An adviser at the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Siobhan Reeves studied a Bachelor of Arts in the Liberal Arts, majoring in Literature, at Campion College before completing a Masters of International Relations at the Graduate School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Melbourne. Her unique career has seen her assist in finding answers to many of Australia’s major public policy challenges.
What did you study and what inspired you to pursue this path?
I studied a Bachelor of Arts in the Liberal Arts, majoring in Literature, at Campion College, Australia’s first liberal arts college. I decided to study Liberal Arts primarily because of the interconnected curriculum. I was attracted to a degree where I would gain a deep understanding of the relationship between historical events, great ideas, great books, and philosophical and theological schools of thought. The degree consists of a core curriculum in history, philosophy, theology, and literature, with the additional subjects of language (Latin and Classical Greek), science, and mathematics offered for part of the programme. I gained so much insight from studying the four core subjects in a chronologically thematic manner than as disparate subjects across those fields. I was keen to understand why the world looks the way it does and what schools of thought have influenced our society today, and studying Liberal Arts was a valuable insight into the past to better understand the present. After my undergraduate studies I completed a Masters of International Relations at the Graduate School of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Melbourne, and chose subjects where possible in history and philosophy that built upon my undergraduate experience.
What is your current occupation?
I’m an adviser at the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, based in Canberra. The Department works with other Commonwealth agencies, state and territory governments and other stakeholders to ensure a coordinated, evidence-based and sustainable approach to Australia’s public policy challenges. We support the Prime Minister, the Minister for Indigenous Affairs, the Minister for Women, a number of Assistant Ministers and the Cabinet Secretary. The Department has both policy oversight and program implementation responsibilities, and also hosts taskforces established by the Prime Minister from time to time. I was accepted into the Department’s graduate programme in 2015, and have worked across a number of government priorities as an Adviser and as part of two taskforces, including cyber security, the National Innovation and Science Agenda, the supply of Low Aromatic Fuel in remote Australia and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander deaths in custody.
What aspects of your role do you enjoy the most?
The great thing about the Department is that you can work across so many different policy areas. I have found that my humanities background has been so important in preparing me for a generalist policy role in a fast-paced environment, and for fostering my interest in diverse fields. I have particularly enjoyed working in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs – while there are significant challenges to overcome, there are also many examples of initiatives driven by communities and other committed stakeholders that are achieving real results.
Thinking back, what was a highlight of your time at university?
There were so many highlights! One particular text that stands out from my undergraduate Literature studies is One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Nobel Laureate Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. The short work is a confronting account of one day in the life of Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, an inmate of a Soviet gulag during the 1950s, and which emphasises the dehumanisation of oppression. Shukhov’s simple question “how can you expect a man who’s warm to understand one who’s cold” is a stark reminder about the lack of empathy in many political arenas today. Studying works such as these in conjunction with political philosophy, social justice teachings and modern history was an incredibly enriching opportunity.
Were there any co-curricular activities you found particularly valuable while at university?
During my undergraduate studies I was a member of a few student clubs including the Classics Society and the Debating Club, and was the Editor of the student publication, The Sextant. Working on The Sextant was great fun, navigating different opinions and promoting unique perspectives and outstanding creative writing. I was also involved with the Josephite’s Homework Program for the children of Sudanese refugees in Blacktown, and continued these type of activities through my enrolment in the University of Melbourne’s Leadership in Communities Award. I was fortunate to be involved in a number of co-curricular activities throughout my tertiary studies that were both enjoyable and challenging, and which expanded my understanding of my studies and developed my communication and teamwork skills.
How do you think your humanities education has shaped you personally and professionally?
Both my undergraduate and postgraduate humanities studies were pivotal times in my life that deeply informed my understanding of myself and and the world. Personally I developed new interests, new insights and new friends who were similarly passionate about the value of humanities today. Particularly in relation to my undergraduate studies, I benefited greatly from a strong community of learning, which was fostered by academic excellence, engaging and enlightening classes, an excellent library, and fellow students who loved to debate and question. In a professional context, managers have commented on my critical reasoning and ability to identify connections between policies and programs and to understand the context in which an event or problem occurs, all skills developed as part of my Liberal Arts education. While some aspects of my studies, for example Literature, may be seen as not relevant to my current employment, as a former CEO of Walt Disney, Michael Eisner, who completed a BA in English Literature and Theatre, attested: “Literature is unbelievably helpful, because no matter what business you are in, you are dealing with interpersonal relationships.
What career advice would you give to current students or recent graduates?
Don’t underestimate the skills that you’ll develop as part of your humanities studies that you will rely on in your future career. As a public servant, strategic thinking and sound judgment have been key to improving outcomes in a sustainable manner and with stakeholder support. I would not be effective in my job without strong critical reasoning skills, which were fostered as part of my undergraduate studies. Take advantage of opportunities to explore different areas of interest and to develop new skills. And think outside the box when it comes to your next steps post graduation. I would never have considered a career at the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (indeed I was not even aware that such a Department existed) until I spent a year working in Timor-Leste and realized the vital importance of having a central agency that provides a whole-of-government perspective on public policy. A humanities education is a strong foundation for a host of post-graduate and professional opportunities.
Tell us about a book you read recently that truly captured your attention?
Non-fiction: Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives by Tim Harford – which is a fascinating read about how disorder and disarray contribute in a fundamental way to creativeity and resilience, using research from neuroscience and other fields and learning from the experiences of interesting people doing extraordinary things.
Fiction: The Guide by R. K. Narayan – the novel is based in a fictional town in South India and is about the unusual transformation of a young man, Raju, from a tour guide to a spiritual guide. It is equal parts humorous, charming, unsettling and insightful – I highly recommend it..
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