Maria Mwaipopo Fibaek

Principal Social Consultant at RSK international, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania

My name is Maria Mwaipopo Fibaek and I joined the PhD program in 2015 and successfully defended my PhD in December 2020.     I hold a B.Sc. and M.Sc. in Economics from University of Copenhagen (UoC). Before coming to Lund I have worked in research and consultancy. After I completed my master’s degree I worked for one year as a full-time research assistant at the Development Economics Research Group (DERG) at UoC. Hereafter, I moved to Dar es Salaam Tanzania where I worked for two years in consultancy.     During my PhD I was interested in long-run trends in rural development in Kenya. From a largely micro-perspective I studied rural employment at large-scale plantation farms, income diversification and differentiation among rural farmers.     Currently I am employed by RSK, a British environmental engineering consultancy. I am employed at RSK’s Tanzania office in Dar es Salaam as a Principal Consultant.

What does your current job entail?

RSK works, among others, within Environmental and Social Corporate Governance (ESG). Some of the services we offer, is advise to private sector companies and sometimes government on international and national ESG standards and requirements. To secure funding, it is a prerequisite that projects comply with ESG standards which are predominantly set by the International Finance Corporation (IFC), which is a World Bank body.

My role is threefold. First and foremost, I lead specialist studies on social compliance. Part of this job is to analyse how a certain project may impact livelihoods and other social aspects and advise on measures to mitigate the impacts.

Second, I am the Team Lead of the Environmental and Social Consultants at the office. This entails supervising  15 junior consultants and ensuring they develop their skills and reach their career goals.

Third, I sometimes serve as the Project Manager on projects which means I am responsible for the timely delivery of a project and financial management.

What are the most rewarding things about your current job?

The most rewarding thing about my current job is being able to ensure projects do not cause harm on societies. For instance a big reward is having been able to identify and communicate social impacts that others had not noticed and then put together a plan for mitigating those impacts.

Although, ESG compliance is not the same as development, there is an important scope to ensure private sector development does not harm the affected communities. Currently with the SGD, there is a push towards not only ensuring that no harm is caused but also improving the livelihoods of the affected communities. Being part of pushing this objective can be very rewarding.

Did your studies at the department help you in your career? How?

Prior to starting my PhD, I had already worked two years in consultancy thus I knew consultancy could be a good career path. However, the PhD has fundamentally changed the way I work.

First of all, having a PhD where I researched livelihoods in East Africa means that I can contribute to the social specialist studies we conduct. Often I have the sole responsibility for the technical aspects of a project/study and that would not have been possible had I not had my PhD as foundation.

Another advantage has been the ability to handle complexity. The PhD program taught me to work with a lot of conflicting information and with little direction. As such, I today able to work on projects that others find very complex and more importantly I enjoy complexity. The more difficult a project is, the better (!). 

Why did you choose to do doctoral studies in Lund?

After I had completed my master’s degree I worked as a research assistant and I saw how fascinating research can be. A colleague recommended the PhD program at Lund University’s EH department and I applied. Although my application was accepted it took a couple of years before the funding was secured.

What were some of the best things with studying at our department?

I enjoyed the warm and friendly environment at the department. Differently from other PhD programs, as a PhD student at the EH department you get a lot of hands on support from your supervisors. I was also fortunate to be granted a lot of flexibility which meant I could spend two years in Nairobi Kenya during my PhD where I collected a primary data.

I found the first couple of years difficult and plagued with a lot of self-doubt and difficulties seeing the ‘bigger picture’. However, after the first couple of years, academic thinking and writing became easier and the final year was very rewarding.

Do you have any recommendations for future students who would like to follow your path?

It is very difficult to give general advise as we are all so different. First of all, I would say hang in there. Even if you are unsure you want a future career in academia, doing research will teach you many things you can also apply outside of academia.

For me personally, it helped me a lot to develop more structure and planning skills and learning to focus. Learning to concentrate, think, reflect and problem solve are probably the skills I learned that I value the most.

During my PhD, I would work in blocks where I would work without disruptions for 45-50 minutes followed by a break. This way of working I also apply in my current job where I for instance only check my emails towards the end of the day.

Another thing that helped me was to develop timelines/work plans for each article I worked on and a general one for the entire PhD project. Breaking down an article into smaller tasks makes it more manageable and less frightening.

Finally asking for feedback on work in progress taught me a lot. Instead of waiting till a draft was ‘perfect’ (which it will never be), I would send it out to my supervisors and other researchers I knew to get their early feedback. Often this is frightening because we are judged on how we write and think, however, I would protect my work by explaining carefully that this was early work.

Another good way to get feedback is to try to publish a paper. This requires being realistic about which journal your paper can fit into. When you publish you get a lot of constructive feedback from good reviewers and this can really help you focus your paper. Publishing also gives you a small sense of accomplishment which is otherwise hard to get in academia.