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From PhD to Life

Transition Q & A: Jared Wesley


Jared Wesley earned his PhD in political science from the University of Calgary. He’s now director of federal-provincial relations for the government of Alberta, adjunct professor of political science at the University of Alberta, adjunct professor of political studies at the University of Manitoba, and academic chair of the Institute for Public Administration Canada (IPAC) (Edmonton Regional Group). Find him on LinkedIn, Twitter (@ipracademic), and Flipboard.

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

I’ve always wanted to be a public servant, but have never believed that “service to the public” was confined to one specific occupation. Throughout my graduate studies, I was well-advised to keep all of my options open when it came to post-doctoral employment. For me, that meant keeping a close eye on the job market in academia and in the civil service, both of which looked promising when I entered my PhD program in 2004. Like many graduate students over the past three or four decades, I was told that there would be no shortage of demand for PhD graduates. Things changed very rapidly in the closing months of my studies, however, as the international economic downturn hit Canada in 2009. While other countries fared worse, Canadian governments and universities began hiring freezes. Eventually, these freezes gave way to outright reductions in staff, closing off entry-level positions and promotion opportunities, alike.

What was your first post-PhD job?

In this environment, I was extremely fortunate to earn a tenure-track position as an assistant professor of political studies at the University of Manitoba. At the time, I considered it my “dream job”; having grown up in Manitoba, I relished the opportunity to give something back to my home community. I was even luckier to have been given that opportunity while still ABD, even though it meant launching my teaching and research program while finishing my dissertation and living in a different province from my partner. Eventually, though, things came together. My partner joined me in Winnipeg, and we got married. I finished my PhD, and transformed my dissertation into my first monograph, Code Politics. I settled into teaching, earned my first faculty SSHRC grant to launch my research program (The Comparative Provincial Election Project, CPEP), and partnered with colleagues and institutions to carry-out an ambitious public education campaign surrounding the Manitoba election (U2011). Life was great, but it was about to get even better.

What do you do now?

I am now director of federalism and constitution in the federal-provincial relations unit of Alberta’s ministry of international and intergovernmental relations (IIR). That lengthy title can be reduced to “pracademic.” I am an academic and practitioner whose career has taken me from the world of research, to the university classroom, to the government boardroom.

My work coordinates and advances Alberta’s intergovernmental objectives by building positive relationships among Alberta ministries and our external partners. I develop strategies and policy options in collaboration with various departments; negotiate intergovernmental agreements; design and deliver outreach programs; represent the Ministry on various cross-government teams; provide research and analysis of emerging intergovernmental trends; provide strategic advice to senior officials within and outside the Ministry; support other departments at ministerial conferences; and supervise and mentor intergovernmental officers.

At the same time, I find that my “day job” in government has enhanced my “night job” in academia. When I moved to Edmonton, the University of Alberta and University of Manitoba invited me to continue to serve as an adjunct professor in their political science departments. This allowed me to continue my research program, which now consists more in editing and organizing than writing or researching. Colleagues and publishers have also been very supportive, permitting me to transform sole-authored projects into co-authored or edited ones. I’m also immensely grateful for the opportunity to continue teaching, which I do one or two nights per week throughout the year.

My government work informs my research and teaching in every way, most of the time in a positive way. I taught a variety of Canadian politics courses before I entered the public service, and I’ve noticed a marked difference in the way I teach them since. I have a deeper appreciation for how long-held assumptions and abstract theories actually apply to the “real world” of Canadian politics. (Some fit, some don’t.) As a result, I’ve changed completely the way I teach federalism and intergovernmental relations, transforming those courses into term-long simulation exercises where students get to play the ‘role’ of real-life policy analysts, deputy ministers, and premiers. While reading the traditional textbook accounts, they produce briefing binders instead of essays, exposing them (and me) to the gaps that often exist between theory and practice and giving them important skills should they wish to pursue a career in government. (Several of them already have.)

What’s the worst part about a pracademic career?

There are downsides to being a pracademic. For one, you’re never quite “at home” (or fully accepted) in either community. Both sides see you as an outsider or interloper, at best; at worst, they see you as an imposter or threat to the established way of doing things. For another, you are constantly faced with ethical challenges (both internally, and from others). As part academic, you face questions about your objectivity when studying subjects within your scope as a practitioner. As part practitioner, you feel pressures on your academic freedom to pursue studies that may produce results critical of your government or its partners, which would negatively impact your professional career. This is why I have chosen to limit my work on Canadian politics to editing and co-authoring. (This has the added benefit of allowing me to work with great partners, help develop graduate students, and continue to publish despite my lack of resources to pursue primary research.)

