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Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Are PhDs Too Smart or Too Slow for Government?

by Jared Wesley

Are you interested in exploring this issue further?  Register to attend an upcoming event co-hosted by the Institute of Public Administration Canada (IPAC) and CAPS: Your UofA Career Centre Are PhDs Too Smart or Too Slow for Government?  Myths About Careers in the Public SectorMarch 19, 2014 at the University of Alberta.

Three Things to Know About PhDs in the Public Service:

    1.  The public sector is by no means the career route of choice for PhDs.
Research is spotty to say the least, but according to available surveys, fewer than 1 in 10 PhD students have plans to enter the world of government after graduation.  Compared to the more than half that end up teaching or working in universities, only one-in-five secure jobs in the health care and social assistance (13%) or public administration (7%). This number was slightly higher for doctorate-earners in the life sciences, social sciences, and humanities, and lower for those with degrees in engineering.

    2.  At the same time, many PhD graduates feel disillusioned with the prospects of a traditional academic career path.  The Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO) captured this sentiment in their 2013 report, So You Want to Earn a PhD?:

Of those Ontario doctoral graduates interested in pursuing non-faculty careers, 29 per cent believed they could make more money or that they would have better job opportunities outside academia (Desjardins, 2012), 44 per cent preferred clinical or practical work, and 43 per cent wanted to do research but were not interested in teaching (Desjardins, 2012). Many other PhDs feel that they have no other option but to pursue the academic track. This may stem from the fact that academia is all they are familiar with or from the belief that they may not possess the skills to do much else. Therefore, many get stuck on the elusive tenure-track search indefinitely. Yet every year out of the doctorate, job seekers are up against more and more recent graduates from Canadian and foreign universities, and even some individuals who have already secured a tenure-track position and decide to re-apply in search of a position that is closer to home or at a more prestigious institution.

    3.  Doctoral programs are improving in their attempts to educate PhD students about alternative career paths.  But there’s much work to be done.  Many students are actively pursuing alt-ac career paths, but are finding few resources and little support.  As one PhD student put it, “I feel
like there’s a sense of resistance to promote [public sphere work opportunities] to PhD students. Even just having a conversation about working outside academia is a hard conversation to have. It’s something you just don’t talk about and I think it’s on the part of both students and professors who are in the department…” The HEQCO Report went on:  The sentiment that becoming a university professor is the only path after graduation is perhaps a symptom of the very academic nature of the time spent in graduate school for many students, especially those in the social sciences and humanities – writing and trying to publish academic papers, presenting at academic conferences, much of it theoretical work with limited or indirect practical application. While many students are taking part in engaged research and interacting with individuals outside the university as part of their studies (conducting interviews, for instance), they are not familiar with how to communicate the skills that they have acquired through these activities to employers outside of the academic realm. The narrow focus of a literal “apprenticeship” to become a professor, combined with little contact with the world outside of academia, leaves little question why many PhD graduates feel at a loss after graduation, especially once they decide to pursue a non-academic path.

Three Myths about PhDs in the Public Service:

Myth #1: PhDs have two career paths – to the hallowed halls of the ivory tower or to the trenches of private sector.

Reality:  Research suggests that fewer than one-in-five PhD graduates land a much-coveted academic position, and an even lower proportion secure space on the ever-narrowing tenure-track.  Much is made about the lack of private sector jobs for PhD grads in Canada compared to the United States.  This has led to the misperception that Canada may be producing too many PhD graduates, when, in fact, other sectors (including government) should be doing more to tap the growing talent pool.

Myth #2: Entering the public sector means “professionalizing” (read: de-academizing) your degree.

Reality:  PhD students acquire a whole host of marketable skills in the course of a traditional doctoral program.  These extend beyond research and writing skills to include policy analysis and evaluation, team-building and collaboration, teaching and presenting, grant-writing and budget-management, supervising and directing, and many more.   While some faculties and departments are exploring ways of formally professionalizing PhD programs by adding internships, or even developing stand-alone professional doctorate programs, this need not (and should not) mean displacing “academic” components of the degree. 

Myth #3: A PhD is a golden ticket to a cushy government job in upper management.

Reality: Competition for jobs in today’s public sector workforce is as tight as it is in the private sector.  Whereas PhD graduates may have been able to ‘walk into’ executive positions straight out of graduate school in decades past, those hiring in today’s public service look for both knowledge and experience.  While a PhD degree does count as “government experience” in some jurisdictions (e.g., it counts for four years’ worth with the Government of Alberta), doctorate-holders should be prepared to enter the public service at a senior policy / junior management level and aim to earn experience to gain promotion.

Jared Wesley (PhD Calgary) serves as Director of Social Policy for the Government of Alberta’s Ministry of International and Intergovernmental Relations, adjunct professor of Political Science at the University of Alberta, adjunct professor of Political Studies at the University of Manitoba, and Academic Chair of the Institute for Public Administration Canada (IPAC), Edmonton Regional Group. Find him on LinkedIn, Twitter (@ipracademic), and Flipboard.

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