Policy employment pathways for researchers and students

19 August 2022

How can you transition your career from academia into policymaking? Here, we outline key takeaways from a recent workshop hosted by SEI and Sydney Policy Lab where we heard expert advice from environmental policy professionals who successfully made the move.

By Emma Holland, Content Editor and Communications Officer, Sydney Environment Institute

As we increasingly experience the impacts of converging ecological and social crises, public policy responses are essential to drive meaningful, real-world change. The academic world plays a fundamental role in this process as research outcomes influence policy decisions, and as many environmental researchers increasingly move into roles in this space. Between the growing necessity of improved environmental and climate policies, and of the precarious nature of academic employment, the environmental policy realm is an attractive option for researchers.

This link between research and policymaking careers was explored in a recent event hosted by the Sydney Environment Institute and the Sydney Policy Lab on SEI Employment Pathways Workshop: Policy. This workshop was curated by SEI Director David Schlosberg (Chair) and Deputy Director Thom van Dooren.

In the workshop, we heard from environmental policy professionals, Dr Lisette Collins, Dr Emma Calgaro and Alice Simpson-Young, on their career pathways from research at the University of Sydney into policymaking. The panellists provided useful and diverse insights into their career journeys as they (re)entered the policy realm at three different educational points: out of an Honours year, upon completing PhD research, and after postdoctoral research.

Three key takeaways for making the move into a career in policy emerged from the discussion.

1. Identify your relevant skills

If you’re considering moving from research into a policy role, it’s important to remember you have valuable skills to bring to the table. Make sure to frame your suitability for policy roles by structuring your resume to showcase the varied skills you’ve gained through undertaking research projects. For example, critical thinking, communication, translation of complex concepts, project management, and working with multiple stakeholders towards a collaborative goal are all key to both research and policymaking.

For roles in the public sector, note the language used in job descriptions around capabilities and work from there – you’ll need to be able to address these. Also, look for recent strategy papers and initiatives in agencies of interest, and align your cover letter and interview responses accordingly. A helpful approach is receiving coaching for government applications and training, as well as support for interview preparation. Check out the University’s Careers Centre as a good starting point for free resources and workshops.

2. Find your people

Similar to many other industries, the policy sector is all about connections. Build your network by tapping into your existing work relationships and by reaching out to contacts in the field that inspire you. Most people will be happy to talk about their career and the areas they are passionate about. The main lesson here: Don’t be afraid to send an email asking for advice, or time for a short coffee meeting!

Once you get your foot in the door, find people you connect with to discuss ideas, challenges, and job opportunities. It’s the people that will keep you going when you face challenging moments and big changes in direction.

3. Continue learning and following your passion

Always be open to learning as much as you can. It’s relatively easy to move roles and areas in government and when you’re starting your career in policy, there’s huge value in trying out new things and understanding both a range of policy areas and governance structures. Use your passion to drive real change in your work and to bring new perspectives to policy problems.

Coming from a research background will mean that you see things differently and have wide knowledge on environmental issues to put forward to inform solutions. Your knowledge and skills are transferrable and useful across many policy areas.

Policy work can be incredibly rewarding, and there are many ways to influence policy in your career from working in the public sector to consulting. It is also a great time to consider a move into the policy space as knowledge in areas including sustainability, climate and resilience work are highly desirable, and the number of jobs in this space is increasing. To get started, check out opportunities in NSW Governmentlocal councils, and on the Ethical Jobs board.

The SEI Employment Pathways Workshop: Policy was held on Thursday 11 August.

Lisette Collins is a Senior Associate in the Environment and Land Use Policy team at the NSW Department of Premier and Cabinet. She completed her PhD on Australia Climate Change Adaptation Planning in 2016, focusing on the work of local councils across the country. Since entering the public service she has worked on a range of policy including climate change, sustainability, Aboriginal Cultural Heritage, water, land use, forestry, coasts, environmental contamination, biodiversity and the 2020 Bushfires Royal Commission. She’s a mother to two very young children who she hopes to raise as responsible climate-sensitive citizens, but is currently focused on getting them to stop pulling all the tissues out of the box.

Emma Calgaro is a human geographer and action-researcher specialising in systems thinking in the context of disaster risk reduction (DRR), vulnerability, resilience and social inclusion/exclusion. Throughout her research career, she has worked in close partnership with government, intergovernmental organisations, think tanks, academics, and civil society actors to better understand complex interdependent systems and codevelop impactful solutions that help us as a society adapt to some of the biggest challenges our society faces – environmental change and increased uncertainty. Her projects are highly collaborative and complex in nature and have directly informed targeted action, changed policy and processes, and had tangible impact in building stronger and more resilient communities in NSW, South-East Asia, and the Pacific.

Alice Simpson-Young has over six years of experience working in government and consultancy in the fields of climate policy, resilience policy and stakeholder engagement. Alice did her honours thesis at the Sydney Environment Institute on disaster resilience policy and environmental justice. Alice has worked in Local and State Government, including most recently co-authoring the resilience, net zero, and environmental sustainability chapters of the 2022 NSW State Infrastructure Strategy.

David Schlosberg (Chair) is Director of the Sydney Environment Institute and Professor of Environmental Politics at the University of Sydney. His work focuses on environmental and climate justice, environmental movements, sustainability in everyday life, and climate adaptation/resilience planning and policy.

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