Iranian-born Hiva Rafiei has both a Master's in Global Project Management and a PhD in Management Studies from Essex.  Here she tells us all about her studies and her current role as a Business Consultant at professional services firm EY (Ernst & Young).  

"I am really putting my experience of working relationships and cultural sensitivity gained through my Master’s and PhD into practice."

What did you enjoy about your Master’s degree?

It wasn’t until I started my Master’s degree that I became more interested in the human aspects of project management.  Up until that point, I had only really studied it from a technical perspective – the software tools etc. used in project management.  But here, the course really targeted the human aspect.  

The people and relationship skills I have developed as a result have been really beneficial to me in my current role.  Technical skills are easily accessible these days, but you need to work hard at developing soft skills, they take longer to pick up.

Ultimately, the focus on the human aspects of project management is what sparked my interest in organisational culture and, from there, emotions in the workplace. 

What made you choose Essex for your PhD and why did you choose a PhD in Management Studies? 

I had originally come to Essex to study for a Master's in Global Project Management and for my dissertation, I was studying organisational culture. While I was interviewing a group of people who were involved in a project in the oil and gas sector about team dynamics, a discussion about feelings and emotions came up.  This really ignited my interest in the subject and prompted me to consider studying this in greater depth at PhD level. 

I looked at a number of universities, but Essex was offering a research topic specifically looking at emotions in project teams, which was exactly what I was looking for.  I wrote a research proposal and discussed it with Dr Manuela Nocker, who is an expert in the field at Essex, and then decided that this was something that I would like to work on.  I was delighted to secure a scholarship for my studies too.

Can you tell me about your PhD? 

Management studies is a broad area.  The main focus of my PhD involved looking at organisational behaviour – specifically, the human aspect of work.  I wanted to study people’s feelings and emotions at work, how different people experience work and the feelings they go through.  This involved working as part of a team of 15 people.  I was constantly in the office with them - whenever they had a meeting, I would attend as part of the team, study them and take notes.  I also interviewed everyone involved in the programme and produced a case study at the end. 

It was very fruitful research.  Often, the topics that people study at PhD level are very academic. Others are more practical and relevant to people outside of academia.  My research fell into the latter category.  I like that whoever you talk to about feelings and relationships at work, they can relate to what you're saying. Anyone who works, or has worked, has experience of it. 

Your thesis focused on human behaviour in the workplace – can you tell me a bit more about it? 

The title of my thesis was: Introducing a relational approach to the study of emotions in project teams.  The case of a public non-profit partnership program.

My framework was based on relational theory, which basically says that relationships are the key to leadership effectiveness.  When you place importance on the relationships that you have with your team members they are, as a result, more driven to work well for you. This was the lens through which I studied emotions. I wanted to study relationships in a real-life setting, to look at the way we experience emotion in response to our relationships with other people and their actions. In order to understand people’s emotions, you have to look at the actions they are responding to. You have to look at the whole picture. 

What did you particularly enjoy about your PhD programme?  

Well first of all, I really liked the subjects that I studied, which was partly due to the good direction I received from my supervisor Dr Manuela Nocker.  Your relationship with your supervisor is really important as there can be lots of ups and downs and sometimes it is easy to get a bit lost, so you sometimes need emotional support as well as guidance from a research perspective.  Manuela really helped shape my research and guided me towards where I needed to be. She gave me the flexibility and confidence to make changes based on the data and observations emerging from my interviews – something that is not always an option for PhD students. 

What have you been doing since you completed your PhD? 

I am currently working as a Business Consultant with EY in London. I have been there since September 2019. 

EY offers services across a wide range of both financial and non-financial clients. I am part of the consulting team and we mainly target non-financial clients e.g. tech companies. Our work involves working closely with the clients to develop solutions for their main needs and problems.

I'm currently working on a complete outsourcing project. The client is outsourcing their tax services to our data team in India, and I am part of the team in London overseeing the project.  We look closely at their current business processes and look for solutions as to how these can be improved. This is one of the largest deals of the firm and we work closely with our local offices across the world. It is a great opportunity for me to put everything I have learnt into practice. 

You need to quickly understand how different people work and the best ways to approach them in order to get the response you require. 

Do you enjoy your work? 

Yes – but I’ll be honest, it’s very demanding! It’s very different from being at University.  No two days are the same.  It can be high pressure - you often have very tight deadlines and need to multi-task, but it’s fun working with people with different mind-sets and you learn a lot.  It’s very rewarding. 

It’s funny how, as part of my PhD, I studied a team of people working in a high pressure environment and now I find myself working in that very same environment enjoying the challenges that each day brings!

Has the journey that you went through on your PhD been valuable for you in the workplace?

Yes definitely.  I think my PhD really helped me develop a lot of the softer skills that are essential in the workplace and helped me change my mind-set.  For example I think that I have become more flexible and tolerant but also more persistent.  When studying for a PhD, you largely work individually and are personally accountable.  When you come across problems, you need to be able to adapt and find another way.  So, although I now work as part of a team and we are collectively accountable, I have the confidence to look for an alternative approach when a problem occurs. I’ve learnt to be more adaptable.  

Can you tell us about any highlights of your time at Essex?

One of the big highlights for me was a trip to the United Nations in New York during my first year, as one of the winners of the United Nations Academic Impact Global Essay Contest.  It wasn’t so much the winning of the contest, but the writing of the essay itself.  The whole thing was a really fun experience and something that I will always be indebted to the University for and especially my supervisor Dr Manuela Nocker for her support. 

The University do a great job of promoting different opportunities like this – when I won, it was the second year running that an Essex student was selected as a winner and a third student from Essex also won the year after.  So for three years on the trot we had students from Essex going to the UN and speaking – which I think is really cool! 

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