Updated Apr. 23, 2021.
I spent my first three weeks in as a PhD in government reading policy reports on paper, while I waited for IT to come and set up my computer.
My manager laughed, and said something I’d hear a lot in the weeks to come: “Welcome to government.”
We made a lot of jokes about the government. Its inefficiency. The archaic system. And believe me, I wanted to cry when I found out that I couldn’t use Zotero, my favorite citation software.
It wasn’t cleared by security.
But for all its inefficiencies, working at the government with a PhD was actually pretty fantastic. In fact, I would even argue that some PhDs find the “academic dream” in government.
So strap in, because I’m going to tell you what PhDs need to know about government jobs.
1. Most of the same research happens in government
I don’t know if you realize this, but there is a huge crossover between the work that happens in academia and the work that happens in government.
For example, we have:
- government labs researching soil samples and biodiversity
- government labs doing geology
- government policy analysts studying foreign policy and security
- and government employees creating and playing with enormous data sets.
My work for the Canadian federal government was in the field of immigration. I worked on an amazing project that helped other countries set up refugee programs. It was incredibly meaningful work, and I adjusted well to government life.
My work basically had two parts.
The first part had to do with the mechanism of the government itself. I built relationships with people in different areas of work. I would check in and see where our immigration levels were at with Canada’s different refugee programs.
And I very quickly started applying my academic skills to government work, especially writing reports and policy briefs.
A policy brief, in short, is information that goes to people who don’t have time to become experts on that information. So, your job is to give them the basics. In my case, it usually meant explaining the work we were doing to an immigration minister or a deputy immigration minister, and recommending a specific course of action for the program or for funding.
The policy brief is a very different beast from an academic paper, but I really enjoyed writing them.
The other part of my job was working with my team to build relationships with foreign countries. We frequently had calls with officials in countries we were trying to build relationships with, and usually we had official delegations to look forward to and plan—either coming or going.
My work was different from that of other PhD government jobs. Some in my department were tasked with building the master database of immigration data for Canada. Others kept abreast of the latest research and sent summaries to decision-makers.
There are different roles, but most of the PhDs that I know in government are doing incredibly rich work that really does challenge them.
2. It has real-world implications.
You know what one of the biggest differences between government and academia was, for me as a humanities grad?
The work in government made a difference in the world.
There is nothing wrong with my academic work, studying religions of the ancient world, but I wasn’t curing cancer.
Some of you are, and well done!
My work was enjoyable, but forgettable. I felt myself cringing when I described my research with the word “important” in grant applications.
By contrast, my work for the government was really meaningful. I can honestly say that I was able to use my mind, my research chops, and my writing skills, to help give refugees new homes. That’s amazing.
I have met other PhDs in government who feel the same way.
While they felt that their PhD was the culmination of their life’s work while they were doing it, they eventually realized that it was simply training from much more important and meaningful work changing people’s lives with good policy.
Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to completely idolize government. It’s not perfect. But in case you didn’t notice, neither is academia. No matter how you might get frustrated with the bureaucracy, and trust me I did, my work still made a difference.
3. It pays really well
I don’t know what country you are in, so there may be differences here, but one of the things about PhDs working for the government is that they usually get paid pretty well.
Here in Canada, even if you started low on the pay scale, you would be unlikely to make less than $60,000 yearly. I started at about $74,000 a year Canadian.
Now for some of you in STEM, this doesn’t sound like a bonkers amount of money. But for somebody coming out of a humanities degree, it was a great salary.
Nobody was banging at my door to get me to come work in industry. Recruiters don’t look too closely at humanities grads with no experience. Government was a great fit.
And public policy really did provide a gateway to a wealthy life. While I ultimately decided that I was wired to be an entrepreneur, and moved into consulting instead, I made some good coin.
4. There’s incredible career mobility
In Canada, the federal public service is one big employer. No matter where you go in the country, you keep the same paycheck, pension, etc. This isn’t true everywhere, including the US. But it is pretty cool. And even in the US, the government is evolving.
I think that the possibilities for mobility in government are endless.
PhDs in government are in high demand and usually respected for their credentials. As you grow your ability and knowledge of the public service and understand how it works, your value will increase. You can choose diverse projects, stepping way out of your comfort zone. You can move into new areas.
This is definitely not something that you can really do in academia where, once you get in the track, you tend to not stray very far.
By comparison, a PhD in government who gets sick of working on immigration can very easily move to another area of interest. Want to move into security and foreign policy? Totally doable. Want to be a diplomat? Apply for the program. Want to take stakeholder relations experience and transition to managing the relationships between government and provinces or states? It’s possible too.
You really do have a tremendous ability you move around, and the better your skills get, the more in-demand you will become.
5. There are a ton of roles in government for PhDs
The thing that routinely strikes me about being in academia is the fact that you need to go wherever there is a job. In government, you may need to live in a government city. But if you like living in Washington, London, or Ottawa, you will be able to spend your entire career there.
Government has thousands of roles that could be perfect for PhD. The possibilities are endless. (Check out this post for some good advice on getting into the US government with a PhD)
6. Governments consume academic knowledge
I had the latest research delivered to my inbox every morning.
I got to become an expert in immigration policy. I did this by reading a lot of government documents, but also by reading a lot of academic work. I could read anything I wanted to, my boss trusted me to build the knowledge I needed to build.
So, I kept doing a lot of academic reading, and I routinely dropped into conferences and lectures. Because yes, building relationships with academics and staying abreast of the latest research was considered a part of my job is a policy analyst. Cool, eh?
7. I know things academics don’t know
Working in government with a PhD usually comes with a security clearance, and with that security clearance comes secret knowledge.
Knowledge that you don’t get in academia.
You can have access to an entire world at your fingertips, so you are able to get more up-to-date information than any academics. In fact, if academics wanted to know what I know, they would have to file what is called an Access to Information and Privacy (AKA ATIP) request and try to find the appropriate data.
I was able to have access, because of that same security clearance. So if you like knowing stuff nobody else knows, the government might be right for you.
I’m not really sure why more PhDs don’t immediately consider jobs in government. I suspect it’s because of a lack of information. If all we ever talk about is academia, it becomes hard to consider government as a legitimate alternative.
And like I said, I think it could be argued that government is actually a much better place to build a PhD dream. So, what are you waiting for? Get started!