD and what you do now.
Yes, definitely. It’s not exactly the same, because in the PhD you’re looking at only one very tiny thing. When you start working—especially when you work with the United Nations—you touch upon a lot of different topics. But because you have that education in chemical engineering and environmental engineering, you have the background knowledge to be able to come up with projects, implement them, etc.
Q: Was it difficult, getting the first job after graduation? How did you go about it?
I think a lot of people, when they end up getting their job, they forget about all the struggles that they went through. That’s the beauty of this TRaCE project. It shows that eventually all of us are going to be OK. When you’re in that moment though, you don’t really feel that you’re OK.
When I was looking for a job I was told that I’m overqualified for most jobs. I was even told to take off the PhD from my CV and apply with my Master’s. I was told PhDs don’t have enough real-world skills, and they should try to acquire more of them. So I tackled that problem by doing a lot of extracurricular activities within our graduate student society in civil engineering. I was a secretary general, I was VP events, I organized a conference internally, and I even became president, all of which to actually prove to myself and to employers that I do have a set of skills and I’m not “just” a researcher.
I didn’t want to continue in academia. I was very clear from the very beginning that I wanted to get my PhD and then work for the United Nations. I feel like the fact that they did all of those extra activities really did help me to get a job there.
Q: What would you say was the most valuable experience you had during your time in graduate school?
Apart from research, which becomes your entire life, that one year that I was president of our graduate student society was a very different experience. I had to lead a team of 15 people and that’s where you actually face real life challenges. I wanted to deliver as a president. I didn’t just want to be there just to be the president and put it on my resume. I really wanted to show what I could do for our student society. In a lot of different ways and levels it was challenging, but it was very interesting, and very fulfilling. At the end of that one year when I finished and I knew I had succeeded, I felt the same sense of achievement as when I got my doctoral degree.
Q: If you look back at the time before you finished the PhD, are there any experiences that you wish you had had or known about? If you could go back, would you have done anything differently?
I wish I had had more support in a sense—that support that you would get from peers or from people who’ve been in the same shoes before. In the first two or three years of the PhD, I was feeling very lonely. You get so busy from early in the morning until evening that it just becomes work, work, work, and that’s it. At a certain point of your PhD, you think it’s just never going to end. You cry and you eventually come out on the other side of the tunnel, but you need someone to come and tell you it will end, and you’ll be okay.
Q: What advice would you give to someone working on their PhD now or to incoming graduate students based on your experience?
First, engage, engage, engage with people around you. Talk to them. Go to the student societies, talk to people, and hear their experiences. It makes you feel a lot better because they’re going through the exact same thing you’re going through.
Second, see what you want to do after a PhD because you’re going to be a lot more targeted. If you know for sure that you see yourself as a researcher or a professor, you’re going to be focusing on different things in your three to five years of PhD than if you know you want to work for an intergovernmental organization like the United Nations, or if you want to work for industry. Different types of organizations are looking for completely different skills and qualifications on your resume. You want to showcase those skills and experience so when they look at your resume, they can tick all the boxes they’re looking for.
Third, when you’re looking for jobs, for any type of job outside academia, you should keep in mind that they’re not going to care much about what you worked on during your thesis. They want to see the whole package: what you could bring to the table and whether you can solve their problem.
So, figure out what you want to do, see where your passion is, where your heart wants to take you, and then channel your energy towards what you want.
Many thanks to Mehrnoosh for sharing her PhD narrative! You can find out more about her on LinkedIn or Twitter.
This interview took place in July 2020. Interviews are edited by the TRaCE McGill Editorial team for length and clarity before publication.