At long last, I am happy to introduce the third entry in the Cocoon's Alt-Ac Workshop--our new series providing tips, information, and testimonials on how people with higher degrees in philosophy can effectively pursue careers outside of academia. Today's post is by Carl Baker, who is now a statistical researcher in the UK's House of Commons. I hope you all find his entry helpful and informative!:
By Carl Baker
This post contains some thoughts on how experience teaching and researching philosophy might prepare you for a job in Parliament or Government.
First, a bit of information about me. I did a PhD in Philosophy at Leeds on at the debate around semantic relativism and aesthetic disagreement. After that I worked for two years as a postdoc at Aberdeen’s Northern Institute of Philosophy. During that time I decided that a life in academia wasn’t for me. Mainly, I was daunted by the prospect of career insecurity for the foreseeable future. Nevertheless I assumed that my skills would be ill-suited to any other career that I would be interested in. But with hindsight, I now see that lots of the skills I developed during my PhD and postdoc are central to what I do now.
Long story short, I got a job as a researcher at the House of Commons Library. I’ve been working there for three years now and I enjoy the job immensely. My colleagues and I offer a confidential and impartial enquiry research service to MPs and their staff, who they can ask questions on any topic and get expert answers. We also publish public-facing briefing papers on a wide range of policy and stats topics. My work is mostly on health statistics, with a smattering of other topics such as telecoms statistics.
Below are a few skills that I think will be valued by those recruiting for jobs in Parliament and Government, and ideas for how a philosophical career might have prepared you for them. None of the points below are particularly novel, and are not all specific to public sector jobs. There will also be specialist requirements for some roles (e.g. getting my job in stats required a test of numerical competency). But this might be of use to anyone thinking of making the leap from academia.
Providing a high quality and responsive service to customers. I know that some academics would object to this as a characterisation of any part of their work. But since this post is about how to package your academic experience for non-academic jobs, that debate is tangential here. Many public sector jobs involve some kind of ‘customer’ or service user - in my case, the primary ‘customers’ are MPs and their staff. If you’re teaching academic philosophy well, then it’s likely you have these skills. You could describe occasions when you revised the structure or content of a course in response to student needs or feedback - or times when you dealt with difficult situations involving students.
Communication. This one almost goes without saying, but it’s important not to underestimate it. As a philosopher with teaching experience, you have demonstrable skill in explaining highly complex issues in layperson’s terms to those unfamiliar with the topic. Any public engagement work you’ve done will also be very valuable here. You may have also used innovative forms of communication in your teaching - these would also make excellent examples of your ability. As with all of these areas, you should try to not only describe what you’ve done, but how you measured its success - e.g. feedback from students or positive outcomes from public engagement.
Successfully influencing others. This is related to communication, but distinct from it. Being able to bring others round to your point of view, or get groups of people on-board with plans, are sought-after skills. Your involvement with research projects or academic administration is likely to yield useful examples for this. Have you made suggestions that influenced the direction of a project? Have you put together a plan and managed to get buy-in from others?
Working with others. There’s one particular aspect of teaching and research that I think will be useful in showing that you can work with others constructively: providing helpful feedback on the work of students or fellow researchers. It’ll be particularly useful if you can describe times when you people took your feedback on board and made improvements to their work as a result. Any work as part of a team to deliver a shared goal (e.g. a conference or a jointly-authored paper) would also be useful here.
Organisation. As an academic you have to juggle a lot of competing pressures from research, teaching and admin. Describing how you have successfully managed these pressures through careful planning will be valuable to you as a candidate. Cultural norms differ in this area, but note that “I worked through the night to meet the deadline and I would do it again” won’t often be looked upon favourably as an example of good organisation. It’d be better to find examples of positive action (e.g. delegating, prioritising) to manage competing pressures.
Impartiality. One of the key requirements of my job (and many others in Parliament & Government) is impartiality. This manifests itself differently in different jobs, but for me it’s about being able to provide information in a non-party political way and with sensitivity to political sensitivities. I think some approaches to teaching philosophy can lay the groundwork for this kind of skill. For example, teaching can sometimes involve dispassionately presenting the merits and demerits of a position irrespective of one’s own views on the topic.
There’s much more that might be relevant - two things I haven’t mentioned above, for instance, are understanding of HE policy (which might be relevant for certain jobs) and the ability to synthesise and present data (e.g. from student evaluations). I’m happy to discuss other thoughts, as well as practical questions, in the comments.