This is a guest post from Andrew Miller, PhD, a strategic leader with the City of Mississauga.
In 2016 the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario did a study and found that 51 percent of Ontario PhD holders who graduated in 2009 had positions in the post-secondary education sector. To put it another way, half of Ontario PhDs from that year were working completely outside of academia and higher education. That’s slightly better than the previous estimate, promulgated by the Conference Board of Canada, which estimated that figure at just under 40 percent. Whichever figure is closer to the truth today, both studies support the broader conclusion that PhD graduates – either soon-to-be or just-finished – had best consider careers beyond universities and colleges.
One place to look for such a career is the civil service.
Many graduate students, postdocs, and other PhDs still suffer the misconception of government work as presented by the old British TV show Yes, Minister: stuffy, full of make-work, boring, and lazy. I enjoyed Yes, Minister as much as anyone. But I’m well aware, as too many are not, that the world it was describing was ceasing to exist even as it was originally airing. Certainly in Canada today, the civil service bears little resemblance to the old stereotypes on which the show traded. (Check out Jennifer Polk’s interview with Patrick Borbey, president of the Public Service Commission of Canada.)
Today, the civil service is lean, constantly under pressure to deliver high-quality results while keeping departmental budgets low. And while it’s possible to stay in one position for one’s whole career, few do: at the municipal, provincial, and federal levels, there is significant churn, as employees eager for new challenges (and higher pay) apply for new positions elsewhere in government, leaving behind empty jobs that must be filled in their turn.
Thus there is a natural demand for new hires in the civil service. PhD holders are well-equipped to take advantage of that demand. To a new PhD, this claim may seem intimidating, especially to those who saw themselves as training to be a professor of their chosen subject and nothing else. Such people may be afraid that they don’t have the capabilities that such a different career track would require, but those fears are unwarranted.
Broadly speaking, success in the civil service – or, to speak more precisely, success at public-policy analysis – requires several qualities. These are not secret: virtually every job advertisement for the civil service describes them. And they are qualities that the work of obtaining a PhD bestows.
These qualities are research and analytical skills, communication skills, and project management skills.
Research and analytical skills
Policy work is about identifying problems, proposing solutions, and mitigating negative consequences of those solutions. All three of these tasks require research. Policymakers need to know the scope of the difficulties they face, how other jurisdictions have dealt with those difficulties, and what the effects of those interventions were. And they need to know who is affected by the problem, who will be affected by the proposed solution, and how the interests of those parties line up for or against the government. Research, which will provide that information, and analysis, which will transform that information into usable intelligence, is the first requirement. And it’s a natural fit for PhD holders, who spend years in training learning how to conduct research and then determine what it means.
Decision-makers have limited time and limited attention. It’s rare that they have the liberty to come to grips with a difficult subject in all its complexity. Thus they require their policy staff to be able to explain to them exactly what they need to know to make a call on whether, and how, to proceed with a policy change. Too much information, and they are overloaded; too little, and they risk misunderstanding and doing the wrong thing. Getting just the right amount of information across, in a clear and accessible way, is of paramount importance.
This is something that PhD holders should be good at doing – the art of writing a dissertation, or a scholarly article, or a book pitch, is all about not only explaining the matter you’ve studied, but also why the study of that matter is important . . . and doing so succinctly. This skill is not only useful to PhDs; it’s useful in policy work, and it is transferable from graduate school.
Project management skills
Every policy position requires its holders to be good project managers. Sometimes other terms are preferred, like “self-starting,” or “possesses initiative”, or “can manage multiple priorities in a fast-paced environment,” but the meaning is always the same: someone who can figure out what to do next on an assignment without seeking constant direction from above. There are lots of ways to gain this skill, but producing a dissertation is one: most faculty advisors expect their doctoral students to work for weeks or months without benefit of direct supervision. Anyone who can finish their degree under such circumstances is well established to succeed in the civil service, which is comparatively micro-managed.
Doctoral candidates interested in the civil service – or any non-academic career – would do themselves a service by thinking about how their work has helped them to practice – or even master – these skills. Those who possess them, and can explain that to prospective employers, will have a lot to bring to the civil service. And in turn, the civil service has much to offer them: a chance to work on big problems that affect the lives of their fellow citizens, in ways both tangible and subtle. It’s a jump that many other PhD holders have made. And it’s one that ultimately will make both those PhD holders, and the communities they live in, better off.
Andrew Miller is a strategic leader with the City of Mississauga. He earned a PhD from Johns Hopkins in 2005 and previously held positions with the Ontario ministries of infrastructure, finance, and transportation. Watch Dr. Miller’s presentation, “How PhDs Can Transition to Government Work in Canada,” on the Beyond the Professoriate website.