Careers in Government: key messages from our Beyond Academia Event
By Sophia Donaldson, on 19 December 2017
In November we ran a Beyond Academia event shining a spotlight on careers in government for PhDs. We had two great UCL alumni speakers discussing their current roles and career paths: Dr Patricia Idaewor, who has a PhD in Transport Studies, and is now Policy Lead on HS2 in the Department for Transport’s High Speed Rail Group; and Dr Sarah Livermore, who has a PhD in Elementary Particle Physics and is now the Modelling Lead on the Committee for Climate Change, as part of the Government Operational Research Service (GORS). Here are the take home points from the event:
A career path isn’t always a straight ladder, it can be a winding staircase.
Patricia’s PhD supervisor told her this some years back, and her and Sarah’s careers have reflected it. Both took their modelling skills into government, using techniques mastered in their PhDs, but in subject areas and settings that were new to them. Since then, Patricia found she enjoyed using her softer skills, and so has moved from modelling to project management, programme assurance, and now policy lead.
Government careers can be great
Patricia and Sarah were able to use skills developed during their PhD in their current roles; the technical knowledge and analytical skills, as well as softer skills such as giving presentations and project management. They spoke of the ample opportunities they are given to develop new competencies within government, with allotted time for skills training. They both loved the fact that their work was fuelling the decisions that can make positive impacts on people’s lives. They also commented on the good work-life balance and flexibility in many government roles.
There are downsides too
Patricia spoke about the slow pace of some government decision-making processes as a potential challenge. The checks and balances are necessary as massive amounts of taxpayers’ money are on the line, but it can still be frustrating. And Patricia and Sarah both discussed the unpredictability of civil service work as a downside. The modelling Sarah carries out, and the policy work Patricia does, are both dictated by the agenda of ministers. If they change their mind, Sarah and Patricia must change their direction. Even predicting whether you would be called to speak to a minister could be unpredictable day-to-day, and so Patricia always keeps a change of smart shoes in her office just in case!
If you have a numerate background, the government wants you
The civil service is a huge and diverse employer, and all sorts of skills can be transferred there. But Sarah particularly emphasised the desirability of highly numerate people. The Government Operational Research Service has a large intake every year, and they struggle to find enough candidates with great analytical/modelling skills. Their current recruitment round has just closed, but Sarah assured us they’ll be opening for applications again in January. And the Government Economics Service or Social Research Service may also be of interest to the numerate amongst you. Whatever civil service role you’re applying for, numerate or otherwise, both Sarah and Patricia advised focussing heavily on the civil service competencies called for, because this is how you will be assessed.