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From PhD to policy leader

Why more PhDs should transition to public policy and how they can do it.


I didn’t really know what public policy was before I came to Ottawa. My PhD was in religious studies and I happily spent my days studying papyri from Hellenistic Egypt and religious observation in ancient Greece. Of course, I’d heard of public policy, usually on the news where they would talk about policy-makers. But I didn’t really know what they did, and I never imagined I’d be one. So, when I landed my first post-PhD job running policy round tables for a think tank, it was a steep learning curve. I oversaw projects on economic development, Indigenous reconciliation, and Canadian competitiveness. I then worked as a policy analyst for the federal government, helping other countries create refugee sponsorship programs. Finally, I launched my own company, and I now consult on immigration and education policy. Public policy needs bright minds and good ideas; and for this reason it can be perfect for PhDs who are leaving academia.

What is public policy

Basically, public policy is what the government does: the decisions made for the direction of our country that the public service implements. And for each decision it makes, the government does a lot of research on questions like: What will building a new pipeline mean for Indigenous groups? How can we balance economic growth and environmental protection? How can we welcome and integrate new Canadians? How can we make sure social services are getting to those who most need them?

The whole ecosystem of public policy in Ottawa is built on what the government does. Government departments have policy analysts to study important issues and to make recommendations to senior government leaders. Think tanks operate independently to study policy and to inform government decisions. National associations hire policy researchers to determine the best courses of action for their own interests. Many big companies even hire policy advisers to keep informed about how government actions affect them and to analyze how they can input.

How you can do it

Policy work is research-informed, evidence-based decision making. Whatever your academic background is, you can handle it. Great writing and research skills are essential, since you’ll probably be writing proposals, reports and policy briefs in your chosen area of expertise. If you have data skills, great! The government collects and uses enormous data sets to inform its work.

To find out about what policy roles might interest you, you might start by thinking about how your current research maps onto a real-world issue. I studied migration and religion in antiquity, so transferring into working for the federal immigration department wasn’t a total departure. The same journals I read for my theoretical cognate field (diaspora studies) were even delivered to my government inbox every morning, courtesy of the department’s enormous research shop. If you study AI or public health, this connection to policy issues might be obvious. For others like me, it can take more creativity — but it’s usually possible. Do you study how the printing press affected the Renaissance? Maybe you’d be interested in modern technological disruption, one of the hottest topics of our time. Are you an expert in Japanese history? Perhaps you’d enjoy working in foreign policy for Global Affairs. And if you can’t or don’t want to draw a line between your current studies and an area of policy work, you can start completely fresh in a new area of interest. Or just see where you can get hired and go with the flow. Yes, your skill set will transfer.

How to get a policy job

Start with informational interviews. Search for the word “policy” on LinkedIn or browse GEDS (the government directory) and find people doing work that seems interesting. Then reach out and ask if you can interview them about their work. Government departments hire a lot of policy analysts and managers are often willing to talk to people interested in entering the public service. Not only will you learn a lot, but managers in the federal government have wide discretion in their hiring and are able to use contracts to bring people in. You might even get offered a job. If you’re interested in think tanks, politics, or working for a national association, do the same thing. Meeting people is always vital to a post-PhD transformation and learning what your options are. You’ll learn a ton about public policy and before you know it you might be shaping the future of our country.

Chris Cornthwaite graduated with a PhD in religious studies from the University of Toronto. After his PhD, he worked running policy projects for a think tank in Canada and then for the Canadian federal government in immigration policy roles. He runs his own consulting practice, and in 2019 launched the blog

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  1. westwood / June 14, 2021 at 12:00

    Surprising that this article doesn’t mention the Mitacs Canadian Science Policy Fellowship! The CSPF post-PhD fellowship and the recruitment of Policy Leaders (RPL) program are the main routes for PhD-holders into the Canadian federal government, and a main route for many provinces.

    It’s very, very difficult to get into government from external unless you take a route like the CSPF or the RPL.

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