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From Lund to Brussels!

Alumni talk about their careers in Brussels and valued experiences from their studies at Lund University

Meet Sam Whalley, who has been a Projects & Partnerships Associate with constellr (Farming and Climate Monitoring from Space) for the past year and a half and will be transitioning into the launch segment of the space industry in the coming months.

Sofie von Schenck, Ketrin Jochecová, Jelle Verheij, and Sam Whalley - Alumni from our Master of Science Programme in European Affairs. Photo.
Sofie von Schenck, Ketrin Jochecová, Jelle Verheij, and Sam Whalley - all previous LU students talk about how they found their way to Brussels. Photo: Björn Frostner.

Can you say where you’re from originally, where you studied before Lund, and why you decided to study in Lund?

I was born and raised in South London, and moved to Sweden in 2017 when I was 19 to study International Relations at Malmö University. This is also where I began to specialise in Space Policy and Space Law. I then moved to Lund University for my Masters in European Affairs, during which I was able to undertake a traineeship at the European Space Agency (ESA). I had always wanted to move to Sweden to study, and on the basis of academic programmes, history, professional opportunities, and social life, Lund University really stood out as the obvious choice. The library is also gorgeous, which helped…

Sam Whalley, alumnus from the Master of Science Programme in European Affairs. Photo in black and white..

First, what was your job description and what were your main tasks at constellr?

Simply due to the nature of constellr being a startup in such a dynamic eco-system (the European New Space industry), there were constantly new projects and challenges to address. This means that it is very rare for any consecutive days to be exactly the same. 

However, since my moving to Brussels, we were enabled to engage far more closely with the European public sector, including establishing relationships with space industry stakeholders across the branches of the EU, attending a variety of industry events, and contributing to policy discussions, such as those surrounding the ongoing drafting of the EU Space Law. 

Even in this particularly dynamic environment, however, one constant is the exceptionally international and diversely talented community which comprises the space industry in Brussels. And working so closely with such passionate and dedicated individuals is really a highlight of my time working in Brussels within this niche. 

How would you describe the process of getting your EU-related job? How long did it take? Did you apply for a wide variety of jobs? Was it clear what degree, skills, or background were required for the jobs you applied for? 

One of my challenges in my search for a job following my masters degree was that Space (and particularly space policy and law) is exceptionally niche. This means that there are not a huge number of relevant jobs floating around, and those that are tend to be highly competitive. As I had already been engaging with the space industry for some years at the point, I was privileged enough to have some degree of a network that I could leverage to, e.g., connect me with other relevant stakeholders, provide references, etc., and this was hugely valuable in ‘opening doors’ for potential roles. Due to the nature of the space sphere, a lot of the applications which I submitted were, however, completely unsolicited, and I spent a lot my time spamming the inboxes of team leads from departments of various companies which I found to be more relevant to my background. I ultimately found constellr, and spent a year in Munich before eventually moving to Brussels to engage more closely with the EU ecosystem. 

In my current transition from constellr to the launch segment of the space industry, I have seen first-hand how competitive the Brussels employment bubble is. You often find yourself competing with highly passionate and qualified people from all over the continent, and at that point your greatest asset is your ability to diversify/ sharpen your skill set beyond the limits of your specific education. I can’t articulate enough how critical it has been for me to have had complimentary experience in research, public speaking, etc., when searching for new jobs. And I think the same can be said for a multitude of other skill areas, such as media/ communications skills, data analysis skills, etc. It’s important to constantly search for practical ways to differentiate your CV from that of other candidates who could likely be just as qualified and passionate as you are when pursuing the same roles. 

What kind of university-acquired skills did you have that were necessary or useful for your job? 

My academic background was in political science, and this equipped me with a variety of exceptionally useful skills which I employ on a daily basis in my work. For example, research, general critical thinking, writing and analysis skills, etc., were all central in my studies, and have become absolutely essential for me to properly execute day to day tasks in my job. 

