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Thursday, 26 March 2015

From #PhDToGov: Alex Ryan's Story

Alex Ryan, Senior Systems Design Advisor, Government of Alberta

Brief Bio

My PhD in Applied Mathematics advanced a Multidisciplinary Approach to Complex Systems Design. I completed my PhD while working full-time with the Defence Science and Technology Organisation as a federal public servant in Adelaide, Australia. In my nine years with DSTO, I led long range research on complex adaptive systems, supported Army operations in Afghanistan, contributed to capstone Army doctrine, and informed large acquisition decisions through research, modeling and analysis. Following this, I worked for Booz Allen Hamilton in Leavenworth, US for five years. As a consultant, I taught at the graduate level at the School of Advanced Military Studies and worked with Strategic Command, Special Operations Command, Cyber Command, and the Joint Staff in applying systems thinking and design to global strategic challenges. In 2014 I moved to Edmonton to found and lead Alberta CoLab, a cross-ministry systemic design and strategic foresight lab within the Government of Alberta.

What did you hope for in terms of employment as you completed your PhD?

I was already working full-time as a public servant when I began my PhD. I saw my PhD as a pathway to a different quality of work and a different kind of career progression. I was motivated to progress but had little interest in project or people management. The PhD was a way to advance within an applied scientific organization without taking on management responsibility. I also expected that a PhD would open up opportunities to work internationally, and this has certainly been borne out.

Why did you choose an alternative-academic career path?

I was already on an established career path when I started my PhD. While I have always been attracted to theory and research, and have been surprised by how much I enjoy teaching, these have always been deeply grounded in application for me. I have found it easier to connect theory and practice by operating within organizations that are immersed in real world challenges.  

What do you do now?

I convene diverse and conflicting groups of stakeholders around the most complex and ambiguous challenges facing the Government of Alberta and guide them through a systemic design process to arrive at robust and innovative options for systems change. This is a brand new capability for the Government of Alberta, and unique in the Canadian public service. In the last year, our team led 62 workshops across 38 projects, with 14 different ministries in the lead. This resulted in new organizations, frameworks, strategies, and services for Albertans. My PhD in complex systems design provides me with a depth of knowledge that enables agility during dynamic group co-design processes. It also provides a degree of assurance to participants to trust in a process that is often uncomfortable and counter-intuitive. Even though there is no mathematics in my work, I see my theoretical training as providing me with a capacity for abstract thought that is extremely useful when moving between problem sets as diverse as military strategy, resource management, climate change, early childhood development, and health system transformation.   

What’s the most challenging part about a pracademic career?

Organizational incentive mechanisms, structures and supports are designed to encourage specialization. Whether you choose to operate on the academic or the practice side of this division of labour, there is a cost you will pay for operating in the interstitial space. As an academic, applied case studies are less valued than basic research. As a practitioner, you will be seen as over-complicating things, asking inconvenient questions, and wasting time on intellectual curiosities. I think the cost is worth it, because I believe the most interesting problems are precisely in this interstice.

Speaking from my experience operating on the practical side of the divide, the way to overcome this challenge is to be creative in how you maintain the space for reading, researching and writing. In my first job, starting my PhD was the way to create this space. In my jobs with the Government of Alberta and Booz Allen Hamilton, I have worked at 80-90% full time to give myself a “Google Day” for personal research projects. Without this continual research time, I think the deep knowledge I gained through my PhD would have eroded, rather than expanded.

What most surprises you about your job?

How intelligent and curious the public servants I work with are. It has been my experience across three countries and military and civilian service that the stereotypes are profoundly misleading.
What advice or thoughts do you have for graduate students and post-doc students in transition now?
Your PhD will get you noticed, but don’t expect it to give you an edge in climbing the ladder, because the ladder has not been designed with you in mind. Instead, use your PhD to take you laterally across many organizations to add breadth of experience to your depth of knowledge. I doubt the motivation for your PhD was career advancement, so don’t get caught up chasing the standard career progression model. Think deeply about where you want to go and then cut your own path to get there.

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