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From PhD to Life

Transition Q & A: Andrew Miller


Andrew Miller earned a PhD in history from Johns Hopkins University in 2005. He currently manages a transit policy office for the Ontario Ministry of Transportation. 

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

Unsurprisingly, I hoped for a tenure-track job, although I must admit those hopes weren’t fervent. I’d felt a creeping dissatisfaction with academia throughout the last few years of my stint in grad school. Partly this was because it seemed to me that my views on my particular subfield — Native American history — were distinctly unfashionable and as a consequence I suspected my work would never be taken seriously. But mostly this was because the part of the work that I really enjoyed, teaching undergraduates, seemed to me to be regarded, by academia at large, as epiphenomenal to the work of the tenured professor. Certainly a year of stringing together sessional jobs did nothing to change my views on the latter.

I distinctly remember one morning, shortly before I had to commute up the highway to teach a class, looking over the day’s mail. One of the items was a public notice from the municipality informing citizens of a local public-transit infrastructure project that was underway. I read it with absorption, and thought to myself that if I could have another life, I’d want to spend it working on urban planning and public-transit advocacy.

Then, of course, I realized that I would only have one life, and I’d better spend it working on the things I enjoyed.

What was your first post-PhD job?

If we exclude the sessional work, my first post-PhD job was working as a junior policy analyst for the Ontario Ministry of Infrastructure. It might be worth explaining how I got that job: following my epiphany that this was a line of work I wanted to get into, I consulted with an old friend from undergrad days who was a civil servant. He in turn set me up with an informational interview with another civil servant who also held a PhD. He introduced me to what the life would be like. At his suggestion, I applied for an entry-level job that was advertised in the newspaper. It took two interviews and a lengthy test, but I got the position.

As a policy analyst, the meat of my work was receiving requests from other parts of the government for funding to build new public infrastructure, and making recommendations to Cabinet on which requests should receive funding and which should be rejected.

The “Government World” is a very different place from “Academic World”, and it took me some time to figure out the new norms. “Academic World” wanted you to get it right, no matter how much time it took; “Government World” wanted you to get it right quickly, such that a good answer today was better than a perfect answer tomorrow. “Academic World” valued originality; “Government World” valued consistency. In “Academic World”, using someone else’s words without attribution is the serious crime of “plagiarism”; in “Government World”, it’s the best practice of “using approved language.” “Academic World” had little use for teamwork; “Government World” required it. And so on. Learning how to flourish in this new environment took some effort, but it paid off in the end.

What do you do now?

I’ve just finished my eighth year as a civil servant, during which time I’ve risen through the ranks from junior policy analyst, to senior policy analyst, to policy team lead. I recently broke through to senior management, having just finished a year-long contract as manager of a transit-policy office for the Ministry of Transportation. For the past seven years, I’ve worked exclusively on public transit.

It’s been an exciting ride; though I always found transit issues to be inherently interesting. Since 2007 I’ve seen public transit rise to be one of the overriding issues of the day, to the point where it was a key issue in the most recent provincial election and looks to be the most important issue in the Toronto mayoral election that will be held this fall. It’s an exciting time to be working on the transit file in Ontario!

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

As an analyst, my job was to research issues, develop proposals, and make recommendations that senior management would mull over. As a manager, my work is now very different: helping my staff get the information and resources they need to do their jobs, reviewing the proposals that my staff develop, and connecting with other parts of government to ensure that elected officials are getting accurate, up-to-date, and consistent information.

As a manager especially, but also as a policy analyst, this has meant I do far less reading and contemplating, and far more e-mailing and making phone calls, than I did as an academic.

What most surprises you about your job?

Let me tell you instead about something that doesn’t surprise me anymore, but did when I came on board: how much success in government requires securing cooperation from people in other offices or ministries. The provincial government is huge and each office here has its own mission and purpose. Often, to do your job, you’ll need cooperation from some other office, but that office can’t be compelled to assist; they’ve got their own work to do, and putting it aside to assist you puts you ahead but them behind. So doing your job right requires you to persuade other people to help you even when it may not be in their best interests. This requires well-developed people skills! It also requires you to work hard to help other people when they come to you, so that they’ll be willing to pick up the phone when you need them.

What are your favourite parts of your job?

I love public transit policy. This is the realm where government meets citizen in the most visible, regular way. Sure, health policy and law enforcement can affect people profoundly, but most citizens encounter these instances of government rarely. But each commuter is affected by government policy on transit and highway matters every day, and the decisions government takes can vastly increase or decrease their quality of life. Helping the government to get these matters right is immensely satisfying to me.

What would you change about it if you could?

I find the pace of policy work frustrating. In 1861, the city of Toronto decided to implement streetcar service in the city; two lines entered into operation that year. If any government in Canada made a similar decision today, the lag between decision and implementation would be more like a decade.

As irritating as that lag is, it exists for good reason: governments today correctly weigh many more factors when making transit policy. What will be the impact on the environment? On affected residents? On users? How much will the project cost? How much benefit will be gained? What’s the opportunity cost of proceeding with this project? This more thoughtful approach, one that makes sure that affected parties are consulted, leads to better public policy . . . but it means making policy takes much longer than it once did. If I could keep all the benefits while speeding up the process, I would.

What’s next for you?

This fall, I’ll be leaving the Ontario public service and joining the team at the city of Mississauga, where I’ll be taking on the role of (ahem) strategic leader. I’ll be helping the city to deliver a comprehensive land use and transportation master plan for key corridors in Mississauga, a plan that will certainly consider the ways that high-order transit could contribute to city-building. It’s an exciting opportunity and I’m looking forward to it!

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

  1. If you’ve finished a PhD in the humanities or social sciences (and presumably in other fields as well), you are disciplined, detail-oriented, patient, capable of making and assessing evidence-based arguments, and a skilled project manager (what else is a dissertation, after all)? People with these skills are in demand; there is no manager who wouldn’t want more people like this on their team. You have the skills to succeed outside academia.
  2. Given the ratio of PhDs produced annually to the available tenure-track jobs, it’s not enough to be smart and hard-working to gain a career in academia; you must also be lucky, and no one can choose to be lucky. Leaving academia to pursue other careers does not constitute failure.
  3. There are plenty of smart and erudite people where I work, and plenty of demanding, interesting, and important problems to solve. Leaving academia does not mean giving up the “life of the mind,” whatever that is.
  4. There is a lot of practical advice I give to PhDs looking for work outside of academia, but the single most important piece of it is this: outside of academia, it’s not credentials that matter, but skills. Employers are more interested in what you can do than what laurels you’ve earned. So the first step in turning a CV into a resume is to focus not on what you’ve achieved, but what you know how to do. And as (1) above suggests, you know how to do more things than you think!
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. Ali / August 22, 2014 at 21:00

    What a great interview- optimistic and complete with useful tips!

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