However, as is the curse of any political (or ‘soft’ scientist), as you are not equipped with an explicitly vocational skill set, such as programming or data analysis, the search for jobs can often be a little broader and unspecified. This is in many ways a blessing, as it allows you to explore a far greater variety of roles, ultimately potentially leading you towards discovering a new niche or sphere of interest. But it also means that jobs can be harder to find, as it is more complicated to market yourself when you don’t have a purely vocational skill set to apply as soon as you start your job. 

To relate this to my previous point, I want to state it is for these reasons that complimenting your studies with additional learning/ skill development can be hugely beneficial in your hunt for work, particularly if you are coming from a ‘soft’ science background. 

What would you say are the most rewarding aspects of working in an international setting? Are there any particular challenges? 

Working in such an international setting really is one of the greatest joys of living in Brussels. Beyond the social benefits of being surrounded by a huge Italian and French demographic (and therefore endless fantastic food, wine, and parties), the workplace immediately feels so much richer in its cultural perspectives and working styles. And you are never short of opportunities to meet people from all over the world, constantly benefitting from fresh perspectives — a privilege that is often not found in far more insular and localised working environments. 

Assimilating with this hyper-international working culture can always pose challenges though, as we often differentiate massively from country to country in regard to expectations for work life balance, communication styles (I’m looking at you Germany), and general working styles. I will never forget my first day at the European Space Agency (ESA), working with a team of amazing Italians, where my kickoff meeting on my first day of work started two hours late and I was greeted with the phrase “You’re dealing with more than 2000 years of Roman working culture here now… things will happen when they happen”. So when working in Brussels, surrounded by dozens of languages, nationalities, and cultures, manage your expectations somewhat — as ‘things often happen when they happen’, and you simply learn to accept it. 

Do you know of any of your former course mates in Lund who are also holding various jobs in Brussels or EU-related jobs in other places? Just to give us some more ideas of EU-related jobs.

One of the things that attracted me to the European Affairs programme in Lund was seeing how many alumni ultimately ended up in Brussels. And the exact same can be said for my classmates, many of whom moved straight to Belgium immediately upon graduation. The nature of the roles which they have undertaken is also indicative of the diversity of opportunities in Brussels, with ex-classmates of mine engaging in Journalism, the energy sector, policy making, etc. Even the space sphere, which is exceptionally niche, is very well represented in Brussels, with a vast array of different entities operating in a variety of different capacities across the city; ranging from lobbying to space hardware manufacturing. So don’t be tricked into thinking that Brussels is only the EU. There are a multitude of paths through which you can move to Brussels, engage directly with the EU institutions, but never actually be employed by one of the branches. 

Now that you have left Lund and look back at your time here, what advice would you give to the current students who are considering careers in or related to the EU? 

I think the most predictable but valuable advice I can give is simply to try and find a niche which you are truly passionate about. Whether that is while you are still studying or when you are beginning your career, by discovering a passion you will immediately be much more motivated to learn, explore, specialise in your chosen sphere of interest; which ultimately also equips you with a naturally flourishing network and a general understanding of the sphere’s characteristics and key stakeholders. And this is only stimulated by further conference attendance, research participation, etc. This social and vocational foundation is critical for developing your career in the years to come. Actually caring about what you are doing also makes life A LOT easier on a day to day basis. Try not to fall into the typical Brussels trap of taking any role that comes along just in order to get to Brussels, thus ultimately giving up on your passion for diplomacy, astronautics, evil oil lobbying, etc. Find your passion, and dive head first into it. 

Brussels also has a tendency to create comparatively toxic working environments where you are often underpaid and undervalued. Due to the massive competition, young professionals are often so grateful to be in these positions that they don’t set their own boundaries and don’t ensure that their contribution is properly appreciated. So for those of you who do end up in Brussels, know your worth and seek to make a better professional environment both for yourself and for the young professionals that come after you.