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From PhD to Life

Transition Q & A: Dragos Popa, manager at Health Canada

Three things that surprise Dragos Popa about working for the federal government? The complexity of the work, the pace, and the workload.


Dragos Popa earned his PhD from Carleton University in political science. He is now a seasoned leader within the Government of Canada, with broad experience in public policy, program development, and results-based management. For a decade (2004-2014), he taught graduate and post-graduate courses at Carleton University, the University of Ottawa, and the Canadian Forces College (Toronto). Since 2003, he has held increasingly senior positions within Canada’s federal public service, in various departments: Global Affairs Canada, Statistics Canada, Canada School of Public Service, Public Health Agency of Canada, and Health Canada. Connect with him on LinkedIn.

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

Unlike many PhD students, I didn’t envision  pursuing a teaching career once I completed my doctoral program. Throughout my graduate studies I approached my learning and my research as a valuable stepping stone for future opportunities outside of the ivory tower of academia. Having graduated in the nation’s capital, the idea of getting a job with the Government of Canada was an obvious option – along with joining a non-profit organization. Working in the private sector was not high on my agenda, and neither was an academic position (despite the fact that I taught, on a part-time basis, for many years at several postsecondary institutions). Overall, I hoped that I would be able to make a tangible and meaningful difference to the lives of Canadians. Working with the federal government afforded me this opportunity.

What was your first post-PhD job?

I started working with the Government of Canada while doing my PhD. I was a part-time consultant for Global Affairs Canada, in 2003-2004, providing clients (Canadian diplomats) with pre-departure information related to European destinations, e.g., economic and political matters, culture, history, and geography. In 2006, I started working as an expert coder with Statistics Canada for the census of population and the census of agriculture. I analyzed, edited and coded statistical information, identified trends and problems pertaining to statistical data, and produced reports based on information extracted from complex databases.

My first indeterminate job in government was with the Canada School of Public Service – the educational arm of the federal government – as a project coordinator (2006-2009). I thought the Canada School was a logical choice given my academic background and close interest in educational issues at the time. Holding a full-time job while still working on my PhD (and raising a young family) created some obvious challenges, yet it didn’t affect the completion of my studies in 2008, five years after having started my doctoral program. In fact, it allowed for a smooth transition from my university studies to the workplace, and eliminated the stress of searching for a job when pressed to find employment on relatively short notice.

What do you do now?

I’m a manager at Health Canada, in the chief financial officer branch. My files and tasks are complex and rather specialized – given the nature of the federal public service – and a couple of paragraphs here would not do them justice. But in a nutshell: I provide leadership on corporate governance, including working-level and senior management (director-general) committees; on enterprise risk management; and on management accountability, with a focus on program performance. In my current role, I develop and foster effective partnerships within Health Canada and the federal health portfolio, with the Government of Canada’s central agencies, and other government departments.

As an acting director at Health Canada (2018-2019) I oversaw the development of the annual departmental plan, and the departmental results report, which are submitted to parliament; reviewed and provided advice on memoranda to cabinet and treasury board submissions; and coordinated the implementation of the Government of Canada policy on results at Health Canada, with a focus on rigorous and systematic approaches to performance measurement.

How did you get this job?

The typical way to get mid-level or senior-level jobs in government is to have been in government for a while (perhaps a decade or two), be recognized for work well done, and apply for new positions where your experience, skills and competencies can make a positive difference. It’s not impossible, but it’s rather rare for someone external to government to move straight into a senior position without prior experience in the public service. There are generally good reasons for this, including the very specialized nature of working in a public organization, the need for a specific and proven mindset and skill set, and a demonstrated desire to apply one’s talents in support of the public good.

In my case, I started working full time with the government in a relatively junior position as a coder with the Government of Canada’s statistics agency (Statistics Canada), at a time where there was a hiring spree in Ottawa and across the country during the 2006 Canadian census. I had not completed my PhD studies, yet I saw this opportunity as a way to get my foot in the door. Although the position did not match my overall academic achievements, it proved to be a really formative and informative experience – and the beginning of a long career in the public service. From there I moved to other government departments, other organizational functions, and other positions.

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

As a manager, my primary responsibility is to lead my team, monitor the appropriate completion of files (on time, on budget, at a high level of quality) and provide specific guidance and support to staff whenever they need me, while giving them space and not micromanaging their work. I always make sure that I am both a leader and a team player, and try to demonstrate on a daily basis that I am committed to the professional development, well-being and success of my direct reports, colleagues, and superiors.

