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From PhD to Life

Transition Q & A: James McKee, director of research

“I knew what the government needed — someone to help them better respond to the public through thoughtful research design.”


James McKee earned his MA in political theory from the University of Toronto and left a PhD program in international relations. He’s currently director of research for the executive council of the Government of Alberta. Follow him on Twitter @tallpolitical.

You left a PhD program. What happened?

A lot, and kind of all at once. I was losing steam in the program, having had two kids in the middle of the program, and really struggling to keep up with everything. We had a couple of family health emergencies all tucked into a 12 month period and it felt like we were pretty exposed. I struggled to find a topic I could see as a dissertation (that I could actually complete). So it was getting harder and harder to manage teaching, trying to write, but also be a dad to two young girls. Put that against a seemingly endless set of chapters and it began to look pretty easy to at least pause — or even stop altogether.

What did you hope for in terms of employment?

I had no specific hopes about employment. I was pretty burned out on teaching and didn’t see the life of an academic in the way I maybe did when I started out in grad school. It wasn’t long after I started that the 2008 recession made things look even harder for many. And I didn’t decide to leave the PhD program so much as other things kind of happened. I’ve always been terribly lucky and when I needed it most. I was offered a pretty neat position — sort of a “let’s try things out for a bit” contract that turned into a full-time position pretty quickly.

What was your first post-PhD job?

I worked for one of the big Ottawa polling firms, but sort of on my own and built a small practice from the ground up. I got to do a lot of interesting projects and really learned a lot.

What do you do now? (How did you get this job?)

I’m the director of research for the ministry that supports the premier’s office in the Government of Alberta. I got the job because I saw the posting and thought I knew what the government needed — someone to help them better respond to the public through thoughtful research design (plus I promised to save them a lot of money).

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

It is honestly too hard to detail them all, but I am basically responsible for all research done by our ministry, and oversee a lot of the research done on behalf of other government ministries. But I do a lot of stuff that I would have thought mundane before I actually started doing it — how to better procure, for example.

What most surprises you about your job?

That there is no one thing that I could describe as what I do — it changes every day (plus it seems like people actually listen when I bring them results).

What are your favourite parts of your job?

Pretty much all of it, but mostly it is the practical or applied examination of the things I enjoyed so much about grad school: how ought we live together, how are we to come to a consensus? Most days I am thinking in very practical ways about how to get people to tell me in their own words what these questions mean to them.

What would you change about it if you could?

Less paperwork!

What’s next for you, career-wise?

At this stage, I’m very happy doing what I do.

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

This is a question I get from people that know I moved away from the academy, and are perhaps looking to do the same in their own careers. I don’t have any profound sense of the right advice to give.

Most of what I do now is unrelated to what I did in my PhD program, which I am sure is not an uncommon claim for someone like me. But the fundamental interest that I had in tackling ideas and problems that got me interested in pursuing a career as an academic in the first place — and the skills I honed through many years of university — are skills that serve you well, wherever you might consider going next. I have encountered people who do not understand what a PhD is at all. They wonder, “why would you have cloistered yourself away and studied something so limited and focused in scope, for so long?”

But I think that process made me a generalist out in the “real world” and in the end a post-academic career has been a pretty easy transition. I actually thought my job interview for the post I hold now was going pretty badly until one member of the interview committee actually noticed the brief description of my dissertation project on my CV. They began to ask me how I thought this abstract thinking that I had been stuck in for so long might be useful to the job. I had to think on my feet a little but I responded that apart from the specific content of my research, it was the ability to manage all of the demands of the program — grant writing, teaching, conference papers, all of it — that made me enough of a generalist that I now feel pretty confident in dealing with each new day.

All of that is a long-winded way of (also) saying do what you love, and if isn’t teaching, or pursuing tenure, there a lots of rewarding careers that are half-academic out there.

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. David / January 22, 2020 at 08:02

    Wow! This is touching experience. I believe when you’re burned out from school and family issues, you need to let one go (definitely not family), relax, reset then get back on board. Great transition for James.