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The Black Hole

So you want to be a public servant when you grow up…


I have written before about how scientific information gets (poorly) communicated to the Government in entries about the routes of information acquisition and about getting scientists to understand how policy works.  In my mind, one of the best ways of improving things is to have members of the public service who have a good baseline understanding of, and appreciation for, scientific research.

Typically, when one thinks about the public service, they think of people who “work for the government” and they often think that Canada has too many people in such positions.  In researching for this article I was actually quite surprised to find that the federal civil service of Canada only comprised 0.8% of the total Canadian population standing at just over 260,000 public servants in 2008.  As each province also has a public service this is clearly an underestimate, but even in the provinces, the numbers are lower than what I expected (e.g.: 0.67% of British Columbians).  This aside, the fact remains that there are  hundreds of thousands of jobs in the public sector – but very few scientists that I have encountered consider it a reasonable place to look for employment and I would love to see this change.

First of all, get it out of your mind that the public service is simply the Canada Revenue Agency, Royal Canadian Mint, RCMP, and Canadian Armed Forces.  Start by looking at the career explorer page on the Public Service Commission of Canada site – you’ll be met with a whole host of organizations, many of whom need highly trained scientists to do research (e.g.: Fisheries and Oceans, Environment Canada, etc) and many others who would benefit from senior and junior employees with strong scientific backgrounds (e.g.: Health Canada, Atomic Energy of Canada, National Research Council, etc).

Imagining possibilities, however, appears to be the easy part and asking the question of how to get such a job to someone in the middle of a science based graduate program  would be met with many blank faces and shrugging shoulders.

Those who would consider this path should be on the lookout this autumn for the Post Secondary Recruitment and the Recruitment of Policy Leaders programs that the federal Government will be running in September and October respectively.  Importantly, you’ll want to consider which type of position to apply for with self-assessment questions like: do you want to research in a lab or the field?  do you want to study and design policy? do you want to leave science completely?

Also, each province has their own series of listings and it would be important to check back regularly to see new postings in provinces that you would be willing to live and work in:
Newfoundland, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, British Columbia, Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut.

An example of an interesting job that might appeal to readers of this site is that of senior scientist at the Ontario Science Centre.
Critical to those who do choose this type of career though, is the understanding of the need to go backwards in order to go forward.  What I mean by this is something that Carolyn Steele at University Affairs wrote about earlier this year in her (sadly!) now-retired blog Career Sense and this is the recognition that changing fields and career by taking a non-academic job will often result in a dark period for graduate students where it may “feel more like a demotion than an opportunity” and perhaps even something you could have gotten straight out of undergrad.  While it might hurt in the short term, this is a reality for anyone that will make a dramatic shift in career path – do not let this get in the way.

My next entry to the “So you want to be a ____” series will be the final one – do let us know if this has been a useful series and we’ll try to do something similar in the future as the site continues to evolve.

David Kent
Dr. David Kent is a principal investigator at the York Biomedical Research Institute at the University of York, York, UK. He trained at Western University and the University of British Columbia before spending 10 years at the University of Cambridge, UK where he ran his research group until 2019. His laboratory's research focuses on the fundamental biology of blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009.
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  1. Liz / August 30, 2010 at 15:20

    Hi there, I just recently stumbled upon this blog and I am finding it super imformative. This series on “so you want to be a…” is absolutely what I have been looking for as a Canadian PhD student who is starting to think about “non traditional” career options to explore in the next couple of years. Thanks for the posts, I hope to read more in the future

  2. Dave / September 17, 2010 at 21:10

    Hi Dave,
    I enjoy reading your blog. The Government of Canada (and provincial governments) have excellent HR and communications departments that spend a lot of time and energy to launch these hiring campaigns. The grim reality is that there aren’t very many entry-level jobs in government for university grads, let alone PhDs. As I’ve commented elsewhere, in 2007, there were about 550 jobs for 35000 applicants from the post-secondary recruitment program. I haven’t seen any numbers for RPL, but I expect they are similar. Yes, these are great programs that could lead to a job in government, but they are certainly not worthy of pinning any hopes on!

    • Dave / September 20, 2010 at 19:44

      Hi Dave,
      Thanks for your comments and the big reality check regarding the chances of getting into one of these programs. The intention of this series of blog entries was to get people to think outside the box when it comes to the question of what to do with a PhD. In the end, I’m happy that the government is getting so many applications, it will hopefully result in some top calibre applications and successful candidates.
      Thanks for reading!

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