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From Academia to Embassy: An Unusual Career Path

Many of my family and friends were surprised when they first heard that I was leaving academia for a governmental research job. Several years later I witnessed the same reaction when I announced that I was once again packing my bags to make another career switch--this time to work at the Canadian Embassy in Tokyo as the science and technology (S&T) counsellor.

In the first place, most internationally known, senior researchers who have earned some success in publishing and in acquiring grants do not normally just walk away from productive lab-based university careers. Particularly when they're on the verge of being promoted to full professorship, or are about to be made research directors of governmental research institutes. Furthermore, few people have ever heard of an S&T counsellor. "What could he be thinking of?" many of them must have wondered. Indeed, most were completely unaware that research jobs are widely available in government or that one could use one's Ph.D. and research credentials to land an interesting and challenging job in an embassy overseas.

I've always loved living in foreign countries. Perhaps the fact that I came from an ex-military family, which was constantly on the move during my preuniversity years, had a lot to do with establishing my peripatetic nature. After collecting bachelor's degrees from Dalhousie and Carleton Universities, I moved to Vancouver, graduating from the University of British Columbia with a Ph.D. in physiology. Postdoctoral fellowships in Germany and Japan followed, after which I joined the University of Calgary's medical faculty. I stayed at Calgary for 8 years and enjoyed research life tremendously. I then turned south to the United States, where I served as a tenured associate professor of psychology for 7 years. However, I constantly found myself missing Canadian accents and my native culture, as well as being bothered by many other differences--some would say they were subtle, but for me they grated--between life in North Carolina and in the "Great White North." So, I jumped at the opportunity to apply for a Canadian governmental job that seemed tailor-made for my particular research expertise, and I moved once again in 1996 to Ottawa's National Research Council (NRC), the federal government's home for S&T. This was the third time in my career to "start all over again," publishing papers, seeking research funding, managing staff, and working at the bench.

Through my collaborations in the field of neuroscience and my work as a government employee, I soon came into contact with staff of the Canadian embassy in Japan. When I saw the job advertisement for a S&T counsellor at the Tokyo embassy, I knew that I had an important decision to make. The job sure looked inviting--especially because my wife is Japanese (I'd spent part of my sabbatical leave in Tokyo, where I met her) and because I'd been collaborating more or less continuously throughout my career with Japanese researchers, training a number of them as postdocs in my labs in Calgary and the United States. But I knew that to stop doing science in my own lab would likely be an irrevocable step. So, what to do?

I leapt at the chance!

Science at the Embassy

At the Embassy of Canada in Tokyo, there are 45 Canadians and about 100 local staff. In embassies, the top job (of course) is ambassador, and in descending order of rank there are then ministers; counsellors; and first, second, and third secretaries. The embassy S&T section head, whose job it is to promote scientific research by catalyzing international collaborations, serves at the rank of counsellor. Canada has S&T counsellors in another five embassies besides Japan: in Washington, D.C.; London; Berlin; Paris; and the E.U. mission in Brussels. Whereas many people working in an embassy are foreign service officers who had to pass a stringent exam to gain admittance to their department, others--myself included--can be seconded from other governmental agencies or departments, or even from provincial governments or other bodies, to do specific tasks requiring skills and knowledge that may be absent in Foreign Affairs bureaucrats.

Part of my motivation to leave the bench stemmed from my perception that neuroscience research was moving more and more onto the molecular biology bandwagon, an area of limited interest for me. I knew that my heart wouldn't be in it if I had to retool and retrain, abandoning the systems-level approach to experimentation that I love so much. I also was getting somewhat tired of all the wrangling over inconsequential issues with grant and manuscript referees who couldn't, or didn't want to, see the point of doing certain types of research that I considered worthy.

After a brief interview process at the federal Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade in Ottawa, I secured an agreement to suspend my position at NRC and move to Japan for 4 years; a guarantee of a return position at NRC at my posting's end was part of the deal. Having a Ph.D. and possessing scientific expertise was not a requirement of the position, but it certainly made the job offer easier to get. By the same token, being trilingual (English, French, and German), plus knowing the fundamentals of spoken and written Japanese, was another big selling point for a Tokyo posting (although that latter ability was also not a mandatory requirement).

As S&T counsellor, I further bilateral collaborations, R&D partnerships, and strategic alliances. I gather a lot of information and intelligence from Japan for dissemination as reports to Canadians interested in Japanese S&T. Those Canadians comprise people in the sectors of university, government (all levels), and private industry. In addition, I do a lot of ad hoc reporting on every imaginable topic in science, including environment, space science, medicine, biotechnology, patents, policy, government budgeting, ocean and marine science, climate change, geology, earth observation, and so on. I also oversee production of a bimonthly S&T newsletter my staff and I initiated. I am able to travel within Japan a little so that I can visit regional science centres and research institutes; I also meet senior government officials who formulate and implement S&T policies.

Although I have a nonbench job, I am required to have my finger on the pulse of science constantly. I consider myself very lucky in this position because I get to meet all the top S&T decision-makers from Canada, many of whom pass through Tokyo at least once during a 4-year period to attend high-level meetings or symposia, to which I accompany them. Not only do I get to brief them on the prevailing scene in Japan, but I also receive up-to-the-minute information about Canada, and I can learn what those key decision-makers are doing within their organisations back home. Sometimes I can even find out what their plans are for future initiatives, which is particularly useful in this milieu because having advance knowledge can lead to further collaborations.

You need not be relatively advanced in your career to obtain a job like mine. Even a junior faculty member or someone fresh out of a postdoctoral fellowship could apply with good likelihood of success, if the applicant had a reasonably good profile in some area of science or technology or a background with sufficient international breadth. Many embassy trade commissioners specialize in areas of high technology such as the environment, natural resources, or information and telecommunications. It all depends on a particular embassy's orientation, needs, and size. Usually, larger embassies have more specialized programs that place value on applicants having research and science credentials.

The job is stimulating, even exhilarating at times, but it is frequently very intense and demanding. Sometimes I could swear that I see smoke rising from my e-mail inbox! There is no way now that I foresee myself ever wanting to return to bench-level research in a laboratory as a scientific researcher. I'd much rather function at a senior level in some science-related governmental department or agency, or would choose to compete for a job in the senior administration of some Canadian university. The latter jobs, however, are hard to get unless one goes up through the ranks in a direct line from the faculty. Nontraditional career paths like mine are a much harder sell to conservative-thinking university search committees. But you never can tell ... I guess my career path is already somewhat unusual, and surprises obviously can happen, can't they?

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