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From PhD to Life

Transition Q & A: Daniel Munro


Daniel Munro earned his PhD in political science from MIT He is currently a principal research associate at the Conference Board of Canada, working in the Centre for Skills and Post-Secondary Education. Find him online and follow him @dk_munro.

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

I wanted to be an academic — but not only an academic. As early as my undergraduate days, I had my eyes on career paths that would involve participating in public debate and policy-making. I thought that academia might provide a good platform from which to do those things — and my graduate education was essential to developing my most valuable skills — but I learned about and prepared for other options along the way.

I was very fortunate to have a doctoral advisor, Joshua Cohen (now at Stanford) who is both a leading scholar in democratic theory and an engaged citizen in the richest sense of the term. Among his non-academic activities — and there are many — he serves as editor of the Boston Review. His office was always filled to capacity with essays, opinion pieces, books for review, film reviews, new poetry, and magazine proofs and we’d talk not only about my progress, but about all this stuff and the daily business of running a national magazine dedicated to elevating public discourse. He once asked me if I could donate $15,000 to support a particular BR initiative. I reminded him that I was on full scholarship and needs-based student aid. He bought me a coffee.

In my third year at MIT, my office was located inside the offices of the Boston Review (which was itself housed in the political science department). Being in that environment reinforced my habit of spending some time on non-academic writing, including pieces on politics, philosophy, and art for Canadian and American magazines and newspapers. And it gave my days a different feel and pace than a more conventional academic office might. Near the end of my PhD, I tried to launch a magazine on science, politics, and policy with a fellow MIT grad student. It failed. But I learned a lot in the process.

All of this is to say that, yes, I wanted to be an academic, but I had other things in mind too.

What was your first post-PhD job?

I had a few jobs in the last couple of years of my PhD which I completed after returning to Canada. In addition to teaching a few political theory courses, I volunteered at the Toronto offices of Oxfam Canada and founded its Education Working Group. That gave me my first real taste of NGO life and, had the right opportunity presented itself, I might have stayed.

Immediately after finishing my PhD, I held the democracy and diversity postdoctoral Fellowship at Queen’s University, based in the philosophy department and associated with Will Kymlicka’s Forum for Philosophy and Public Policy. I wrote and published a few academic papers, did some teaching and spent a little more time writing for audiences outside the academy. Will was another great mentor who cared about the bridge between academia and public policy. Before becoming a professional philosopher, he worked in a policy role in the federal civil service but left because, as he told me, he couldn’t bear to sit through another long and seemingly pointless meeting. That observation resonated with me and shaped some of my later decisions. Before and during the post-doc I applied to many academic jobs and there were some interviews and offers, but none really provided a good platform for pursuing my other non-academic interests, and geography was an issue.

After the postdoc I worked as a senior analyst with the Council of Canadian Academies — an arms-length, federally funded organization with a mandate to assess science relevant to various public issues. The range of work appealed to my intellectual restlessness. I researched and wrote on the health and environmental risks of nanotechnology; influenza transmission and the effectiveness of prevention measures; and the state of management, business, and finance research in Canada. I got to peer into the policy-making process without being inside the civil service itself and, because expert panels are at the centre of CCA work, I met and worked with some incredibly bright and prominent people in the Canadian scientific community.

I also had the benefit of working closely with Peter Nicholson — the inaugural President and CEO of the CCA, a well-known economist, and chief advisor to former Prime Minister Paul Martin. We disagreed about many things, but I learned as much about policy, writing, and negotiation as I did in all of my years as a student of political science. I knew in my first few weeks that the CCA might not be quite right for me and I spoke to Peter about this. He shared that, in his life, he gave every opportunity at least a year before moving on — whether because he had accomplished what he set out to do, or because the environment wasn’t conducive to accomplishing what he wanted to do. I stayed at the CCA for nearly a year, learned a great deal, and continue to believe that it is an important, albeit little known, institution in Canadian policy-making. But it wasn’t the right place for a political science PhD. Simply put, I wasn’t challenged.

What do you do now?

