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School of Business and Management

Dr. Mark Bergfeld (Business and Management PhD, 2019)

"I am very happy that I met so many fantastic academic researchers at Queen Mary who question the pro-business consensus of our time and are developing stakeholder approaches in different yet converging ways."

Headshot of alumnus, Mark Bergfeld. He is wearing a green and black jumper and glasses and is smiling at someone off camera.

Why did you choose to study your course at Queen Mary?

Before coming to Queen Mary, I was active in student and trade union politics for several years. As part of my jobs, I mostly organised political campaigns. However, in my role as a union organiser I also started to develop a keen interest in how business decisions affect workers and communities, how businesses influence government decisions, and how power is increasingly centred in multinational companies.

Despite my keen interest in economics, business and political economy, business schools were a bit of an anathema to me. After all, I had studied Philosophy, Politics & Economics (BA) and Cultural Studies (MA) at the University of Essex. However, I had a Sociology lecturer there who also simultaneously taught at the business school there and showed me that researching and writing in business schools doesn’t need to be pro-business.

Further down the line, I met some PhD students from Queen Mary during one of the many working group meetings of the Occupy movement. In conversations, they told me about their PhD topics and showed the possibility of engaging in critical and forward-looking research in the context of a business school. So, when the opportunity arose, I applied to the MRes programme at the School of Business and Management.

Looking back, that one-year long programme was exactly what I needed. I took courses in Strategic Management, Employment Relations, Research & Innovation, as well as various research modules in cooperation with Goldsmiths College. Especially the Employment Relations module with Professor Geraldine Healy, underlined that my previous trade union organising work and activism was valuable to academic research. This helped me to narrow down all the ideas in my head and develop a PhD project proposal and apply for a studentship on organising migrant workers.

While I had other scholarship offers for my PhD, I decided to remain at Queen Mary because I really appreciated Professor Geraldine Healy’s intellectual openness as well as Professor Giuliano Maielli’s and Professor Sukhdev Johal’s teaching and their research. I really identified with the ideas that were circulating and how the School of Business and Management was a place for such a diverse range of research topics to be explored.

What aspects of your degree did you find most enjoyable and was there anything that surprised you in your studies?

When I started my PhD studies, I initially had planned on working under Professor Geraldine Healy’s supervision. However, her timetable was limited, and she found the amazing Professor Gill Kirton and Dr Tessa Wright as replacements. Who would’ve thought that I would end up with such a great supervision team?

Month for month, I would submit a longer written piece for the PhD and we would go through my writing in a longer face-to-face meeting. While that can be quite daunting to present your unfinished work to academic researchers with high-quality publications and a track record on the very questions I was investigating, they were always encouraging and helped me to develop my academic writing style, my analytical prowess and ability to bring the final PhD together.

I am particularly grateful that Prof Kirton used her links to the Cornell ILR – Worker Institute in New York City and found some additional funds so that I could spend three months researching migrant worker organising there. Consequently, the relationship with the colleagues at Cornell ILR continues professionally up until today and is an experience that has really shaped me personally and professionally.

At Queen Mary itself, I made use of being able to teach undergraduate students in Employment Relations, Organisational Behaviour and Human Resource Management. I think I took more out of reading and researching for the classes than the students themselves. The broad scope of ground I had to cover still helps me when dealing with companies and policymakers in my job as a trade union official today.

How did Queen Mary support you during your studies?

I was very fortunate to obtain a three-year HSS PhD Studentship which covered both my living expenses as well as my tuition fees. This allowed me to really focus on my PhD and work on it full-time. I know from other people that it is quite difficult to finish up the PhD in a given time when you need to work a full-time job on the side and conduct fieldwork and make a novel academic contribution.

Having that grant money and additional funds also meant I could participate in academic conferences and present some of my initial research. That helped me to build confidence in what I was doing.

The administrative staff in the PhD office, Saima Ahmed, was always helpful when I had to hand in expenses forms or remind me of how much money was leftover in my book allowance for the year. That administrative support was invaluable.

Can you describe your career path to date and touch on your current role?

Originally, I was planning to remain in academia after my PhD. Unfortunately, I wasn’t successful in my post-doc applications before completion of my PhD. I also wanted to no longer be in a long-distance relationship or have to change locations every few years. Thus, I turned my focus to applying for jobs outside of academia in my field of expertise.

In 2018, while I was in the final stages of the completion of my PhD, I successfully applied for the position of the Director of Property Services & UNICARE at the global trade union federation UNI Global Union’s European office (UNI Europa) in Brussels, Belgium.

