Career change and the quest for autonomy

I have decided to change careers – from public policy to psychology. The first step involves dropping my long-suffering Masters studies in economics and public policy (yes two programs, one of which I’m three quarters through), and entering a one-year Bachelor of Psychological Studies. In doing this, I’m moving on from about a decade as a public servant and political staffer.

In studying psychology my aspiration is to go into private practice, as a clinical or general psychologist. The road ahead is long and challenging, and nothing is given. In the case of clinical psychology, it will require at least four years of full-time study, and two years as a registrar. I will need to gain competitive admission to honours and then Masters, which often requires first class grades. Only a minority of students wind up with one of the prized places.

Nevertheless I’m up for the challenge.


Considerations in my decision included:

Favour economics/public policy Favour psychology
Strongly favour:

  • Considerable existing human capital
  • Risk and uncertainty of change (may not succeed in psychology, or may not find it as fulfilling as hoped)


Weakly favour:

  • Passion (but passion can be a curse…)


Strongly favour:

  • the superior autonomy of professionals in private practice
  • motivational benefits of helping people directly
  • a clearly defined career path
  • verbal-centric work (I prefer talking to writing)


Weakly favour:

  • a career directly consistent with my ethical values
  • personal attributes (can be empathetic while staying analytical and somewhat detached)
  • a career with strong demand across Australia and into the future.


In addition to the above, I have a preference for a field adjacent to social policy and a discipline that mixes qualitative and quantitative approaches. These aspects are roughly neutral between psychology and the type of public policy I do.

Public service employment destroys autonomy

The single most important factor in my decision was autonomy. Most people want some level of autonomy, but for some of us it is almost sacred. I think this is a pretty deep issue of personality, and as such is relatively resistant to change.

There are few careers that can deliver the independence afforded to a professional in private practice. A tenured academic is one, but academic employment in Australia has turned into a dystopia of casualisation and labour over-supply. Tenure – the teeth of academic autonomy – has largely been dismantled.

The main career option in public policy is the public service. This is perhaps the worst possible career for autonomy, with legislation uniquely designed to sacrifice public servants’ freedom not just at work but in their private life. In the federal public service, public servants can’t count on their freedom to even like Facebook posts critical of the government. In this respect having a passion in the field (politics, policy) can actually be a negative: it is a bigger loss to lose the ability to speak out about something if you really care about it.

The Australian government’s speech restrictions err on the side of excess risk aversion, curbing public servants’ citizen rights unnecessarily, and hollowing out organisations by pushing away people with valuable divergent thinking skills. Organisations need a diversity of cognitive styles and personalities, including critical thinkers and sceptics.

In addition to loosening restrictions on public servants, the government should pass legislation guaranteeing greater speech rights to private sector employees. The trend towards codes of conduct with vague catch-all restrictions is a serious risk to freedom of expression in practice. The open exchange of ideas, facilitating intellectual and political deliberation and progress, is a public good underprovided by a free market. It should be protected and promoted by government.

But I digress.

On a more mundane level, being a public servant, even in a flagship division of a ‘prestigious’ department, involves doing a lot of bullshit. By that I mean tedious clerical work, destined to be ignored on a staffer’s desk.

(Disclaimers: public servants do important work; many people have a wonderful time in the public service; I found it very rewarding for several years; I have been that staffer.)

Other options

Another public policy option is being a political staffer again, but you can’t do this all your life; most people tire of the hours, stress and insecurity; particularly when they’re in their mid-30s, with kids. Like the public service, this work also requires giving up much of one’s individual autonomy outside work. (Although you get more autonomy on the job, and you can help fight for a cause you deeply believe in.)

Working for a social democratic think tank would be attractive. However, there’s not much going in this space in Sydney, where I’m effectively tied to over the medium to long term for family reasons. I’m not even sure there are enough organisations to allow someone to sustain a career in this field long-term anywhere in Australia.

The corporate world holds little appeal to me, and I don’t think I’d be motivated to do it day-in, day-out.

Journalism seems too risky and structure-less.

I considered ventures like a Nicholas Gruen-style policy consulting firm or even a Matt Bruenig-style crowd sourced think tank. But Gruen is a force of nature, and I doubt I have the intense focus and ongoing dedication to drumming up business required to make a consultancy successful. I will never have Bruenig’s audience gathering ability, and even if I did there would be no way for the model to be downscaled for the Australian market.

Working for an NGO is something I haven’t really tested, but it’s probably not particularly financially lucrative and I suspect I might get bored over the longer term.

Towards psychology

For a few years now I’ve been wandering from work project to work project, uni subject to uni subject, without feeling clarity on what it was all aiming towards. I’ve notched up some reasonable achievements during this time, and I’m proud of them, but I’ve gradually lost motivation not knowing what all the work was adding up to in the long run.

Psychology provides an opportunity for a clearly defined career path. It involves helping people, which is intrinsically motivating, salient for me given family struggles in this area.

In addition, psychology is ethical on a day-to-day level. Public policy work may be ethical on a macro level (obviously public servants do a necessary job), but day-to-day it often involves colluding with and facilitating evil, for example spinning data to help a government disingenuously argue the case for cuts to the most vulnerable. I always found this work extremely dispiriting and demotivating – and even morally dubious, especially when it goes beyond following narrow directions and into territory where you’re pro-actively applying ingenuity to assist the government in its scheming. Watching robo-debt unfold heightened my ethical worries about working in the Australian Public Service.

What’s next

I’ll be living in Adelaide for most of this year. Flinders University has the fastest and cheapest program for my situation. I hope to be able to do honours at a university in Sydney next year.

I’m looking forward to a new phase in my life, a new experience, a new challenge.

2 thoughts on “Career change and the quest for autonomy

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