I am a principal research associate at the Conference Board of Canada – Canada’s largest, independent, not-for-profit think tank – where I play a lead research role in the Centre for Skills and Post-Secondary Education, among other things. For the past five years, I’ve also taught a course in ethics and moral reasoning in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa. I have no intention of returning full-time to academia, but I like the opportunity to debate big ideas with graduate students and seasoned scholars.

When I first applied to the Conference Board, it was for the position of speechwriter for the president. Speechwriting was something that I always wanted to try and this opportunity came up. In one of two interviews, I surprised myself by telling Anne Golden, the former president, that I would only work for her if she would give me space to “push back” when I thought she was wrong about something. She offered me the job. But I turned it down upon learning that it was only for three days a week, not full-time. With a young child at home, I needed a little more stability. In an unexpected move for which I am grateful, Anne said that she would find a place for me at the Board anyway. After I met with two of the Board’s VPs, I was offered full-time employment as a researcher.

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

My core activities are research, writing and sharing results. The research involves survey design and analysis, literature reviews, data analysis and interviews with people in business, labour, government, academia and civil society — all skills I first developed in my PhD program. Sharing the results involves everything from writing reports, policy papers and op-eds, to briefing decision-makers, presenting at conferences, doing interviews with print and broadcast media, and participating in social media. Again, the research and teaching experience I acquired as a doctoral student provided a solid foundation for doing all of these things, while extracurricular activities and training provided by my employer helped me to refine them. As most of our work is produced by teams, I also spend much of my time managing the efforts of other researchers and, when work is ready for publication, working with the Board’s communications team on the design and execution of media strategies.

What most surprises you about your job?

I’m frequently taken aback by the wide variety of people I get to talk to — while doing research or sharing results — and listening to their experiences and perspectives on issues. Had someone told me six or seven years ago that some of the smartest, most insightful, people in the country work outside the academy, I would have laughed. I did laugh. Was I ever wrong.

What are your favourite parts of your job?

The best part of my job is the fact that many people read and react to what I write — and often make decisions based on my analysis. It appeals to my desire to contribute something valuable to public discourse. And the ever-present possibility of publicity, as I call it, really drives me to work rigorously and self-critically.

What would you change about it if you could?

Sometimes the pace can get a bit overwhelming, and the various processes we have in place to ensure that work is done to the highest standards can be time-consuming. But these are nothing compared to the fact that I have to tuck-in my shirt every day and occasionally wear a tie or even a suit. I find office attire conventions ridiculous and unreasonably limiting. I’m a political philosopher, after all.

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

Keep your eyes open to opportunities where you least expect to find them and create a few of your own where you can (e.g., try to start a magazine and fail; organize or participate in a forum or book club that has no other academic in sight). Most importantly, talk to people. I’ve been amazed at how many people are willing to offer good advice, a job lead, or even make a call just because I’ve asked. And I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have had three very supportive mentors over the last seven or eight years who helped me, in different ways, with my transition from academia to policy.

What’s next?

I don’t expect to leave the Conference Board anytime soon. It has been such a great fit for me. But, if I had to speculate about the future, I imagine speechwriting might work its way back into my career trajectory one way or another. Anne Golden and I eventually did write a speech together — on end of life care and dying with dignity. We wrote it after she returned from a tough year of cancer treatment and soon after her friend, June Callwood, passed away. When the organizers of the event at which she was to deliver the speech suggested that the topic was inappropriate for the audience and asked her to write something else, Anne pushed back. In the end, she opted to drop out of the event rather than drop the speech. Though never delivered, I regard it as one of the most important and meaningful things I’ve ever written.

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. Jennifer Polk / April 10, 2014 at 19:15

    I love this. What a wonderful post, beautifully written, honest, and thoughtful. Dan’s generosity of spirit shines through and I bet he is himself a fantastic mentor. Lucky Conference Board 🙂

    • Sam / April 29, 2014 at 01:07

      Did you just post a comment praising your own article? Classic internet faux pas.

      How can I trust you to give me sound career advice when you so obviously lack knowledge of basic internet etiquette?

      • Jennifer Polk / April 29, 2014 at 10:27

        Hi Sam – This piece was written by Dan Munro, not me; my comment refers to what he wrote.

        • Dan Munro / May 2, 2014 at 10:20

          And I appreciate the kind words. Thanks!