Profile: From PhD to prof

Marlene Jugl reflects on life after the dissertation and her doctoral journey.

After four years sizing up public services in big and small countries for her PhD research at the Hertie School, Marlene Jugl has a few ideas about why some bureaucracies perform well and others fail to deliver. Now an Assistant Professor of Public Administration at Bocconi University in Milan, Marlene wrote her doctoral dissertation on how country size affects the performance of states and public administration. 

“My aim was to contribute to a broader understanding of an academic debate. Small countries are very often excluded from basic political science research for very dubious reasons - because there are no data or researchers are just not interested,” she says. “I tried to show that small states are actually not a deviation from the norm or not even a minority. We shouldn’t take larger states as the only natural examples – depending on the context, or size of a country, public administration can work differently.”

Having turned in her cumulative dissertation in fall 2019, Marlene is moving on to new frontiers – in terms of both research and geography – at her new job in Milan, which she began in September.

 “I am lucky to have a lot of freedom to continue doing my own research,” she says. “And then, of course, it's a change from life as a PhD student, where I was so focused on my research. I do quite a lot of teaching now, but I enjoy the exchange with students – it’s more social than sitting at your desk looking at a dataset!” Marlene also gained teaching experience at the Hertie School, where she was a tutor for master’s students in the Statistics I course.

Coming straight from the Hertie School, Marlene says she’s glad to be in an environment that places a similar value on teaching and collaboration. Indeed, close supervision by faculty, combined with the opportunity for independent research, were what initially attracted her to the Hertie School’s PhD programme.

While doing a master’s degree at the University of Potsdam in public administration, Marlene had heard through her university network about the programme, and also knew of her future PhD supervisor Kai Wegrich, Professor of Public Administration. She applied to the Hertie School with her own research proposal and was able to pursue the topic for her dissertation. “I think because I could choose my own topic, that’s what motivated me to keep working on it over a number of years,” she says. Continuous feedback from faculty supervisors was also a plus.

“There was a formal supervision agreement between us, which felt more like we were on an equal level. And I was not entirely dependent on my one supervisor, but the supervision was shared between different professors. And this made it feel like I was there as an independent PhD student and researcher.”

Marlene was also specifically looking for a structured doctoral programme – one that offered the opportunity for training that would help her carry out well-designed research in the future.

 “The Hertie School PhD offered methodological courses and introductory courses on research design,” Marlene says. “So there was a structured start, but then after the first year, we also had a lot of freedom to really focus on our thesis. It was quite a good balance between taught courses and having the freedom to do your own research.” In addition to the Hertie School’s own methods courses, she also took advantage of those offered with experts at partner universities in Berlin and elsewhere.

But learning wasn’t limited to the classroom or the desktop– a close-knit community of fellow doctoral researchers provided support. “In my first year I learned a lot from the older PhD students who had a bit more experience – and later I took on that role. It was really helpful to have this group of peers who could be very honest with each other and give advice,” says Marlene.

Hertie School doctoral candidates hail from a multitude of disciplines and work on vastly different subjects. At any given time, there are around 60 doctoral candidates at the Hertie School, with backgrounds in the social sciences, economics, law and related disciplines – all doing research related to public problem-solving. “It gives you a sense of community, of belonging to the school. You don't feel alone because you have a cohort.

During her time at the Hertie School, Marlene was also part of a cluster of faculty and researchers looking at public administration, public management, and non-profit organisations, which gave her the chance to attend discussion groups, seminars and events with external speakers. Recently, the school announced the establishment of five Centres of Competence, research centres focusing on governance challenges the school has identified as vital to public debate in the coming years: security policy, digital governance, fundamental rights, sustainability and Europe. It also started a new Data Science Lab, which focuses on tackling big public problems using data-intensive methods.

PhD researchers can be affiliated with one of these centres or work on one of the many research projects headed by faculty members, often collaborating with other institutions in Berlin or across Europe. Marlene spent three months on a research stay at the European University Institute in Florence, with which the Hertie School recently signed an agreement to expand its cooperation. Several grants also enabled her to travel, for example to Luxembourg, for her work on small countries’ bureaucracies.

Marlene plans to stay in academia and follow her passion for research: “What drove me to the social sciences was a curiosity - about things like how do politics work? How does the state function and how should it interact with society? How do these broader forces interact, how do they work and why do they work differently in different countries? And I think that’s what is still driving me.”