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From PhD to Life

Why PhDs are well-suited to working in government

Today, the civil service is lean, constantly under pressure to deliver high-quality results while keeping departmental budgets low.


This is a guest post from Andrew Miller, PhD, a strategic leader with the City of Mississauga.

In 2016 the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario did a study and found that 51 percent of Ontario PhD holders who graduated in 2009 had positions in the post-secondary education sector. To put it another way, half of Ontario PhDs from that year were working completely outside of academia and higher education. That’s slightly better than the previous estimate, promulgated by the Conference Board of Canada, which estimated that figure at just under 40 percent. Whichever figure is closer to the truth today, both studies support the broader conclusion that PhD graduates – either soon-to-be or just-finished – had best consider careers beyond universities and colleges.

One place to look for such a career is the civil service.

Many graduate students, postdocs, and other PhDs still suffer the misconception of government work as presented by the old British TV show Yes, Minister: stuffy, full of make-work, boring, and lazy. I enjoyed Yes, Minister as much as anyone. But I’m well aware, as too many are not, that the world it was describing was ceasing to exist even as it was originally airing. Certainly in Canada today, the civil service bears little resemblance to the old stereotypes on which the show traded. (Check out Jennifer Polk’s interview with Patrick Borbey, president of the Public Service Commission of Canada.)

Today, the civil service is lean, constantly under pressure to deliver high-quality results while keeping departmental budgets low. And while it’s possible to stay in one position for one’s whole career, few do: at the municipal, provincial, and federal levels, there is significant churn, as employees eager for new challenges (and higher pay) apply for new positions elsewhere in government, leaving behind empty jobs that must be filled in their turn.

Thus there is a natural demand for new hires in the civil service. PhD holders are well-equipped to take advantage of that demand. To a new PhD, this claim may seem intimidating, especially to those who saw themselves as training to be a professor of their chosen subject and nothing else. Such people may be afraid that they don’t have the capabilities that such a different career track would require, but those fears are unwarranted.

Broadly speaking, success in the civil service – or, to speak more precisely, success at public-policy analysis – requires several qualities. These are not secret: virtually every job advertisement for the civil service describes them. And they are qualities that the work of obtaining a PhD bestows.

These qualities are research and analytical skills, communication skills, and project management skills.

Research and analytical skills

Policy work is about identifying problems, proposing solutions, and mitigating negative consequences of those solutions. All three of these tasks require research. Policymakers need to know the scope of the difficulties they face, how other jurisdictions have dealt with those difficulties, and what the effects of those interventions were. And they need to know who is affected by the problem, who will be affected by the proposed solution, and how the interests of those parties line up for or against the government. Research, which will provide that information, and analysis, which will transform that information into usable intelligence, is the first requirement. And it’s a natural fit for PhD holders, who spend years in training learning how to conduct research and then determine what it means.

Communication skills

Decision-makers have limited time and limited attention. It’s rare that they have the liberty to come to grips with a difficult subject in all its complexity. Thus they require their policy staff to be able to explain to them exactly what they need to know to make a call on whether, and how, to proceed with a policy change. Too much information, and they are overloaded; too little, and they risk misunderstanding and doing the wrong thing. Getting just the right amount of information across, in a clear and accessible way, is of paramount importance.

This is something that PhD holders should be good at doing – the art of writing a dissertation, or a scholarly article, or a book pitch, is all about not only explaining the matter you’ve studied, but also why the study of that matter is important . . . and doing so succinctly. This skill is not only useful to PhDs; it’s useful in policy work, and it is transferable from graduate school.

Project management skills

Every policy position requires its holders to be good project managers. Sometimes other terms are preferred, like “self-starting,” or “possesses initiative”, or “can manage multiple priorities in a fast-paced environment,” but the meaning is always the same: someone who can figure out what to do next on an assignment without seeking constant direction from above. There are lots of ways to gain this skill, but producing a dissertation is one: most faculty advisors expect their doctoral students to work for weeks or months without benefit of direct supervision. Anyone who can finish their degree under such circumstances is well established to succeed in the civil service, which is comparatively micro-managed.

Doctoral candidates interested in the civil service – or any non-academic career – would do themselves a service by thinking about how their work has helped them to practice – or even master – these skills. Those who possess them, and can explain that to prospective employers, will have a lot to bring to the civil service. And in turn, the civil service has much to offer them: a chance to work on big problems that affect the lives of their fellow citizens, in ways both tangible and subtle. It’s a jump that many other PhD holders have made. And it’s one that ultimately will make both those PhD holders, and the communities they live in, better off.

Andrew Miller is a strategic leader with the City of Mississauga. He earned a PhD from Johns Hopkins in 2005 and previously held positions with the Ontario ministries of infrastructure, finance, and transportation. Watch Dr. Miller’s presentation, “How PhDs Can Transition to Government Work in Canada,” on the Beyond the Professoriate website. PhD Career Government Canada


Jennifer Polk
Jennifer Polk is a career coach and entrepreneur. She earned her PhD in history from the University of Toronto in 2012. For more information and resources, check out her website:
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  1. Der Iuqer / December 17, 2017 at 19:06

    Andrew, a working professional with a PhD, is someone I would recommend graduate students take career advice from, not from PhDs who upon completion immediately became career coaches.

    • Sam / December 18, 2017 at 11:43

      Not to mention those articles seem like thinly-veiled advertisements for their consulting services….

    • Lauren / December 18, 2017 at 11:48

      Der, having known Jen personally, the advice and knowledge she has about transitioning out of academia is solid and really helpful. It is not fair to dismiss someone’s ability or qualifications when you have not met or spoken with them

      • Der Iuqer / February 25, 2018 at 08:39

        It’s like asking, “What are you qualifications as a mechanic?” and getting the answer: “I own a car.”

  2. Maria / December 18, 2017 at 12:26

    Happy to see this article! As a former academic turned government scientist I am finding this to be a great way to demonstrate transferable skills and still do what I love (scientific research) while in a public service role. It’s important to bust a lot of the archaic myths about public service, but it’s also important to be aware of the very different culture under which research unfolds in government (to manage expectations …and culture shock!). With academia there is much more ‘freedom’ around priorities and accountability to the public and the institution is built around academic research, whereas academic research in government is but one piece of the operation and the institution of public service was not necessarily built with experimentation in mind. That being said, important cultural shifts are under way both top-down and bottom-up. I encourage those in Canada to check out the Mitacs Science Policy Fellowship ( – this program bridges recent PhD graduates into science policy roles in government somewhere on the spectrum of scientist to policy analyst. A similar program in the US is the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowship (

  3. Nasreen / March 24, 2018 at 00:51

    As the work complexities are increasing we need innovative ideas, work skills and researches to advance and benefit the community. I feel that the PhDs can be a perfect choice when it comes to civil service as they possess the capabilities to think beyond the scope and can produce results in an innovative manner