I also continue to be the lead on several departmental files (albeit a much smaller number than in the past), which requires that I develop and analyze management strategies and plans, in terms of resourcing priorities, expected results and risks; plan and conduct quantitative and qualitative research and analysis; manage collaborative relationships with internal and external partners and stakeholders; and develop and provide expert, strategic advice to senior departmental officials. The specific tasks range from booking a boardroom for a meeting, to writing complex reports for organizational accountability and decision-making, and presenting findings and recommendations to assistant deputy ministers and senior departmental committees.

What most surprises you about your job?

I’ve been in a management job in government for a while now, but I am still occasionally surprised by three things: complexity, pace, and workload. The mandate of a typical government organization is very complex, and touches the lives of myriad sectors, social groups, and individuals in Canadian society. This level of complexity then trickles down to the lowest levels of the organization. To be effective as a public servant and leader in the federal government you need to acknowledge and embrace this complexity: adapt to it and find ways to do the best job you can in an environment continuously reshaped by shifting internal and external drivers, changing departmental core responsibilities, new programs and priorities, and an evolving workforce.

The second and third elements to mention are pace and workload. Despite persistent stereotypes associated with bureaucracy and the archetypal public servant, the reality on the ground couldn’t be further from the truth. Public servants nowadays are smart, educated, dedicated to their files and the success of their organizations, and more often than not working at a very high pace under tight deadlines. It’s not unusual, especially at middle-management and senior-management levels, for public servants to work evenings and weekends to complete their tasks. The satisfaction of a job well done compensates for the blurring of work-life boundaries, and the odd sleepless night to finish a project or an important presentation for the following morning.

What are your favourite parts of your job?

As I work at the intersection of policy, program development, and results-based management, the files I am responsible for are very demanding yet engaging, dynamic, and meaningful. I value the fact that the work we’re doing at Health Canada and across the federal government makes a positive difference in the lives of Canadians. I am also blessed with a great team, amazing colleagues, and very supportive bosses. Also, living and working minutes from downtown Ottawa (one of Canada’s best cities) is an added, definite bonus!

What’s next for you, career-wise?

Career-wise, the logical next step for me is to pursue an executive-level position within government. I am currently refining and expanding my skills and competencies required to step into the executive cadre of the federal public service. Those skills and competencies are quite different from those needed at lower levels in the organizational hierarchy. They include the ability to demonstrate and inspire effective leadership, the ability to manage the most complex files in government, and to deliver real results for Canadians.

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

Here are my top 10 recommendations, in no particular order:

  1. Continuously build your knowledge, skills and competencies – with a focus on the work specialties and organizational functions you are most interested in. (Obvious observation: the more senior the position targeted, the broader the knowledge and experience required.)
  2. Think strategically in everything you do. This may sound like obvious advice, but finding that good balance between your personal preferences / priorities, market conditions / opportunities, and where you focus your day-to-day efforts during your studies or within the workplace is easier said than done. From time to time, pause what you’re doing and assess if your current choices are aligned with your medium to long term goals.
  3. Be professional at all times. This cannot be overstated. You never know who and when is considering you for your next job, whatever that might be. It’s a good idea to apply this rule anyway, even when you’re not searching for a new opportunity.
  4. Establish a good reputation as early and as widely as possible. You definitely want to manage and promote your personal brand, and present yourself in the best possible light. Use strategically the tools at your disposal: write articles, deliver presentations, start a blog, sell yourself as an expert in your field, give interviews (reach out to, and work with, traditional media if possible), use social media as appropriate.
  5. Monitor job postings, and keep an open mind to new opportunities. Even if they don’t seem perfectly aligned with your current priorities and activities, they’re still worth considering. If you discover they’re not for you, that’s fine; just try not to dismiss them before you got a chance to understand what they’re all about.
  6. Build a training plan, based on your general career objectives, and be persistent in expanding your knowledge, skills, and competencies that may be required in your chosen field.
  7. It goes without saying, but keep a positive attitude. Your colleagues, friends, and potential employers will notice your positivity, drive, and enthusiasm, and may react in a similar fashion!
  8. Find a mentor / coach / role model, consult with them whenever possible, seek their advice, and learn from their experiences and career paths.
  9. Create and maintain a list of potential employers and desired positions (write it down, use a whiteboard, save them in your notes app), network widely (although manage carefully your time, given competing priorities in both your personal and professional life), and try to understand marketplace conditions and trends relating to your chosen work field(s).
  10. Once in the workplace, maintain good relationships with colleagues, supervisors, and subordinates (if applicable); be open to new files and opportunities (proactively look for new challenging projects, ask for micro-assignments, etc. where you can showcase your abilities); be confident in the value you bring to the organization and the workplace; under-promise and over-deliver; and, overall, demonstrate a strong work ethic – do your best to make a difference, every single day, and you will undoubtedly get noticed.
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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