Interview with Jeff Collins, PhD in Political Science (2018)
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?
I completed an internship course as an undergraduate with the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador and that cemented my passion for and interest in working in international relations, public policy, and government.
When I moved to Ottawa to begin my PhD studies, I networked extensively to introduce myself to those working in government and think-tanks to open opportunities for myself in the nation’s capital. Through these efforts, I started volunteering at a Senator’s office which in turn led to paid work in the Offices of the Ministers of National Defence and Veterans Affairs. In each office I got to develop more professional contacts and gain experience in decision-making at the highest level, particularly on defence-related issues (which I studied for my PhD dissertation).
I moved to Prince Edward Island with my spouse shortly after completing my PhD course work. After two years of making headway in my dissertation, I joined the PEI civil service, first working in health before moving on to my current role in 2017 as the Province’s Trade Negotiator and Trade Policy Advisor. It’s an exciting field – I was involved in the new NAFTA negotiations and the ongoing implementation negotiations of the Canadian Free Trade Agreement.
(1) network, network and network. If you are passionate about a subject area and think it aligns with your career aspirations do not be afraid to cold call/email people. State your interest and willingness to learn more. That may seem obvious, but I am constantly struck by how few people do it. Every position I have held in the federal and provincial governments was achieved through networking.
(2) start planning ahead now. Time goes by fast. Sketch out how the graduate program and research topic that you are passionate about links into careers (particularly outside of academia). Then follow lesson #1.
Sometimes the impression from (some) faculty and fellow graduate students is that the university/graduate program is the only thing that matters, and your life should evolve completely around it. Do not be afraid to seek connections and opportunities outside of academia. My doctoral research and subsequent work on defence policy has benefited just as much from the experiences I had outside of classroom as I had in it.
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?
Sort of. The limited job openings mixed with the reality that you would have to move anywhere to land a job were huge disincentives for me. I also wanted to bridge the academic-practitioner divide and felt a strong academic grounding in a related discipline would be beneficial to a position within the civil service or the think-tank/consulting world. I knew this going into my PhD. I also missed Atlantic Canada (where my spouse and I are from) and wanted to plant our roots there.
As such, I went in with the plan that my doctoral research be policy-relevant to open career opportunities outside of academia. I love academic research a lot, so my side career goal was/is to teach sessional courses and publish through think-tanks outside of my full-time career. I’ve managed to achieve both (again, through networking), and am an adjunct faculty at the University of Prince Edward Island and a fellow with a number of think tanks across Canada.
As a trade & economic policy advisor for a small provincial government my current position is very busy with little time to sit back and contemplate the decisions you are sometimes asked to feed into or take positions on. This can be exhilarating, but a trade-off/downside is that there is little time to take deep dives on the issues that cross my desk. I miss that. However, as someone with a background in Political Science, it is exciting to compare my experiences of the inner-workings and functions of government decision-making with what I learnt and studied as a student. Personally advising the Premier at a major conference, co-chairing a national trade agreement committee meeting in the Yukon, and being invited by the US State Department for a two-week tour of the US government have been pretty memorable career rewards so far.
Could you discuss the aspect(s) of your graduate training which you leveraged during your job hunt and/or in the workplace?
The interview techniques and lessons I learned from my PhD helped me finesse my networking skills and interactions with government stakeholders. The rigour that went into developing questionnaires for my PhD interviewees (including the Research Ethics Board process) have not gone to waste and have enabled me to create effective questionnaires when I participate in consultation sessions with stakeholders.
Attention to detail and research rigour: writing a graduate dissertation, by default, improves those skills initially learned as an undergraduate. Presenting one’s policy work to Cabinet or senior management is not that different from presenting to a dissertation defence committee. Be accurate and prepare for the questions.