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From PhD to Life

Transition Q & A: Anaïs Bertrand-Dansereau, mixed methods researcher

You do not have to accept the labour conditions that have become the norm in universities, even if you are passionate about research and teaching.


Anaïs Bertrand-Dansereau, PhD, is a sociologist who earned her MA from UQAM in Montreal, and a doctorate from the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, Switzerland. She is now living her best life in Ottawa, working as a mixed methods researcher for the government of Canada.

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

The last year of my PhD was difficult for reasons that will be familiar to anyone who completed a dissertation under time constraints and financial stress. I was not thinking about the future so much as getting through each day. Life after the PhD was not discussed in my program, except for students trading successful postdoc applications and foreigners (we were a vast majority) discussing visa options and weighing the pros and cons of staying in Geneva or heading back home – whether home was Benin, Canada, Sicily or Pakistan. As a Canadian, I wanted to live either in Europe or in Canada; moving to the U.S. was not an option for me.

There was no BA offered at our institution; in the absence of undergrads, there were very few teaching gigs available and we had to find outside employment. Most of us had a foot in consulting, internships, and short-term contracts during our studies. The UN was happy to hire many of us as temporary, overqualified, relatively cheap (by local standards) labour. We were happy to get work experience and money.

I worked as a consultant for the International AIDS Society, the World Health Organization, and later for the Global Fund. I also did translations related to my field of study, as my mother tongue is French. That non-academic work experience would turn out to be key to my transition years, as it kept me afloat financially after my postdoc, and it diversified my work experience.

What was your first post-PhD job?

Consultant in gender and HIV, then postdoc researcher.

My experience in the area of global health is that there is a lot of work to be done, and there are few employees. Organizations rely heavily on consultants who are hired for short- or medium-term projects.

There are upsides and downsides to this line of work. On the plus side, you get a variety of challenges, and often you are hired to do extremely interesting work, travel to places you wouldn’t otherwise go, meet people doing fantastic work. The main downsides are, of course, the lack of job stability – although in my experiences, once you get a foot in the door, you will continue to get contracts if you do a good job. A second, perhaps less obvious, downside is that as you leave when your report or action plan has been accepted. You are not there to follow through and champion things in the long run: you make a series of recommendations, and you don’t know what happens to them. Finally, it’s easy to see that in some cases, Western consultants are not the best people to achieve certain objectives, and end up costing a lot.

I had to leave the global health consultant industrial complex when I became pregnant with my first child, and I knew I only had so many months left of being able to fly to African capitals at a week’s notice. I had access to a full year of paid maternity leave based on my work as a self-employed consultant, but I had to figure out what I would do afterwards. Thankfully, I had applied to several public sector jobs, one of which came through… when I was 33 weeks pregnant. That is when I transitioned to the public sector.

What do you do now?

I’m a mixed methods research analyst with an agency in the Canadian federal government.

How did you get this job?

I applied! There are a few ways to get a term (longish contract, one to three years) or indeterminate (permanent) position in the government of Canada. The first is a competitive process: you apply to an opening that is available to the public, go through the hoops, and are selected by the manager. You can also work as a student under the FSWEP program, and be “bridged” into a position without a competitive process.

A competitive process tends to follow the following steps: an online application with screening questions to confirm that candidates meet the mandatory criteria; a technical exam created by the hiring manager to test skills and knowledge; an in-person interview to test “soft” and communications skills; a language test to see if candidates meet the bilingualism requirements of the position; and sometimes an informal conversation with a manager to confirm interest on both sides.

This gets a little technical, but coming from outside I had no idea about all this. If you pass each of these, you are added to a pool of qualified applicants, for a certain classification, from which any manager in the organization can hire. Other departments can also recruit you based on that hiring process that someone else conducted. These pools are often valid for two to three years, so even if you don’t get the job for which you applied, you can be recruited for something else, by someone else, months or years later. So if one ministry qualifies you in a pool as a research analyst, a completely different one may hire you from that pool, several months later, for a research analyst position. Your foot is in the door.

Classifications in the government of Canada are composed of two letters and two numbers. For example, I work as an EC-05. EC refers to the economics and social sciences group, and 05 means I’m at level five out of eight of seniority. Each group has its own union and collective agreement, including common work conditions and pay for each level. It’s all publicly available. Your classification when you enter matters in terms of the money you get, and your level of responsibility. With a PhD in sociology, for example, you can be hired anywhere from EC-03 to EC-06, with most people entering as a four or five. If you are first hired at a lower level, you will need to work your way up over the course of several years by applying for jobs through competitive processes. As always, it is worth waiting for a more senior position to open rather than take a junior position if you can; however, even lower levels make decent salaries and get full benefits.

What kind of tasks do you do on a daily and weekly basis?

I manage qualitative and quantitative research projects, including a small team of junior analysts. This includes setting up contracts with public opinion research firms who conduct our surveys and focus-groups or interviews, providing support to internal clients within the agency, asking colleagues for assistance, conducting analyses, writing up research products, and communicating research findings to senior management, orally or in writing. I have also facilitated focus-groups and given interview training myself, but it is rarer.

In sum: a lot of reading, quite a bit of writing, some programming and analysis, and many meetings.

What most surprises you about your job?

The way the emphasis on work-life balance leads to hard work and excellence. We don’t work long hours by academic standards: 37.5 hours a week, including 2.5h paid breaks – and these shorter weeks were a key part of the attraction for me as someone with a young child. We get sick leave and personal leave, and most people take the leave they need, when they need it: it is frowned upon to show up to work coughing and sneezing. Having enough time for our personal lives means that when we are at work, we focus. I was never this productive during my time in academia. Our days are full, but they end when we leave.

What most surprised me at first was that if something was not done when the clock said it was time to leave, people would leave it there and get back to it the following morning. At first I continued trying to “get things done” and send that email before leaving no matter what; but then I saw that when I was tired and stressed, my work was not very good, and had to be redone the following day. The expectation of quality is very high, and rushing things is rarely the best way to meet deadlines while meeting those expectations.

What are your favourite parts of your job?

I love that I get to do research and nerd out on methods and analyses, and then translate those findings for audiences who actually asked for them and have the power to implement changes if they are required. When you are presenting findings directly to decision-makers, there is none of the anomie of spending years publishing a peer-reviewed article and wondering if anyone will read it.

I also love that continued engagement with the academic world is encouraged, and that we are able to attend conferences as part of our work. I work for an organization that values training and gives us a surprising level of freedom in terms of what we want to learn more about throughout our careers.

What would you change about it if you could?

Having a nap room would be nice.

What advice or thoughts do you have for PhDs in career transition now?

Try to be honest about the life you want, the place that work would occupy in it, and what level of precarity, overwork, and self-discipline you can live with – and for how long. You do not have to accept the labour conditions that have become the norm in universities, even if you are passionate about research and teaching. I was never a star candidate for academia: unlike many PhDs featured in “quit lit” pieces, I did not have a gazillion articles, three books, or prestigious degrees. But there is something deeply satisfying about voting with your feet and going places where your labour is valued and rewarded.

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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