Written by Andreas Geissner from the Withers lab, Michael Smith Laboratories
Universities are not the only public institutions where highly educated scientists can pursue a fruitful career — these specific skills, abilities, and knowledge are also direly needed in government positions to develop and introduce policies. Does that sound like the way you would like to make a difference?
We wanted to learn more about scientific careers in government agencies, thus, we reached out to Dr. Kim Godard, a former graduate student of the Bohlmann lab, who works as a Director at Health Canada.
Q. Can you please give a short description of your position?
Dr. Godard: I am the Director of a Science-Based Regulatory program within Health Canada. I lead a group of approximately 50 professionals, most of whom are scientists. We each bring our own expertise to apply science and scientific principles against a variety of problems to help develop policies and laws, which we work to implement and enforce; always with the ultimate goal of maintaining and improving healthy living in Canada. It is a tremendous opportunity, where I literally get a chance to impact the lives of Canadians in a concrete and positive way – it is very rewarding work!
I have worked on a variety of files throughout my career, including pharmaceuticals, industrial chemicals, consumer products and tobacco control. Although this work is very different from my days as a bench scientist, there are constantly new issues that require the type of critical and creative thinking I learned in the lab.
Q. At which stage of your career did you decide to pursue this path working in a regulatory agency? Was this decision planned or did the opportunity arise spontaneously?
Dr. Godard: I decided to pursue this career path right after graduation, when the opportunity presented itself quite serendipitously. In fact, I did not have a clear idea of what I was looking for in a career when I was in school, but applying for a job at Health Canada was one of the better decisions I have made. Fortunately, I was able to find challenging and fulfilling work that balances well with my family and non-working life.
Q. Did you do any special training/volunteering during your graduate/postgraduate research time to prepare for that career?
Dr. Godard: A graduate degree is sufficient for most scientific positions within Health Canada. With that said, some of my colleagues did follow their degrees with specialized courses in Regulatory Affairs, or an MBA or MPA. These are considered assets for some positions – but they are not generally required.
For myself – the opportunity was a spontaneous development in my career, and one I had not specifically planned or trained for. However, many of the skills I learned in grad school transferred very well to work in the public sector. For example, the ability to manage a project and work well in a team, the capacity to think critically and beyond the obvious, the ability to identify central issues and integrate information from many sources into a consistent message … and the list goes on.
Q. What advice would you give to trainees who want to apply for a position in your field?
Dr. Godard: A scientific career in a regulatory organization such as Health Canada is well worth considering. For me, the most rewarding part is the ability to have a direct and positive impact on Canadians in my day-to-day. It also brings stability, a good salary, and a great work-life balance.
If this field is of interest to you – here are a few tips!
- Think beyond your field of expertise and go for what seems interesting.
Your strong foundation in science can carry over to a variety of fields. In my case, for example, my degree is in molecular biology; yet in the last ten years, I have had roles in toxicology, policy, regulatory affairs, and enforcement. Bottom line – you are smart, and you can use your foundation to learn
- Apply early and be patient.
Most recruitment processes in government attract many applicants. This can lead to lengthy selection processes – at times, the wait could be over a year long. Be prepared to have another job in the meantime.
- Prepare well.
Recruitment in government tends to be done differently than in the private or academic setting. To maximize your chances of getting an offer, get advice from someone who knows these types of processes well.
- There are many postgraduate recruitment programs that are meant to seek out recent grads. Apply!
Q. How did you first enter this field after training at the Michael Smith Laboratories/UBC? How did you learn about the job (i.e. Job board, word-of-mouth, networking, etc.)?
Dr. Godard: For me it was networking. As I was lining up a grant and post-doc, an acquaintance from grad school noticed (through my social media, no less!) that I had relocated to Ottawa. She reached out indicating that her program was looking for scientists. I applied and was quickly hired for a limited-term contract to do some toxicology reviews. I quickly fell in love with the work and knew that I would make my career here.
Moral of my story – be nice to your fellow students and build your network!!!
Q. How much of the work you are doing correlates with what you expected when you signed up? Are there tasks you didn’t expect at all?
Dr. Godard: I find the work surprisingly dynamic in contrast to the popular view of the civil service. It was a very good fit for my personality, and I was able to chart a career path that allowed me to broaden my skillset. This enabled me to take jobs that I would have never predicted for myself when I first started out. Today, “routine” is not even part of my vocabulary, which is something I quite enjoy.
Q. Is there anything like a typical day in your job? What does it look like?
Dr. Godard: No two days are the same. I tend to tackle the various issues and priorities as they arise. Some days, it means dealing with a crisis in real-time – for example, there is a product on the Canadian market that is making people sick, so how are we going to manage and mitigate the risk? Other days, my focus is more forward-looking as we set out to take a proactive approach to tackle the various issues. It is a very fast-paced and stimulating environment.
Most of my days are spent in meetings to manage, plan, strategize, and communicate. In some cases, this lead to really exciting opportunities – for example, as I am writing this, I am currently in Geneva as Head Delegate for a United Nation sub-committee of experts, representing Canada – which, you have to admit, is pretty cool!
Q. How much do you have to travel for your job? How does this suit your lifestyle?
Dr. Godard: Generally, I am required to travel two to three times a year, and my travels tend to be relatively short in duration. I have two kids and a wonderful husband who has a busy schedule of his own. While travel does at times provide challenges, my husband and I have been able to coordinate our schedules to make it work. It can be difficult to spend time away from the family, especially when the kids are of very young age – on the flip side, you get to see and experience amazing sites and cities!
This is part of the #LabLifeLessons blog series, a series that highlights the adventures of the PhD experience and beyond. Written by Postdoctoral Fellows at the Michael Smith Laboratories, this series includes a number of posts ranging from personal experiences, interviews, and stories, reflecting on the journey and extracting the learned lessons in the process. #LabLifeLessons focuses on these challenges and aims to bring an authentic voice to the story. If you enjoyed this story, check out the other stories in this series below.