A Glimpse into the Work of Government Scientists

Jan 30, 2017
Author: 
Anastassia Pogoutse
The University of Toronto Life Sciences Career Development Society (LSCDS) hosts a monthly seminar series, which recently focused on science careers in government.For graduate students and post-doctoral fellows preparing for a competitive job market, applying for jobs can be almost as daunting as figuring out what's out there. To help them understand the options available to them, the University of Toronto Life Sciences Career Development Society (LSCDS) hosts a monthly seminar series, which recently focused on science careers in government.

The audience got a rare glimpse into careers that allow scientists to meld their skills with public service. The invited speakers were Dr. Eric Marcotte, Associate Director, Institute of Neurosciences, Mental Health and Addiction & Institute of Genetics, Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR); Dr. Katya Park, Senior Research/Planning Advisor, Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care; and Dr. Kevin Donato, Scientific Advisor, Health Canada.

During their individual presentations, Marcotte, Park, and Donato described their paths leading up to their current positions, their sets of responsibilities, and what it took to get them to where they are now. As Associate Director of CIHR, Marcotte likened his role to that of a Chief Operating Officer in a company, explaining that it was his job to “make sure everything gets done.” He currently manages the International Human Epigenome Consortium (IHEC), working as Chair of the IHEC Executive Committee.

Park works as the Acting Manager of the Economic Analysis and Evaluation Unit at the Ontario Ministry of Health where she manages a team of health economists, science advisors, and program evaluators. As she puts it, she now evaluates programs instead of experiments. Donato works as an editor at the Therapeutic Effectiveness and Policy Bureau where his main activity is writing Summary Safety Reviews, which are two to three page plain language summaries of complex reports that discuss a specific safety issue pertaining to a pharmaceutical.

Although all three speakers had, on the surface, followed a traditional academic route, they also had an incredible diversity of experience and emphasized the importance of life outside of the lab. Park took breaks following her undergraduate and MSc studies to travel and work. Donato – who worked in various sectors, including retail, consulting, and education before and after his graduate career – cited his diverse skillset as being what helped him move into the public sector.

Each of the speakers spoke about the importance of networking to help overcome some of the challenges in entering the public service.  Park framed networking as the building of important relationships. She also advised trainees to distill their resumes into CVs, both in order to identify strengths and skill gaps and, as she put it, “so that you know what you want to do.”

As the speakers pointed out, although careers in government have many perks, they still come with unique challenges. In particular, managerial positions are demanding and are not 9-to-5 jobs. Additionally, there is always criticism to be faced from various stakeholders. However, overall the message was positive: “Every new thing I've succeeded at terrified me at first,” said Marcotte.

Students appreciated this rare glimpse into government work. “You don't often get to peer into this thing, they call it this 'fortress',” said Michael Freeman, a Master's student in Chemical Engineering and Nanomedicine, adding that he appreciated the emphasis the speakers placed on the “public service” aspect of their jobs.

“I thought it was excellent,” said Olinda Habib Perez, a PhD candidate in Rehabilitation Sciences. Attending another career seminar a couple of years ago made her realize that “you should be open to opportunities,” she explained. “What you're learning here [in your graduate studies] is not just pipetting.”

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