HDR Career Conversations

Supporting research student career development and employability at UOW

From PhD to Public Service: What can I expect?


Guest Post by Dr. Josip Matesic

Introduction: Following on from a recent post focusing on the public service recruitment process, Dr. Josip Matesic gives us an insight into what you can expect as a new PhD graduate in the public service and how to prepare for that.  

I have been working in the public service at the Department of Social Services for a little over two years now and enjoying it so I wanted to write today a bit about the differences you  can expect moving from working on a PhD or Masters to the public service. Now while everyone’s experience is different, I want to touch on some of the differences you may experience, and in particular the differences that I did not expect.

  1. Team culture

Perhaps the single biggest difference you will experience will be your work environment itself. You will be moving to a team environment. Depending on your discipline, your research topic may form part of a wider research grant and you may already be working in a team. In the public service though, you are always in a team, and the question simply is how large is your team? Your team in the public service is a subset to larger teams that go on eventually to form the department or agency. Whatever work you are doing, it is part of a much larger picture that serves the government of the day. Your work has connections to the work of many others, unlike your research where it is possible that it has little to no connection to the work of the colleague you sit next to.

  1. The work environment is public

Being in such a team environment mean you will see a lot of your team! It might take some time to adjust to the extra noise especially if you’re used to more quiet work environments. The public service isn’t a place where you are glued to your desk – there are flexible work options and times, but it is true that for a significant part of the day, you will be surrounded by a lot more colleagues than you may be used to. In some ways it was a more professionally interactive environment than the one I had come from but you adapt as you start to know people and make friends in the office.

You will also see a lot more of your supervisor and higher bosses than you might be used to!  You will work with your supervisor every day and see and talk with more senior public servants regularly. In the public service, chances are you will be sitting a few metres away from your supervisor – so you will see them each day. It is these little differences interacting with people in the office that you might not often think about that may strike you without warning. Personally, this hasn’t affected me greatly but I do know some people who have developed coping strategies using the flexible work options available to work remotely within the office in order to work urgently on something important in a more suitable environment.

The different work environment is something that affected me coming from a research area that wasn’t group focussed. It takes time to adjust and there are little tricks you can do such as wear headphones to cancel some of the noise. More noise and interaction with people can make you more tired initially especially if you are an introvert. This is why it’s important to make sure that you do things outside of work, which I delve into a bit more below.

It isn’t a complete disconnect from your studies though. I use my research skills regularly in a variety of ways, and I have done research and writing for policy papers which are skills I gained from my PhD.

  1. Your work can become public news!

One thing that might strike you is that your work may end up in the news. While our research as postgraduates has the potential to change the world, this may unfortunately take years to eventuate. In the public service, you may work on significant governmental policies that affect everyone in Australia or you may be called to work on fixing a policy or problem once it has publicly surfaced. It is very interesting seeing how your work is represented to the Australian public!

  1. More time

As a postgraduate researcher, there is always somewhere in the back of your mind the nagging voice that you could always be doing something more – you could be researching and reading more of the literature for your literature review for example. In most federal public service roles you will have the weekends off, and when you come home, you won’t have work. Having more time to yourself to pursue your interests outside of work is a great thing, but for some people, it may initially be a strange feeling. Luckily though …….

  1. ……….New life, new city

One last difference, and a big one, is if you apply for the federal public service, you will very likely have to move to Canberra. If you are studying at UOW and you’re not originally from Canberra, this will mean moving to a new city and starting a new life there. This is a big change but it isn’t impossible! Preparing as much as possible for the change is the best thing that you can do. Before you arrive, it’s best to try and search for clubs that you can join and find areas that you may want to live in and routes to get to work. All of these things will make the move to Canberra, and the public service, that little bit easier. As a graduate you will also start with a group of people so you won’t be alone. There are plenty of clubs in Canberra but also graduate sports teams to join which help you to get to know people and make friends which is what I did.

A different culture and team environment, public scrutiny, and more time and being in a new city with a new life are big changes, especially in the beginning, they’re not impossible to overcome. Looking back, the new experiences and solving the challenges is actually fun – ultimately, it’s not something to be afraid of!


Josip graduated from the Faculty of Law, Humanities and the Arts in 2017. His PhD concerned societal and legal changes in Australian religious history, under the supervision of Professor Gregory Melleuish. His current job involves research for policy development but also some event organisation.

Thank you, Josip for sharing insight into your role and life in Canberra.

Graduate programs for Australian Government Agencies are usually advertised between February and June each year.  Check out the range of programs here.  Individual vacancies are advertised through APS Jobs website throughout the year.

Dr. Katia Alferova has written about the Public Service Recruitment process in another blog post from the ‘From PhD to Public Service’ series. 

Register for careers and employer events on campus here  

What do think about the points Josip has made about life in the public service? Add your comments and questions below. 

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