Life after UniNE

“I’ve always been drawn to the idea of going somewhere new”

Elsa Studer, Legal Practitioner in Geneva

Elsa Studer completed her Master of Law in 2012. After her placements in New York, at the UN and in an NGO, she was hired by the World Economic Forum (WEF). She is currently working in their Geneva office.


You have been working for the World Economic Forum since 2011… and yet you got in via New York. That needs some explaining!

I went to New York for the spring semester 2010, as part of the exchange programme that the UniNE has with the University of Columbia. I was only supposed to stay a few months. But I fell in love with the city, with the energy it gives off, and I wanted to get more of a taste of America. So I finished the semester and found a placement at the UN. I worked there for six months as part of the Economic and Social Department, on the Millennium Development Goals. Then, I did another placement in an NGO, where we worked on the implementation of human rights in developing countries, in particular the rights of disabled people. My job was to contact governments, NGOs and field workers on the ground, to assess how exactly the implementation was carried out in reality, and to create an index of different practices.

At the time, I was getting round to writing my Master’s dissertation on cyber-attacks — more precisely, on whether the existing international legal framework could deal with cyber-attacks, or whether a new law was needed. I’d been in touch with people at the World Economic Forum during my placements. They told me that they were just about to launch a project on cyber-attacks, and that it might be interesting for me to take a look at their project, and for them to have a legal perspective on the subject. So they took me on, at first as an intern for six months, then as an employee for one year in New York. Half my time was spent on this project, and the other half on managing relations between the Forum and the American political establishment — senators, members of Congress and government.

So you started at the “high end”!

I was lucky: it started as a placement and then there was the chance to work in a small team – even though the WEF only has around 500 permanent staff, with two thirds based in Geneva. There are offices in New York, Beijing and Tokyo. I joined the Geneva office in 2012.

Today, what precisely does your job entail?

I divide my time between the Forum’s international relations with politicians and project management. I’ve finished the project on digital risk and now I’m working on the circular economy, how to review our use of resources to ensure more sustainable development.

But you’ll return to the law…

Yes. I always knew that I wanted an international career, but in international law rather than international relations. I still don’t have qualified lawyer status, which is why I’m going to start my internship in Geneva.

I’ve always been drawn to the idea of going somewhere new. I’ve studied several languages: I followed the bilingual programme at high school, and I took Spanish as an elective subject. Then I realized that it was important to get to know myself before getting to know anyone else. So I told myself that studying Law would teach me a lot about Switzerland, its legal system, its values. I knew I’d specialize fairly quickly. Two years after I started my Bachelor’s degree, I went to Berlin to study International Law for a year, as part of the Erasmus programme.

What would you describe as the strengths of your education at Neuchâtel?

I have great memories of my studies. It was a really good time. Even though we were all learning, the atmosphere was still quite relaxed. That’s something quite rare in life, I think. And I think a lot of that is down to the University of Neuchâtel, because of its size and the close relationships that brings, because of the quality of the classes, with first-rate teachers, the right balance between practice and theory, the exchanges. I was so lucky to be able to go to Berlin, then New York!

Coming from Neuchâtel to the Free University of Berlin or Columbia, do you feel well prepared?

Yes, both in terms of the content and the ability to learn. At Neuchâtel, you’re given many tools to learn, to blend in. The level was exactly the same.

The first thing that shocked you when you got to the University of Columbia?

The teaching method. You get two hours of lectures… then 400 pages of reading for the next week, and then you have to discuss it. It’s – hugely – more pressured! The second shock was seeing the American system, which is so elitist. People have had to fight to get there, and, once they do, they can’t afford to waste a single second; they work hard, almost too hard. It’s very different from the feeling you get in Switzerland.

Neuchâtel, Berlin, New York, Geneva… Where and how do you see your future?

I’m aiming for international law… but hoping there will still be a practical side to my work. It might be with the Swiss government, the UN, or another international organization.

How do your studies still inform your day-to-day work?

I often think of the University of Neuchâtel, especially when I have to speak in a meeting. At the beginning, I found public speaking difficult. But then I remember all those oral exams I passed, sitting across from expert and distinguished professors, and it gives me a real self-belief! I go back to these moments when I need the courage to get going.

What advice do you have to give to future students?

Three things… the first is to do what you love. You can always tweak your programme of study as you go, so it matches your interests and passions. Secondly, travel: it’s not just an educational opportunity, but a personal one, too. And thirdly, get practical experiences, placements. And there are loads of possibilities, whether it’s with the State, international organizations, NGOs… it takes a bit of research, but it’s worth it!

Interview UniNE 2013