Working for the government: Pros & Cons

For most academics, when they consider their future careers, they think of two options: academia or industry. There are other options, however, such as one we will be discussing today — working for the government. Academics can serve on councils and advisory boards, or work as part of a civil service, or as advisors to policy makers. But what are the advantages and disadvantages of working for the government? This is the topic we’re considering in this article.

Ethical considerations: influencing policy

One unique feature of government roles for academics is the chance to have a direct impact on policy, and hence on people’s lives. For those frustrated with the ivory tower aspects of academia — for example, the fact that most academic papers are only ever read by other academics in the same field — working for the government gives the chance to put academic theory into real-world practice. If you’re looking for a direct way to put your expertise into practical steps and are keen to make policies more evidence-based, then working in government is your chance to use your academic background to help shape society in a positive way.

Working conditions: pay and stability

In some countries, working for the government is not especially well paid, and salaries will be considerably lower than they would be for equivalent positions in industry which require similar skills and experience. However, this relatively low compensation is balanced by other factors when working for the government — for example, benefits such as vacation time and healthcare are often much better. The other big advantage of a government job in practical terms is that it is usually very stable. Unlike academia, in which you must be looking for a new position every couple of years as a postdoc, or in industry, in which you could be laid off if your company is not successful, government jobs can generally be relied on for the long term. If you have a family to support, or you find that uncertainty about your future employment is stressful for you, you may find an advantage in a government job in which you can likely stay in for as long as you want or need.

The availability of funding

Another factor to consider when comparing government work to academia or industry is the availability of funding for your area of specialisation. Depending on current administrative priorities, there can be a lot of funding available for certain research projects. Projects in public health, civil engineering, and defence technologies are likely to have funding made available for them. However, it may be harder to secure funding for research in some types of basic science, or in the arts or humanities. To be successful in obtaining government funding, you will need to demonstrate exactly how your research would be beneficial to the public and help to save money for the administration.

Dealing with bureaucracy

Government jobs are famously bureaucratic, often requiring large amounts of paperwork and the following of specific rules and regulations. This is the necessary nature of the very large organisations required to run a country, but can cause frustrations for workers. If you work in government, you will have to get used to following processes which may seem overly complex, and adapt to a pace of change which can be even slower than academia. Another aspect to consider is the limitations that a government job can have on what you can say in public. Generally, government workers are not allowed or strongly discouraged from critiquing the administration or sharing their opinion on controversial political topics. How much this will affect your work depends on your field and your personal preferences, but it’s worth thinking about whether you would be comfortable living with these restrictions.

These are some of the issues you’ll want to consider if you’re thinking about a job in government. For job opportunities in government, industry, and academia, see our website.

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