By Jared Wesley.

Political science students are often discouraged by how long it takes to transition from university into a paid job in their field, particularly if they have eyes on the public sector. Thanks to fiscal restraint, governments across Canada are posting fewer and fewer open job applications (i.e., most jobs are only accessible to existing employees). Competition for those rare open positions is fierce; in my experience as a hiring manager with a provincial government, it was not unusual to receive 200 applications for a single entry-level job. Many of those applicants were already public servants, themselves, making it even more difficult for recent university graduates to find a toehold in the job market. At the same time, government human resources units are strapped for resources, adding weeks and even months to the recruitment process. Given this environment, students and recent graduates can be forgiven for turning to other sectors for employment, even if it means straying from their interest and knowledge in political science.

For those with the passion and perseverance, however, the public sector is a fantastic career path those with a background in political science. The challenge lies in landing that first government job. Here are some tips and hacks that can help you as you prepare to hit the market.

Three Things to Know

  1. The public sector is bigger than you think. Most people search for positions on federal and provincial job boards, which is where the majority of government postings are found. While a job in those orders may be your ultimate goal, getting there may require amassing experience from other levels and organizations. For one, positions in a lot of federal/provincial agencies, boards, and commissions are not found on the government’s central job boards. You may have to search them individually. Consider municipal governments, as well, many of whom offer jobs with far more autonomy and responsibility. Non-profit organizations offer similar advantages, and jobs there can be a great springboard to federal or provincial positions. And do not hesitate to contact your university and government HR professionals about internship programs, applications for which are often kept separate from the formal government job boards.
  2. Convince them you want their job (not just a job). Place yourself in the hiring manager’s shoes. Who would you rather welcome to your team: someone who took less than five minutes to draft and submit their application, or someone who demonstrated enough interest to lay out exactly how their skills and experiences apply to the particular duties and requirements of the job? The latter means tailoring your cover letter and resume according to the specific job ad, rather than submitting the same generic documents for every position. And by “tailoring”, I mean more than simply changing the address and salutation lines; I mean structuring your entire application to demonstrate that you would be the ideal candidate for the specific job you are applying for. When doing your research, feel free to contact HR to obtain a more detailed job description than is found online; when available, those documents provide even more insight into the role and day-to-day responsibilities of the position, and allow you to further tailor your application.
  3. Making the shortlist is a big deal. In my public service career, I was 1 for 8 in terms of the number of interviews I received versus the number of applications I submitted. I was a further 1 for 3 when it came to the number of offers I received based on the number of interviews I attended. These ratios are not abnormal. One of my colleagues once reported that she has been rejected over eighty times over the course of her 30 year public service career. And she is an Assistant Deputy Minister. In other words, when you get there, take solace in the fact that you are reaching the interview stage. It will have taken many applications to reach that point, just as it will take many interviews to land that first offer. Practice and patience are virtues. If you’re not landing an interview after more than a dozen applications, some of the following tips may help.

Three Myths

  1. It’s not about who you are. Too often, students and graduates take the job search personally. They view rejection as a reflection on them as people. When it comes to the job search, though, it’s not about who you are. It’s not about your grades, your thesis topic, or your credentials (HR will often verify that you’ve graduated with a degree, of course, but very seldom do they ask for a transcript to assess your performance and even less often ask to read your papers). It’s not about your personal background (although diversity and inclusion policies are removing barriers for traditionally underrepresented groups). It’s not about your partisanship (although that’s something you should take care to conceal in your application, by removing references to specific parties you may have worked for.) Rather, it’s all about your experience. Have you performed the sorts of duties listed in the advertisement and job description? Have you demonstrated an ability to build relationships, think critically, and achieve results? That’s what hiring managers are looking for, and your cover letter and resume must clearly demonstrate that.
  2. You have to “sell” yourself. A lot of students and graduates fear that their applications come across as too pompous or self-promoting, and the rest are too self-involved to worry. Here’s a simple trick, which is as useful in interview situations as it is in your cover letter: talk about yourself through the words and perceptions of other people. If you are asked to identify your strengths in communication, for instance, you might say, “In the past, supervisors have said my written work is exceptional.” Or “If you asked my teammates, they’d tell you I’m a great listener.” This approach works well for those people who have difficulty talking positively about themselves, but it also helps braggarts temper their rhetoric with some humility. When appropriate, you might also use direct quotations from reference letters. On the flipside, be cautious in your approach to the interview so as not to leave the hiring panel with the impression that you are interviewing them. The most common mistake in this area comes at the end of the interview, when applicants are asked if they have any questions. Many candidates will sat, “tell me a bit about the day-to-day responsibilities of this position,” “tell me a bit about your own managerial or leadership style,” or “tell me about the benefits of working here.” Don’t get me wrong: you need answers to those questions before you accept the position. But asking them at the interview stage presumes that the offer is forthcoming, and this can be a big turn-off. The best final question I have heard is a simple, but bold one, “Is there anything in my application or anything I’ve said today that gives you reason to doubt I’d be a good fit for this position?” This puts the panel on the spot (so ensure you read the room before you ask it), but the reward of responding to any lingering doubts often outweighs the risk.
  3. The format of your application matters. You could be the most qualified applicant in a competition, but if you fail to convey that fact through your cover letter and resume, you won’t get screened in for an interview. Before you ask me whether you should use a chronological or functional approach to your resume, let me tell you: the precise template you use doesn’t matter. What matters? Your ability to concisely and comprehensively communicate a lot of information in a way that persuades your audience. That’s precisely what public sector managers look for in their staff, and your application is your first opportunity to demonstrate that capability. If you cannot condense your relevant experience into a one-page cover letter and two-page resume; if you cannot use headings and in-text emphasis to organize the material; if you cannot produce a visually-appealing product; if you cannot write three pages without typos or grammatical errors – you’re unlikely to get a call-back.

Jared Wesley (PhD Calgary) is a pracademic — a practicing political scientist and recovering bureaucrat — whose career path has taken him from university classrooms to government boardrooms and back. Prior to joining the Department of Political Science at the University of Alberta, he served in various senior management roles in the Government of Alberta, including the Public Service Commission and Executive Council.  He is also Vice Chair of the Institute of Public Administration of Canada (IPAC) Edmonton Regional Group, helping to build bridges between academics and public policy professionals throughout Canada.  Follow him on Twitter (@ipracademic) and connect with me on LinkedIn (ipracademic).