Since mid-2018, I have been working for UNI Global Union – Europa. In my job, I coordinate the employees’ and unions’ activities in the Sectoral Social Dialogue. This involves conducting studies on health & safety, working time, training skills and public procurement in cooperation with university institutes. These studies then inform policymaking in the respective sectors. It is in this context that my PhD from Queen Mary has come in very useful. It has allowed me to approach researchers with specific research questions and win them to work on projects with us. My PhD training has also helped me to assess and evaluate the quality of research or deconstruct research findings from other organisations.

Moreover, I also advise numerous European Works Councils in my role. This involves reading companies’ annual and sustainability reports, as well as analysing their finances so that employees and worker representatives can make sense of their business’ health. Furthermore, I also liaise with institutional shareholders, such as pension funds and asset managers, who have invested into the very companies in which we represent workers. These institutional investors are interested to hear about labour issues as part of their focus on ESG factors (Environmental Social Governance). It is in this context that my MRes studies as well as my teaching experiences at Queen Mary have been particularly useful.

Researching for and writing a PhD endows one with many transferable skills which are very useful in various professional settings.

Looking back, how did your time and study at Queen Mary help with your career and development?

Researching and writing a PhD for nearly four years is a very intense experience. For four years, I nearly did nothing else than think about my PhD and my research topic. That meant that I often thought that my PhD studies and research narrowed my career options. However, the opposite was true. Researching for and writing a PhD endows one with many transferable skills which are very useful in various professional settings.

I am very happy that I met so many fantastic academic researchers at Queen Mary who question the pro-business consensus of our time and are developing stakeholder approaches in different yet converging ways.

In my current role, my background in business research and having taught students in Employment Relations, Human Resource Management and Organisational Behaviour has really helped me to convey complex messages in a straightforward fashion without losing the complexity of the argument.

Moreover, I came into my job after there had been lots of turnover and no one had stayed for more than two years. Having worked on one singular project for four years like my PhD gave me the perspective that it requires time to change things and really become an expert in my job. That perspective is important because you will always have bad days at work, but when you know that you’re developing a strategy over five years or more then it’s simple to switch off in the evening and come back to work the next day with a fresh perspective.

What would your advice be to students interested in studying the course you did at Queen Mary?

Before starting my PhD, I already wrote for magazines (Jacobin, New Statesman, ROAR) as well as media outlets such as Al-Jazeera English. However, I had no experience in academic publishing or the formalistic aspects associated with academic writing. I would buy Patrick Dunleavy’s, Authoring a PhD: How to Plan, Draft, Write and Finish a Doctoral Thesis or Dissertation, or other books on academic writing out there. You don’t need to read them front to back, but they are good to broaden your toolbox so that you can get out of a rut which eventually happens to every PhD researcher.

As I mentioned previously, I also had professional experience in my field of research (trade union organising and activism). At the beginning of my studies, I was often inhibited from drawing on my experience. However, it is precisely that experience that provided me with insights into how to make a unique academic contribution. Rather than throwing your previous experiences overboard, you need to find a way to synthesise these in an appropriate way which other academics in your field will accept. This is a fine balancing act but something that will enrich your thinking and help you to navigate different academic discourses throughout your career.

I participated in and attended many academic conferences during my time as a PhD student at Queen Mary. It was great that the School of Business and Management provided us with funds to attend such conferences. These experiences can be daunting as you will be presenting unfinished work to an expert audience, many of whom will have written on similar or even the same topic. I usually found it quite useful to sit through various other presentations from younger researchers and see what they have been able to do and what you might learn from them. Remember not every academic conference is great fun. Ask your PhD supervisors, PhD colleagues or other researchers which ones you should attend, and which ones can be left out. You can’t go everywhere!

A PhD requires a lot of mental energy both in the research and the writing process but also outside of that. That’s why it is important to find something to provide you with balance and an outlet. That might be sports, music, a creative activity, something that gets other parts of your body and brain going. I, for example, would take two-hour long walks along the canal into both directions at 3pm each day and listen to my favourite albums on my headphones. I would enter a completely different space seeing the water and listening to music.

As a PhD researcher you should also join the UCU trade union which represents academic research staff. It’s completely free for PhD students and the UCU represents your interests at work. Especially in your second and third year you will be teaching and if you plan to stay in academia, it is important to get together with your colleagues in the union and defend your interests as researchers, teachers and the interests of the sector.



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