Why did you leave full-time academia?

One word: family. Over time, my partner and I realized that we were happiest when living in Edmonton, and decided to take a leap of faith in shifting our career paths in search of a better life out West. Considering how much I loved my day job, I earned some raised eyebrows when I announced that I was leaving the University of Manitoba for a position in the Alberta public service. Tenure-track jobs had all but dried up by 2011, and the Canadian politics market was especially tight. Given our family’s love for life in Edmonton (we first met while undergrads at the University of Alberta), my academic job prospects were even more limited. In this sense, making the jump from academia in one province to civil service in another was really a leap of faith. But my academic training, previous work experience, and solid network provided a substantial safety net.

I was fortunate to have encountered passionate “pracademics” throughout my early career. Academic mentors like Brenda O’Neill, David Stewart, Keith Archer, and Paul Thomas had always encouraged me to maintain a practical (real-world, policy) perspective on my research. This would allow me to keep alternative career paths open in the civil service. Paul Thomas even assisted in connecting me to my first government job while I completed my MA, as a federal-provincial relations analyst with the Government of Manitoba. This summer job (which turned into a two-year stint) introduced me to a whole new world of political science. It also introduced me to Diane Gray, Jim Eldridge, and Paul Vogt – three civil servants whose openness to research and evidence-based decision-making changed my entire perspective on the supposed gap between the worlds of academia and government. This view has only been reinforced in Edmonton, where my colleagues have been just as supportive of my academic pursuits.

What most surprises you about your job?

I was surprised at just how many parts of my brain I use as a so-called “bureaucrat.” On a daily basis, I find myself using all of the tools I gained in my academic life (and more). Contrary to what most students (and employers, for that matter) believe, the content I learned during my PhD program was not nearly as important as the skills and experience I acquired. Sure: studying Canadian politics for over a decade helped when it came to landing a job in federal-provincial relations. Yet, given the ever-changing political environment in Canada, the “facts” I learned in graduate school have quickly become out of date. Instead, I find I use my quantitative and qualitative research skills to support evidence-based practice in our ministry; I use my teaching and mentoring experience to develop my staff and educate the broader public service; and I use my analytical and communication skills to transform complex issues into more manageable ones.

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

Read Sheryl Sandberg’s best-selling book, Lean In, especially Chapter 4, where she explains the importance of career scoping. (For clarity, her advice is just as applicable to men as it is for women. And the rest of the book is a good read, too.)

Sheryl borrows a metaphor developed by Pattie Sellers and Lori Goler: “Careers are a jungle gym, not a ladder.” According to Sheryl, “ladders are limiting – people can move up or down, on or off. Jungle gyms offer more creative exploration. There’s only one way to get to the top of a ladder, but there are many ways to get to the top of a jungle gym. . . The ability to forge a unique path with occasional dips, detours, and even dead ends presents a better chance for fulfillment. Plus, a jungle gym provides great views for many people, not just those at the top. On a ladder, most climbers are stuck staring at the butt of the person above.”

Traditional academic careers are ladder-like. Advancing from PhD to tenure track, from student to assistant to associate to full professor – this path is by no means open to all graduate students. Getting on the bottom rung is challenging enough. Advancing requires a lot of patience, persistence and luck, considering the many other people beside you on the ladder, the many “butts” above you, and the fact that universities are increasingly removing the rungs.

By contrast, a pracademic path is more like a jungle gym. Pracademia has enabled me to keep advancing toward my goal of serving my community to the best of my ability. At times, this service has been as a professor. At others, it has meant being a bureaucrat. In the future, it may mean shifting to another path, or returning to a previous one. Each PhD student must find his or her own ultimate objective, and should consider graduate school and the jobs that follow as a means to that end. This means using your PhD to acquire skills, experience, and networks that will enable you to take the next step upward. And it means remaining focused on ‘moving up’ while considering a wide range of possible paths (whether in the academic, public, private, or not-for-profit sectors).

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. Patti Papirnik / September 20, 2013 at 12:56

    Very interesting article. I work with Jared on the IPAC Edmonton Regional Group board. His ‘pracademic’ experience makes him a valuable asset to our board. His experience illustrates the many faces of public service.

    • Jennifer Polk / October 23, 2013 at 15:22

      I just love the term “pracademic”! Glad to know there are people out there bringing all the worlds together, living them at the same time.

  2. Mara / September 25, 2013 at 23:13

    Very interesting column! I’m a newly graduated PhD so it really helps!