What did you hope for in terms of employment as you completed your PhD?
Starting out my PhD, I imagined that I’d end up in academia for sure (just like everyone else does.) But I realized pretty quickly once I started grad school that the picture of scholarly research that I had in mind was quite different from the reality of academic life. I’m not just talking about the growing bureacratization of academia either—I mean even the form and content of the research itself. Making meaningful contributions to society is really important to me, and the mechanisms through which I see those contributions coming about are ones that are at best not encouraged in academia and are at worst considered to be a lack of commitment to Real Research. For all the discussions of “broader impact criteria” in assessing research, the difficult political task of unseating established culture and institutional structure in academia still hasn’t even been started. It’s just not palatable and there are no feel-good soundbites to come from it, so we dance around the issue. But that’s enough ranting for now.
What was your first post-PhD job?
Science & Technology Policy Analyst, Environment Canada. I got that job while waiting for my committee to get back to me with comments on my draft dissertation.What do you do now?I’m still doing policy analysis, for the most part. I just do it with a fancier title: Senior Policy Officer.
How did you get this job?
Networking was crucial. I got my job at Environment Canada after countless informational interviews. At the time, I didn’t realize they had a formal name, and just thought they were “coffee meetings with people who are interesting.” In fact, continuing to think of them in that way is a virtuous practice, as it keeps the whole process much more intellectually stimulating. It also preserves one’s dignity, which is no trifling matter when making a leap from academia to the outside world. My identity had been so bound up in academia, as many experience. Leaving means redefining who you are; it can easily lead to crisis, and maintaining your sense of dignity is really important to get through tough stretches.After enough informational interviews, and with my resume winding its way through a greater and greater portion of the ether, it eventually landed on the desk of someone who was hiring for a short-term position. They invited me to apply, I interviewed and tested well, and got the Environment Canada job. My job at Science-Metrix came as a result of a recommendation from a colleague at Environment Canada.
What kind of tasks do you do on a daily and weekly basis?
Many more than I can think to list! At its most general, my job is to create a bridge between technical analysis staff internally and policy staff in our client organizations. That means I need to negotiate a healthy balance of methodological robustness and operational relevance—what I consider to be the crux of evidence-based policy-making.In practical terms, that means keeping up to speed on general developments in the science policy landscape (using Twitter, traditional news) and on the specific policy contexts of our clients in particular (policy documents from their websites, attending key policy events, networking). I contribute heavily to the development of proposals and contracts, outlining the technical details of the project’s we’ll do for clients and how study results might inform decisions. I also do a lot of reporting: putting together clear, concise syntheses of findings and what they mean for the operational context of a client.(If my long responses make you question whether I know what “concise” means, consider that it’s a lot less work and a lot more fun to let this text flow than to discipline myself into sticking to the point!)
What most surprises you about your job?
When leaving academia, the thing that I worried about most was being bored. I knew that in academia—for all its faults—I had unbelievable intellectual latitude, which I’d never have again. I was surprised to find how much latitude I still have outside. Obviously it’s less, but I still have easily enough latitude to explore new things and keep myself learning and stimulated.
What are your favorite parts of your job?
I like working with others, helping them to identify, deconstruct and solve their problems. Philosophical study was very solitary, and it’s great to have so much opportunity to collaborate now.What would you change about it if you could?One piece of my academic heritage that still sticks with me is that I still believe that the best (and best-argued) ideas ought to win the argument, at the end of the day. That’s just not how the outside world works, though; there are so many competing factors that also figure into the equation. My idealistic self would still like to see the quality of ideas and argumentation carry more weight, though I appreciate that other considerations need to figure in as well. Collaboration helps in that respect, finding champions to represent various perspectives and hashing it out together. Mutual respect is critical there.
What’s next for you, career-wise?
I’m getting more and more engaged in discussions about institutional structure & culture and how they direct the course of discussions. For instance, if you want evidence integrated into policy decisions, you need to have opportunities for evidence people and policy people to interact with each other. To the degree that you set up those spaces (and make them equitable, open, and so forth), so shall the evidence find its way into policy. To the degree that you care about that evidence making its way into policy, you’ll set up your institutions to promote the ubiquity and integrity of those spaces.My current role is very much oriented towards specific pieces of evidence finding their way into specific decisions, and I’m hoping—moving forward—that I’ll have more opportunities to actually work on the overarching structures in which that type of process takes place.
What advice or thoughts do you have for PhDs in career transition now?
You’re going to have to redefine who you are, what you stand for, and what gives meaning to your life. That’s incredibly daunting, but don’t be afraid. Acknowledge that it’s going to be a rough ride, and put yourself in a position to succeed in seeing it through. If there are other aspects of your live that are in turmoil, try to settle them down (for a time) so that you can focus on that transition, And if those other dimensions of your life can’t realistically be settled down, then perhaps wait for a more amenable moment in your life to embark on this transition. Chaos on all fronts at once is hard to manage.
Share this article