3 min read

Public service vs. Academics

I recently participated in a panel discussion at the University of Toronto on the career transition from academic research to public service. I really enjoyed the discussion and there were many great questions from the audience. Here’s just a brief summary of some of the main points I tried to make about the differences between academics and public service.

The major difference I’ve experienced involves a trade-off between control and influence.

As a grad student and post-doctoral researcher I had almost complete control over my work. I could decide what was interesting, how to pursue questions, who to talk to, and when to work on specific components of my research. I believe that I made some important contributions to my field of study. But, to be honest, this work had very little influence beyond a small group of colleagues who are also interested in the evolution of floral form.

Now I want to be clear about this: in no way should this be interpreted to mean that scientific research is not important. This is how scientific progress is made — many scientists working on particular, specific questions that are aggregated into general knowledge. This work is important and deserves support. Plus, it was incredibly interesting and rewarding.

However, the comparison of the influence of my academic research with my work on infrastructure policy is revealing. Roads, bridges, transit, hospitals, schools, courthouses, and jails all have significant impacts on the day-to-day experience of millions of people. Every day I am involved in decisions that determine where, when, and how the government will invest scarce resources into these important services.

Of course, this is where the control-influence trade-off kicks in. As an individual public servant, I have very little control over these decisions or how my work will be used. Almost everything I do involves medium-sized teams with members from many departments and ministries. This requires extensive collaboration, often under very tight time constraints with high profile outcomes.

For example, in my first week as a public servant I started a year-long process to integrate and enhance decision-making processes across 20 ministries and 2 agencies. The project team included engineers, policy analysts, accountants, lawyers, economists, and external consultants from all of the major government sectors. The (rather long) document produced by this process is now used to inform every infrastructure decision made by the province.

Governments contend with really interesting and complicated problems that no one else can or will consider. Businesses generally take on the easy and profitable issues, while NGOs are able to focus on specific aspects of issues. Consequently, working on government policy provides a seemingly endless supply of challenges and puzzles to solve, or at least mitigate. I find this very rewarding.

None of this is to suggest that either option is better than the other. I’ve been lucky to have had two very interesting careers so far, which have been at the opposite ends of this control-influence trade-off. Nonetheless, my experience suggests that an actual academic career is incredibly challenging to obtain and may require significant compromises. Public service can offer many of the same intellectual challenges with better job prospects and work-life balance. But, you need to be comfortable with the diminished control.

Thanks to my colleague Andrew Miller for creating the panel and inviting me to participate. The experience led me to think more clearly about my career choices and I think the panel was helpful to some University of Toronto grad students.