What it is

Humanities and social science PhDs work in a great many government agencies, often using the skills they developed in their graduate programs. In the US, one can work for the federal government as an employee or a contractor. Only US citizens may become employees, but permanent residents may serve as contractors. In Canada, working for the government is called “public service” and Canadian citizens are given preference over non-citizens. You do not necessarily have to live in the national capital of your country to work for the federal government. Government agencies have labs and offices all over the country. State and municipal governments offer opportunities as well.

Starting points

Too numerous to list. For US government jobs, see the USAJobs website. Canadian government jobs can be found through the Public Service Resourcing System. Your own state or province probably has its own job search portal.


Once in, you can advance in almost any direction, because it is easier to change jobs or agencies once you are in the government system. You can also transition into business or nonprofits if your job allows you to build relationships in those areas, or perhaps back into higher education. Government benefits tend to be great.


PhDs in all humanities and social science disciplines can find fulfilling roles in government.

Personality and outlook

Depends on the role. However, all government workers are accountable to the public, which imposes a layer of coordination, review and reporting of activities that requires social interaction. It helps to be a patient person with a tolerance for bureaucracy.


Skills trump subject matter knowledge for most positions, so look at available positions and choose service projects that will build related skills. Familiarize yourself with the application process because it is very different from normal non-academic jobs. Informational interviews are highly recommended as well, because working for government is kind of a world apart; inside perspectives can be incredibly helpful.

Real Life Examples