A common career option for a lot of PhD students, irrespective of their background, is policy careers. Policy careers is a broad and all-encompassing term relating to a range of careers within, you guessed it, the policy sector. Here, you might be working for local and central governments. Organisations such as the World Health Organization (WHO), The Department of Education in the UK, or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) spring to mind. This is not an exhaustive list and depending on your country of residence or local authority, a range of bodies and/or organisations will be available. Similarly however, policy careers can also lie within the public or private sectors. Think tanks and local charities are also likely to mirror the above and have a range of policy careers available.
Like most careers, the specific job title isn’t definitive or well defined. But generally speaking, working as a policy officer or within a policy role will encompass a range of responsibilities. For instance, it might be to conduct or commission research projects. Without a shadow of a doubt, this is likely to mirror or almost be identical to the skills acquired during your PhD. Research skills are the bread and butter of a PhD programme, but other skills such as project management or problem-solving are also likely to be advantageous here. Obviously if you’re conducting research or evaluating initiatives, you’re also likely to use your data analysis skills, or at least be relatively comfortable with data analysis – not always, but if you have this skill, it definitely won’t put you at a disadvantage.
Other responsibilities within policy careers might also include providing advice or communicating the latest research to non-academics to help inform policy initiatives, government recommendations, or other projects which rely on a specialist team to do the research for them. This may be akin to science communication roles a lot of PhD students are interested in. Campaigns like smoking, healthy eating, or other pieces of information that need far reaching dissemination may be at the heart of what you do. This could be from designing flyers, steering adverts, launching support programmes, commissioning funding, you name it. Certainly, this will vary depending on the organisation you sit within – but if you have a passion for communicating information to a lay-audience this may be an area of interest.
Outside of the nitty gritty of developing policies, conducting research and disseminating it to a wider audience you’re also likely to be involved in a range of other activities which you’re likely to be well suited for. Attending conferences, presenting work or findings, writing extensive reports or briefs, interviewing people, hitting key deliverables and targets as part of a wider initiative or project are all skills you’re likely to be good at already – acquired during your PhD leveraging your core skills. Like with all jobs that you search for outside of academia, the key ingredient to success is being able to translate your set of skills from the academic world to the role you’re applying for. Framing them in the context of a skills CV or using buzz words that appear in the job specification/advert are likely to help achieve this and maximise your chances.
Additionally, policy organisations don’t typically need as much ‘convincing’ to take on PhD’s. The transition from academia to a governmental organisation feels a lot ‘smoother’ and a transition that feels more ‘logical’. This is likely to do with the fact that academic institutions operate in a similar way to academic bodies, have a similar amount of red-tape and are designed to serve the wider population through science, evidence, and communication. In fact, some policy roles might even go as far as specifying that a PhD is a core requirement for the role – it’s not a hard and fast rule, but again, highlights the relative ease it will be to ‘convince’ or sell yourself as part of the application process or within an interview.
Another angle to leverage if this is a career you’re interested in, is your passion to bring about change. At the heart of every PhD is a desire to learn, discover and inform others to help bring us closer together and improve the lives of the many. Even if your PhD isn’t within a medical or ‘pure science field’, having a PhD in anything highlights your passion to learn and your appreciation of global and/or political issues – so much so you decided to embark on a research career to help add a drop to our every expanding pool of knowledge. Finding a way to weave this into your sales pitch, or job application, is likely to help. Emphasising that you have a passion to have an impact and bring about change will most certainly highlight your suitability for a policy career.
Overall, a policy career is likely to feel very similar to a PhD – maybe less independent research and more collaborative efforts to have an impact. In fact, you might end up having more of an impact in this setting as your work is likely to be rolled out and implemented on a governmental or national scale more readily – positively influencing more people. Policy careers are likely to offer all that good stuff you don’t necessarily get in academia. Things like a respectable salary, reasonable working hours, a solid pension plan, and more, whilst keeping you in touch with your researcher-self. As always, with any career change, it’s important to reflect on your life-values and to identify if this is something you really want to do and will make you happy. For many PhDs policy careers are very appealing, as you’d expect given the points outlined above, so if this sounds like something for you – don’t be afraid to give it a shot!
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