Interview with Emmet Collins, PhD in Political Science (2016)

Could you tell us about how you landed your first position after graduate school or about your career path in general? Looking back, what lessons have you learned? Can you think of specific pitfalls that current graduate students should avoid?

When I was writing my dissertation, I moved back to my home province of Manitoba, since that’s where I wanted to settle.  When I was within a year of defending, I started seriously looking for work.  It took a year and a half before I started where I am now [Senior Policy Analyst & French Language Services Coordinator at Manitoba Families].  A combination of few job opportunities, bad fit, lack of job experience and lack of experience interviewing on my part made my life harder than I imagined it would be.  When I did get a job, it was due to a combination of the right background and the right knowledge meeting the right opportunity.

Looking back I draw two lessons from my experience. 

First, I could have done more to get the experience I wanted.  I essentially always knew I wanted to work in government.  However, I went straight from high school to BA, MA, PhD without stopping.  I worked during most of that time, but not in government, which meant that when I finished my formal education I had three degrees in political science but no practical experience.  No co-ops, no internships, nothing.  If I’d gone out of my way to find those opportunities I think my path would have been easier.

Second, I greatly benefitted from volunteering.  I’ve been involved with a variety of non-profits since I was a teenager, and when I was writing my dissertation I became heavily involved with a few.  That gave me something to draw on in the absence of government experience.  Non-profits are generally very open to letting you put a lot of effort into their projects, which you can then parlay into good interview answers.

Did you consider an academic career while in graduate school? Could you discuss why/why not? How does your current position differ from academic positions? What are the tradeoffs/rewards/downsides?

I felt somewhat atypical in that an academic career was never really on my radar.  I very much enjoyed the teaching component (and still do), but hate the publishing process, which meant I wasn’t a good fit for academic jobs. 

That made me fairly different from a lot of my colleagues, who seemed to definitely want to be professors and who would only accept something else as a plan B.  In fact, I remember having a sit down with my advisor, Jon Malloy, and “confessing” that I didn’t want an academic job.  The whole thing feels a bit silly now (and he was very supportive), but it shows how ingrained the notion of a professorship as the end goal is.

My current position is much better suited to my skill set that an academic job would be.  I work with intelligent people doing research and analysis at high levels on topics that interest me, but material gets produced and validated (or sent back) much more quickly.  That’s not to say government work is without frustrations, but it’s a good fit for me.  Plus, I’m able to keep a foot in academia by teaching sessionally.      

How should current graduate students (especially those with little work experience) present themselves and their skills to other professionals and/or potential employers?

As mentioned earlier, if you have little work experience, there are ways for you to build up your skills through volunteering. 

The main thing to keep in mind when speaking to people outside of academia is that no one knows what you do.  I can’t stress that enough.  No one knows what’s involved with writing a social science dissertation.  You’re not in a lab, you’re (probably) not running experiments, so people just don’t know how one spends three plus years writing one thing.

That being the case, help people understand by focusing on your skills.  The dissertation is what you produced, the skills are how you did it.    You didn’t “conduct a lit review,” you read thousands of pages of material, analyzed the content, and produced a succinct summary.  You didn’t “teach a class”, you created tools to consistently and rapidly evaluate a large group of students.  Before you start looking for work, go through this process on your own so that you have a better understanding of what you know how to do.  You might not realize how much you know until you break it down.