Dre Caroline Wilhem

Dr. Wilhem defended her thesis at the Faculty of Geosciences and Environment on the paleotectonics of the Central Asian plates.

Today, as Adjointe aux affaires institutionnelles et à la recherche at the Faculty of Law, Criminal Sciences and Public Administration (FDCA), she is responsible for institutional and strategic issues, supports the Dean's Office in the development of research support within the Faculty and advises researchers.

Caroline Wilhem


What are your specific tasks?

As a Faculty Adjointe, I support my Dean's Office in the strategic development and monitoring of inter-institutional projects, which aim to support the diversity of scientific practices and to strengthen interdisciplinary collaboration. This mainly consists in gathering the needs of the community, synthesizing information to facilitate exchanges, coordinating (to bring together complementary competences) and communicating the results (in a readable and adapted way!). In particular, I contributed to the development of the 2021-2026 faculty strategy and ensure the follow-up of the resulting Development Plan according to the quality requirements of UNIL.

In addition to this strategic and institutional dimension, I inform, advise and guide the researchers of the Faculty on research funding and policies. Overall, my professional activities mainly require to be a good listener, flexible and creative finding solutions, while connecting and drawing on the richness of skills and knowledge present within the faculty and UNIL.

What do you like about this position?

I am convinced of the relevance of the research support mission, for institutions, individuals and society. Digital transformation and open science movement present a great opportunity for research and knowledge sharing. I like to speak of the "democratization" of research in this regard.

The role of academic institutions is to facilitate the change, while respecting academic freedom – essential for scientific discoveries – but also preserving good working conditions. These "transitions" lead to the multiplication of data and information, inevitably accompanied by an increase in administrative work and institutional policies. Added to this phenomenon is the pressure of "publish or perish" and of a research evaluation that is demanding and biased by numerical indexes, which tend to standardize and prioritize some research activities.

In this tense context, the question of time and quality of research appeals to me and gives meaning to my work. Promoting the diversity of disciplinary practices, facilitating collaboration, supporting the next generation, lightening the work flow... are all actions that, in my opinion, contribute to a richer, more equitable and better research!

What skills that you develop during your PhD serve you well today?

The role of Faculty Adjointe requires organizational skills, autonomy, self-learning, proactivity, interpersonal skills and listening skills. These abilities are also necessary to carry out a multi-year research project, such as a doctoral thesis.

Obviously, I no longer use my geological expertise in my current job. Nevertheless, the skills I have developed in scientific communication, in writing and in the elaboration of visuals, are still extremely useful. Not to mention the skills of analysis, synthesis and structuring of information that we develop in a research work and that are also essential in the role of Faculty Adjointe. As for my organizational skills, they were put to the test over the long duration of the thesis and by the great freedom that my thesis director offered me. It was therefore a matter of setting my own deadlines to reach my scientific objectives, which required being autonomous and proactive, skills that are also essential to my current mission!

I will conclude with a point that is probably the most essential for me: it is the knowledge of the academic world and its requirements. My personal experience as a researcher in this matter allows me to carry out my current mission.

Have you taken additional training courses that are useful for your current profession?

Yes, at some point in my career it was important to consolidate some of the cross-disciplinary skills I developed during my thesis, by supplementing my experience with business knowledge. Throughout my career, I have taken several management training courses: in project management (CAPM certification), in IT service management (ITIL certification) and in cross-functional management (short course).

Writing is also an important part of my current activity. First developed in the context of my activities as a researcher, I then deepened my writing skills with training courses combined with my various professional experiences.

What was the transition like after the PhD?

It was a pivotal moment. On my side, the mourning with research took a little time. I loved my work as a researcher, so it was not easy to stop. I knew, of course, that the decision was irreversible because the demands of an academic career make it difficult to step back for a year or two. If the geosciences (in particular geology) are my sciences at heart, applied geology did not interest me. It is the fundamental research that I liked above all. For various reasons (job insecurity, hyperspecialization, mobility requirements, competition...), I finally decided to stop research. From that point on, it was a bit like starting from scratch. If today I am able to put forward the transversal competences developed during my thesis years, at the end of the PhD, it is particularly difficult to be lucid on one's own career and competences. Also, probably, because as a researcher, we are fully immersed in our work and lack perspective. In any case, if our career goals do not fall within the specialization of the doctorate, doctorates are generally not well recognized outside the academic world, and are sometimes even a little "scary". During my job search, I have sometimes heard "It's too academic...", or in my circle of friends: "I don't put my PhD on my CV anymore..." in order to increase one's chances of finding a job.

After a voluntary professional break, a period of unemployment, and the resumption of my studies in geography, I was hired as a Scientific Communication Manager in an applied research centre in Valais, then in support and communication at the IGD (FGSE UNIL). This first experience outside the academic world opened the way to another way of contributing to science and investing my aspirations.

When you look back on your career, what reflections do you have?

Looking back, I realize that holding several fixed-term positions in different institutions contributed greatly to the development of my profile. Having to adapt to a new environment forces us to get out of our comfort zone, to question ourselves and to expand our know-how. Of course, the accumulation of fixed-term contracts also represented a constant stress on the perception of my future and was trying over time, especially at the time of transitions. Today, I am relieved to be able to see my professional life in the longer term.

The most interesting aspect of this mobility was for me to open up to other disciplines, beyond the geosciences and natural sciences, and to discover other scientific cultures and research practices in the humanities and social sciences. Because fundamentally, it is the sciences as a whole and their plurality that I wish to support. In this sense, the FDCA is a particularly stimulating faculty, given its diversity. Actively contributing to the improvement of the conditions of the researchers of the Faculty brings me back to my own career, in particular on the question of the support of the next generation. This cross-reading between my background and my current activity inspires my institutional commitment.

Interview published on 6 April 2023.

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