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Wednesday, 27 May 2015

From #PhDToGov: Chance A. Minnett Watchel's Story

Chance A. Minnett Watchel. Research Analyst, Alberta Justice and Solicitor General

Brief Bio

I am originally from Southport, Queensland, Australia, but grew up in Dawson Creek, BC. I completed two undergraduate degrees at the University of Calgary in English and political science, respectively, then went on to earn an MA in Canadian politics at Brock University before returning to Calgary to pursue a PhD in political science. I am currently in the fourth year of a PhD at the University of Calgary and am also a research analyst with Alberta Justice & Solicitor General (JSG).

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

I was dead-set on an academic career all throughout my MA and into the first half of my PhD, right up until I started preparing for my comprehensive exams. It’s easily one of the most stressful periods a graduate student can go through and it seemed to amplify all the fears and worries I’d tried to push aside about a future career in academia, job prospects, external funding competitions, etc. I’d heard former professors and PhD candidates who’d graduated years before me tell me things were rough when they first headed onto the job market, but it’d be better when I finally got there. It doesn’t actually seem to have gotten any better, however, and that really worried me. Sitting down with my dissertation supervisor for a good discussion on the subject, I decided I needed to not simply have a ‘Plan B’, but I needed to adequately prepare for both career paths equally.

What was your first post-PhD job?

I haven’t gotten one of those yet as I’m still completing my PhD! I have, however, worked as a research analyst for Alberta JSG since June 2014. I wouldn’t say it’s an unorthodox route, working outside the university while completing a graduate degree, but it’s certainly not one that’s encouraged as there’s the potential to get distracted from your dissertation. Doing both at the same time definitely demands effective time management and personal planning.

Why did you choose an alternative-academic career path?

I started my current position knowing that, whichever route I end up ultimately taking upon completion of my PhD, both my experiences in school and in the public sector will help me in the future. The critical thinking, research, and writing skills you learn during your education are invaluable, but they don’t always translate well outside an academic setting. Working in government is definitely related to my education, but it’s not the specific intent of it. Most often, the question you’re asked when someone finds out you’re in a PhD program is, “Oh, are you going to teach and research when you’re done?” That’s a fairly reasonable expectation of someone with a social sciences graduate degree. Completing a PhD is akin to completing an apprenticeship; it’s meant to set you up for a specific career path. A tenure-track position is not an easy one to get, though, and I didn’t want to get to the end of my PhD only to realize it wasn’t the correct path for me. I wanted options, and I wanted my experiences to reinforce each other and set me apart, regardless of whatever I end up choosing in the future.

What do you do now?

Besides the typical long evenings pouring over journals and books for my dissertation research, I’m a research analyst for Alberta JSG on a very specific project. I’m working on Alberta’s Reforming Family Justice System (RFJS) Initiative, the goal of which is to make Alberta’s family justice system open, responsive and cost-effective, and put the needs of children and families first while assisting families with the early and final resolution of disputes. The project doesn’t simply aim for small technical changes to policy and processes, but also looks at making changes to how we, as people, recognize and deal with certain kinds of problems. It’s multi-sector and multi-level change that is happening around the world.

Prior to this job, reform was simply the subject of study in my readings and my work. Now, I’m an active participant in the process. I get to look at what’s been done in other jurisdictions, how those changes have worked, what Alberta has done/is currently doing, and how we might integrate good practices in other jurisdictions into our own in the most appropriate way. Having this job has really helped clarify much of what I’ve been studying over the past decade. I’m a policy person, first and foremost, so I have a solid understanding of theories of the policy process. Working in this environment, though, I can see how much more complex the process actually gets. It’s definitely given me new ideas for my dissertation research.

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

I haven’t personally encountered too many issues, but because I split my time between graduate school and work almost evenly I find that I miss out on a lot of things in both areas. I’m never intentionally left out of anything, but if there are impromptu meetings and important decisions made, I often find out after the fact. That’s just the way my schedule works. Shifting between the two workspaces on a near-daily basis, I always feel like I need to catch up.

What most surprises you about your job?

I was surprised at how easily the skills I learned in graduate school transferred over. My job is primarily research, writing, and relaying information to others in various formats – that’s essentially grad school in a nutshell. What’s not always so simple is understanding how to sell those skills to an employer. We can talk at length about our research and the methodological approaches we use, but if you can’t make that relevant to what you’re going to do for an employer, they’re never going to give you the opportunity to work for them.

What advice or thoughts do you have for graduate students and post-doc students in transition now?

There are two things I’d suggest to graduate students and post-docs looking into transitioning between academia and public service. First, have at least an introductory understanding of a broad range of methodologies. You don’t have to master them all but versatility, a willingness to take on different kinds of projects, and to learn new ways of doing things makes you an attractive candidate. If you’ve got a good foundation, you can learn on the job. Second, use your research skills to get a leg up on your competition. I was only tangentially familiar with the project when I applied for my position, but some background research on the project, similar projects in other provinces, and the Government of Alberta’s HR website allowed me to do two things which I think got me the job: speak competently about the subject matter and relate to the interviewers in their own language.

Applying for positions with governments is actually easier than you’d expect because of the public nature of it all; all the human resources information is publicly available. The Alberta Public Service Competency Models – the specific characteristics government employers are looking for in exceptional employees – are right at applicants’ fingers. You can literally use them as a guide to sell yourself and your skills to future employers. Having those competencies available really allows you to make good resumes and cover letters better. Instead of simply talking about how much you know about policy change, for example, you can talk about the broader system impact changing a certain policy might have, how you might actually go about making change, how it can benefit other departments or how you might collaborate with them, and how you can minimize or anticipate negative, unforeseen consequences resulting from any changes you might make. When you know what your employer is looking for, it’s much less like you’re trying to venture off into the unknown. Instead, you know exactly where you’re going, how you’re going to get there, and you can explain why you belong there.

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