Dr Pascale-L. Blyth, Researcher, Åbo Akademi Institute of Human Rights, Finland, is the new Doktorandsombud (DOMB) at Chalmers. Pascale is continuing the work of Moyra, who is leaving after 6 years of service.

The role of the DOMB is to help individual PhD students with problems that may arise in the course of their research or employment. The DOMB is employed directly by the DS board and is hence independent from the university and a neutral party for the support of PhD students. Every PhD student, both those employed by Chalmers and industrial PhD students, can seek the DOMB´s guidance with any work-related problem, big or small. The DOMB´s contact information can be found on the DS webpage under “support for PhD students”.

Here you can read our board’s interview with Pascale:

Where you are from originally and where did you grow up?

I am a dual British-French national, born of a British father and French mother in Crawley, a new town about a mile away from Gatwick airport (and the town where the band The Cure started). I mostly grew up in both the UK and France. It was not a happy childhood, spent between dysfunctional family dynamics and, as a child of two cultures, xenophobia in the family and at school. I have lived internationally, and in the Nordic countries for the past 15 years or so, including Norway, Denmark, and currently Finland. As well as being natively fluent in English and French, I have passed advanced proficiency exams in German and Danish. I have a good working knowledge of Norwegian, and I am currently attending classes in Swedish (advanced) and occasionally in Finnish (intermediate).

Can you tell us a bit about your academic identity?

I am an interdisciplinary academic who is concerned with energy transitions, digitalization and human rights. I have a master in sustainable energy planning and management from Aalborg University, a civil engineering speciality in Denmark. This particular degree was interdisciplinary, combining engineering skills with ideas from the social sciences and humanities, and used problem-based learning. In Finland, I have been focusing on smart mobility, including autonomous mobility (which was the topic of my dissertation at Aalto University), and now Mobility-as-a-Service—two smart mobility concepts that have been very present in the making of Finnish identity in the digital age. I have been interested in the power differentials these technologies and business concepts create, how they are created, and who wins and who loses from them. My expertise in power is useful to my university advocacy too, as the same theories of power are used in the scientific literature to explain differentials of power inside universities.

Why did you want to become DOMB and what experience you have that makes you a good DOMB?

My interest in becoming the DOMB stems from my own experiences with universities, including during my own doctoral degree. I first went to university as an 18 year-old undergraduate. My family environment was highly dysfunctional, and the death of my father when I was 17 meant that I went to university without parental support, and with a history of family interference in my education. Unfortunately, British higher education assumes parental support and much of the university environment is designed around that. Rules limiting paid employment to six hours per week, accommodation contracts that did not cover vacations (so that it could be let to tourists for profit), high costs and little support were alienating. A competitively-won, full scholarship for a study year abroad, so important to me, was rescinded by a professor to be given to one of his better-off students. The university did not understand and cared little about my complex family situation, and continued interference from my family meant I had to leave. I like to think that had the university had an ombudsman, things might have turned out differently.

I experienced abusive supervision during almost three years of my five-year doctoral degree, and originally found it hard to be heard by the university on the matter, which really surprised me as an employee. But, after a long and difficult process, I did get a new supervisor, some extra time, and, all importantly an apology from the university for mistakes made. I realized that if it was hard for me, it must be devastating for a younger student. I decided to start advocating for the rights of early career researchers and the need to improve the university’s governance of doctoral education. I became a representative on high-level university committees and working groups on doctoral education, and spoke about abusive supervision at early career researcher events. I became more involved with the trade union representing early-career researchers in Finland.

My experiences as a survivor of abusive supervision and advocate for doctoral education helps me listen to students. As a scholar of power, I understand the power mechanisms inside universities. Better than anyone I realize the importance of an education to a person’s life. I understand the experience of xenophobia from living as a “foreigner”, and of sexism as an engineer. I am therefore well-placed to speak truth to power as an ombudsman.

How you are settling in your new role so far and what is your outlook?

It is early days! I am liaising with Moyra, the outgoing DOMB and we are working as fast and as hard as we can on the hand over. While the Finnish doctoral landscape has some similarities to Sweden, I am working to familiarize myself precisely with Swedish laws and culture. Moyra has also kindly offered to be a mentor as I become more settled in the role, and I also have support from other Swedish university ombudsmen.

In her interview, Moyra stated that there is a need in universities for an independent person to be available for everything from just simply listening, to providing informed guidance and to representing the student, especially in those meetings where the student’s future is on the line. This need arises because universities are far from neutral spaces, instead involving organizational structures and procedures that effectively create differentials of power between groups, which can lead to problems. Early career researchers, including doctoral students, are particularly vulnerable, while professors are particularly strong.

What is your vision for, or ideas about, the DOMB role?

The 2021 report of the ombudsman states that supervision issues represented 50% of all the issues brought to the attention of the DOMB. Because supervision plays a key role in doctoral success, there is clearly a need to improve the processes governing it. I am also interested in doing more outreach on the topics of abusive supervision, racism and harassment in order to lead more discussion of those issues.