By Miriam Lapp
One of the most rewarding and enjoyable aspects of working in the federal public service is the opportunity to collaborate with smart, creative, and passionate colleagues, many of whom hold political science degrees. I am impressed by the range of skills, knowledge and experiences they bring to their work.
I’ve been fortunate to have spent most of my public service career at Elections Canada because the agency not only plays a unique and vital role within Canadian democracy, but has also demonstrated a long-standing commitment to supporting, conducting and using research to inform its decision-making and programming. This commitment to research and evidence has allowed me to work with many talented political science students and graduates over the years.
For this blog, I asked six of my current colleagues with a poli-sci background to answer four questions about their experience in the public service.* These colleagues hold a variety of positions and roles in research and analysis, policy development, outreach, communications and management. As a group, they demonstrate how versatile political science degree can be. I’m grateful to them for taking the time to share their thoughts and advice.
Of all the skills you learned through your political science degree, which one has been most valuable for your career in the public service?
My colleagues highlighted a range of skills and abilities that have been invaluable for their public service careers, including research and data analysis, the ability to write clearly and to synthesize large quantities of information, as well as critical thinking skills:
“Summarizing academic articles and producing annotated bibliographies seemed like such a dull task at the time, but the ability to condense a lot of information in a way that brings out the key points is such an important ability in the public service.”
“The ability to research and to write various types of documents and reports. This is a skill I was able to use as soon as I joined the public service working in marketing and communications and have continued to use in other roles since then. Courses on statistical analysis have also been useful when I have been involved in research projects.”
“Two skills stand out most for me: the ability to undertake research and the ability to write clearly. The two go hand-in-hand. Without solid research, there’s nothing to write, but it’s difficult to showcase your research without clear writing.”
Name one skill or ability that you didn’t learn through your political science training, that you wish you had?
Among the competencies respondents have had to acquire on the job, project management, problem-solving and people skills stood out. One respondent also identified a rather surprising (given that this is a political science crowd) knowledge gap. Here’s a sample of what they said:
“Project management – the ability to manage projects is key to being effective in the public service regardless of the area of work. It helps to understand methods for organizing and planning out any kind of activity, from a small product you are asked to prepare to a large project involving a budget and multiple stakeholders.”
“Working towards solutions instead of simply being able to criticize everything.”
“How to engage with stakeholders in lasting relationships that are mutually meaningful.”
“As an analyst who focuses on Parliamentary Affairs, I wish I had learned more about Parliamentary procedure, including the legislative process and the work of committees. These are things that I spend a lot of time paying attention to and explaining to other people, but none of my knowledge comes from my political science training.”
What was the biggest transition you experienced when you started working in the public service?
For my colleagues, shifting from an academic to a government environment meant learning to navigate complex organizational structures and processes, having to communicate more succinctly and in plain language, and developing the ability to compromise:
“The biggest transition was moving into a business-driven environment with governance structures and more processes than in the academic environment. I had to learn how to navigate the organizational structure in the public service and to understand my role and where I fit. I relied on my supervisors and colleagues to help and provide advice.”
“Learning the art of compromise. Working in a democratic system means that, even if you are 100% convinced of your idea being right, compromise is necessary in order for it to be shared and have an actual impact.”
“Something I struggled with most … is writing succinctly. In university, students are expected to write papers that are 5, 10, 20 pages long; in my job, I am expected to summarize information that could fill those pages on one or two pages, or in a 30-second verbal briefing.”
What piece of advice would you give to a political science student who is thinking of applying for a job in the public service?
I’ll give the last word to my colleagues:
“…be open to working in areas that are not directly related to your past research. There are many interesting areas in the public service, from communications to policy to operations and you may find you enjoy these areas. Your political science degree gives you a solid foundation on which to build new skills and competencies. There are many opportunities to try new things, learn and grow.”
“Find an area that you are interested in in the government directory and don’t be afraid to pick up the phone to call or email managers to ask about employment opportunities. There are so opportunities—especially short-term ones that will give you meaningful hands-on experience and that can turn into an exciting career.”
“Acknowledge your agency to make a difference in the lives of Canadians.”
“Working experience matters: Don’t wait too long to be on the labour market and get some experience; be sensitive to operational needs.”
“Do not be intimidated by the apparent red tape… The opportunities are there for curious-minded people with bold ideas. Plus, you will keep on learning about politics and government every single day. “
“The public service is a great place to put your research and writing skills to use on a daily basis, working on a variety of interesting projects.”
Miriam Lapp, PhD (Université de Montréal) is acting Director, Public Education and Information Program Performance, Elections Canada.
* I wish to thank my colleagues who contributed to this blog post: Bruno Bossé, MA, 2009, Université Laval; Daniel Fischer, MA, 2001, University of Waterloo; David Le Blanc, MA, 2006, Institute of Political Economy, Carleton University; Juan Melara-Pineda, PhD, 2017, University of Ottawa; Niki Sloan, MA, 2004, University of Saskatchewan. One additional respondent preferred to remain anonymous.