Career advice from a government science ex-pat

One of the earliest posts I wrote generated this comment, asking about my perspective on career advice in the public service vs. other outlets for scientific research.

The main question was: would I recommend new graduates focus their job search toward private/industry research, versus government research? The short answer is, I don’t have a lot of experience doing private or industry-embedded research, so I’ll say right now that I am not qualified to make that comparison. Instead, I’ll turn the question a bit, and answer this: would I recommend that new graduates in fisheries or aquatic science consider a position in the public service, specifically with Fisheries and Oceans Canada?

Good question. One might guess from reading the many entries on this blog that perhaps I am challenged by the prospect of continuing on in the public service, let alone recommend it as an option to someone else. [NOTE: from the perspective of the postdoc working in the public service, see the guest post that a colleague of mine wrote here last year].

Let me try and frame my answer in the most positive light possible. When I look around me, many of my colleagues have succeeded as government scientists *despite* the barriers and issues they have faced in the past. New barriers are emerging, but I suspect that the same ones that have found past success will continue to do so in future. In large part (and I think most of whom I am thinking of would agree with me), the success of these folks depends on their ability to “find ways” to make things work around the barriers; get the science done *in spite* of the thousands of forms and rules and micromanaging. I have tremendous respect for my colleagues who are able to maintain these successful programs, despite the barriers they face.

So, if you are particularly tenacious, and perhaps looking to find an exceptionally difficult path from A to B, then a job with DFO science is a challenge I would definitely recommend. In all seriousness, the future of good government science relies on folks with that kind of attitude who are willing to take that challenge on. My fear is that many of my colleagues are just getting fed up of the barriers, and either giving up, retiring, or looking elsewhere. I now count myself among them.

I’m particularly worried about what future job ads for DFO research scientists might actually look like. Recently, our Assistant Deputy Minister traveled right across the country, to discuss plans for moving forward with the department. Lots of discussion around “more with less”, as expected, but he also described his vision for what the next iteration of DFO scientist might look like. What was described sounded more like a science coordinator than a research scientist. That is- beg for scrips and scraps of targeted departmental funding, partner with universities to get the work done, feed the applied science questions back to the department to inform policy. This sounds not so bad on the surface, and frankly reflects a good deal of how business is done these days. But this is reactionary science; someone high enough in the administratosphere has been told there is a problem enough times that they have allocated dollars to it, and that’s what’s getting the science done. What about funding your research scientists to do the work that anticipates the *next* big problem? There was a distinct sense from what I heard that this is not what government research is anymore.

Things seem fundamentally broken at the moment- the administrative load seems unrealistically heavy; despite losing massive numbers of front-line staff, our administrative architecture seems nearly untouched (remember, Tony Clement told us that exactly the opposite was going to happen with these cuts, which the Parliamentary Budget Officer’s numbers show is not the case), buoyed by new and exciting ways to make more forms and templates to fill out when seeking approval for a single task.

Perhaps one day things will change, but will it be soon enough to retain—and perhaps more importantly, recruit—the best and brightest? Do you need the best and brightest to carry out reactionary science, and simply do what’s asked of them? Is that the job of a research scientist? If not, what picture does that paint for government science in the future?

As for me, I’ve had it. I commend my colleagues for carrying on in the face of what felt to me like the plight of Sisyphus, I’m done pushing that particular rock. I’ll see how well I fare with getting to the top of the mountain somewhere else.

With that said, I’ve probably got at least one more post in me, but after that, I think that’ll be it for me running this blog. I’m looking forward to spending more of my time conducting science, and blogging about that instead.

Cue the music…



6 thoughts on “Career advice from a government science ex-pat

  1. Thanks so much for writing this in response to my comment! I appreciate it, especially given that you will be leaving this blog soon. Since that first post, I’ve had a little taste of how DFO operates, and it does seem to be getting increasingly difficult to continue important research and monitoring programs in the face of all the reorganizing. I hope things will change – reactionary science is not what I want to do, and IMO it’s definitely not what is best for fisheries management! I don’t have too many options in front of me right now, though, so I will just keep chugging along gaining experience where I can. *I* might be up for this kind of challenge (I’m young, I’m still determined to save the world lol), but there seems to be a big freeze in DFO hiring so that doesn’t help much anyway! Maybe 2015 will be the start of good change….
    Please post a link to your new blog when you get that up and running, I’d love to follow it! 🙂

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  3. I have been following your blog for some time. You have hit the nail on the head more times than I can count! I’m sorry to learn that you are leaving DFO but I can’t blame you. I had a brilliant post-doc a while back and my advice was NOT to seek a career with DFO because of the continuing deterioration in the research environment in this Department. There are many reasons why DFO is going the way it is. Some of these changes have been occurring for a long time under various governments but the deterioration has accelerated under the present government. The first major change I think was the move from FRB to a bureaucratic department many years back. This change, from a research lab culture led by highly respected cutting-edge scientists to a line-management culture with position-hopping career-advancing managers with low subject content knowledge in charge, provides a very poor structure for doing research. This culture has become even more entrenched under the present government. The one area of DFO that is currently thriving and growing is the EX-group – the “senior managers”. Advancement in this group demands support be given to any decision that comes down the line from higher up, no matter how stupid or short-sighted and whether or not the decision is in the public best interest. Speaking out against any proposal coming down the line is a career-ending move. This “Emperor has no clothes” mentality is killing DFO faster than anything else. As a consequence of this we have research vessels than are constantly out of commision because of lack of maintenance, “IT Support” than could now more properly be called “IT Hindrance”, a travel approval system that has become so cumbersome that many scientists are opting out of doing any travel, the demise of adequate library services for most researchers, the muzzling of scientists, a cumbersome approval process for publication, cutting of many research programs and and associated jobs aimed at achieving public good – many of the topics that have been covered so excellently in your blog. I’m sorry to learn that you are leaving but it is a wise move…the DFO ship is sinking fast and it is every person for himself or herself. DFO as an agency for doing cutting edge research in the public best interest is a thing of the past. Like NRC, we are now focussing on providing a “Concierge Service” and “window dressing” for the EX-group to ensure they get their performance bonuses, rather than actually doing research – you don’t need a PhD or a very long resume to do that. So, we don’t need you – goodbye and good luck! Rest assured, no tears will be shed by senior managers on your departure!

    • Thanks so much for your comment. Your observation regarding the promotion and reporting structure is one that I hope to address soon in an upcoming post I’ve been mulling about for a while. Best of luck, and keep us posted on happenings from the inside.

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