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Wednesday, 8 April 2015

From #PhDToGov: Jared Wesley's Story

What stereotypes do people have of PhDs? Are these deserved?

Can I challenge the assumption behind the question?  I don’t consider myself to be “a PhD”.  I have one, and keep the degree on my wall at home.  But I am not one.  In this sense, one of the well-deserved stereotypes of “PhDs” is that they are their degrees.  In other words, many people with PhDs have made it part of their identity.  This means more than simply listing it on their business cards and in their email signatures (which I do).  It means identifying themselves as PhDs, either explicitly (“please call me Dr.”) or implicitly (carrying an air of ‘differentness’ if not superiority when interacting with people from other professional communities).   I've even seen it crop up in networking events and casual conversations, as some people with PhDs assume that they've "earned" more than an entry-level position by virtue of spending over ten years in university.  That used to be true, but today's job market is different -- particularly in government, and particularly when it comes to management roles.  Today's employers are looking for practical experience and skills more than traditional academic credentials.  All told, this self-identification "as a PhD" can be off-putting to people outside the academy, whether out of (often undeserved) intellectual intimidation, resentment, professional rivalry, or other reasons.  And it’s one of the greatest barriers facing people who want to transition to alternative-academic (alt-ac) careers.

How useful do you think a PhD is for people working outside the academy?

It really depends, largely on who you have as a PhD supervisor.  Some advisors encourage and even seek out opportunities for their students when it comes to alt-ac professional development and networking.  Others are more insular, focused on the old school (‘publish or perish’ and ‘scholar/apprentice’) approach when it comes to mentoring their students.  The core elements of a PhD program are less important to me, both as a practitioner and as someone in a position to hire recently-graduated PhD students. Coursework may well impart the core knowledge necessary to succeed in the public service, and the research component may impart useful methodological skills (depending on the type of role they assume in government).  Dissertation-writing and publishing are far less important, although the ability to accept and adapt to criticism is a valuable soft skill.

Under what circumstances would you advise a young student who does not want to be a prof to pursue a PhD?

I'd be blunt, advising them to do so if:
  • They are getting paid to complete the PhD.  A wise mentor once told me, “If you’re not getting paid to go to grad school, you’re paying for someone else to go to grad school.”  The ability to secure scholarships and fellowships is more than simply a means to sustain yourself (without amassing student debt).  It is a canary in the coal mine; if people don’t see your academic promise by the time you complete your Master’s, a PhD is not likely the best path for you. 
  • They are thinking beyond self-fulfillment.  I often hear students say, “I want to be a PhD.” Or “I want to do it for me, to learn more about x.”  That’s rarely enough, I’m afraid, to sustain yourself through a 4 to 6 year commitment.  I use the following Venn diagram to coach students to think about the relevant ingredients in a fulfilling career – one with purpose:

Do PhDs in the social sciences and humanities obtain skills during their studies that serve them well outside the academy? How useful is a PhD when working for government?

Again, the research skills, and ability to adapt to criticism, are most valuable.  Under-appreciated by grad schools, and under-developed in grad students, however:  soft skills.  These include relationship-building, teamwork, persuasion without authority, strategic planning, collaboration, and the like.  Grad schools would do well to study the key competencies expected by governments in terms of their employees’ development.  Here’s the Government of Alberta’s model, for example.  

APS Compentencies

What should PhD programs do differently, if anything, for those students who are not planning to become full-time academics?

I think the University of Alberta has started well, with their FGSR Advisory Committee on Professional Development (I’m a member).  It invites leaders from various sectors (private, non-profit, public) to share their thoughts with high-ranking university administrators about what they need from tomorrow’s grad students.  The challenge is mobilizing that knowledge, and implementing the recommendations, across all PhD programs at the university.  Ironically, that takes the same sort of soft skills I mentioned above…

Jared Wesley earned his PhD in political science from the University of Calgary. He’s now Director of Social Policy for the Ministry of International and Intergovernmental Relations at the Government of Alberta, adjunct professor of political science at the University of Albertaand pracademic chair of the Institute for Public Administration Canada (IPAC) (Edmonton Regional Group). Find him on LinkedIn, Twitter (@ipracademic), and Flipboard.  You can read more about his career journey here.

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