Alumni Feature: Bhar Sihota and Sukhraj Sihota,MPP 2010 + 2015

Interviewed by: Eva Lewis

What made each of you decide to do a degree in Public Policy?

Sukhraj: I always had a strong interest in social policy, which is what led me to an undergrad focused in criminology and psychology. After getting my degree I knew I wanted to continue my education but was unsure exactly what or where to study. I was familiar with the MPP program from my brother, and it seemed like it offered a more practical lens to social policy with various pathways that I could take after completing the program (e.g., joining government, NGOs, international organizations, etc.), so I started doing more research on the program and was sold.

Bhar: I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, but I at the time I felt that a Master’s degree might open more doors for me to decide once I had a better idea. It was a fairly simple process, as I made a list of the areas that interested me, and tried to find the best program that matched those interests. I definitely spent many hours researching and considering my options, but in the end I’m very thankful to have landed on the MPP program.

Sukhraj, you started the MPP program five years after Bhar completed his MPP degree.  What kind of advice did your brother give you when you were starting out as an MPP student?

Bhar shared a few key pieces of advice when I started. First, he told me to think about my capstone early and to try to leverage my co-op assignment by seeking experience in a related area that could lend its research and analysis to the topic. I also remember being nervous about the economics component of the program and his advice was to use all the resources around me. This meant attending professor’s office hours, working with classmates, and taking out introductory economics textbooks from the SFU library to complement course readings. Bhar also shared some alumni insider tips, including where the quiet study spots were and to visit Dawn for all sugar and candy needs. 

You’re both working in policy-related roles – tell me about your current work and how you’ve put your MPP skills into practice.

Sukhraj: I recently moved to Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) as the Senior Advisor to the Regional Director General, West and North Region. In this new role, I provide strategic analysis and integrated policy advice and recommendations on various departmental priorities and initiatives. My experience in the MPP program gave me a solid understanding of the environmental and economic implications involved in complex policy decisions that I consistently apply to my work. The MPP program also includes a heavy group work component, which helped me develop collaborative skills that are critical to my position. Before joining ECCC, I worked with Fisheries and Oceans Canada where I directly applied my capstone to departmental work related to the Columbia River Treaty and a tripartite agreement focused on salmon in the upper Columbia River Basin. This was a big highlight for me and allowed me to apply the skills and knowledge acquired during the capstone process.

Bhar: Whether I realize it or not, I use my ‘MPP skills’ on a fairly regular basis. Something I’ve found in both policy-related jobs that I’ve held since graduation, is that there are a number of skills (e.g. writing a policy memo) that you are expected to possess and that the MPP program really helped me develop. I can recall numerous instances where I’ve browed through old MPP homework/exercises to help me complete a task.  

Looking back, what are the most important things you learned during your MPP degree?

Sukhraj: For me, learning how to work collaboratively as a team was super important. The MPP program involves a lot of group work and projects, and while a lot of these projects went well, they don’t always go smoothly. The experience of working through group dynamics and challenges was a powerful learning experience. Time management is another skill that I got from the program, especially in the second year. Keeping up with classes, writing my capstone, and holding a part-time co-op assignment required me to have a strong routine and find way to be efficient and effective with my time. Research, succinct writing, and policy analysis is developed throughout the program from the various assignments, and something that I leaned on a lot in my transition from the MPP program to joining the federal government. The program also challenged me to expand my understanding of the trade-offs and nuances involved in policy issues.

Bhar: I have a hard time picking one or two important things out of this extremely positive experience. The MPP program helped me mature personally and professionally, and gave me the skills necessary to pursue the career path that I desired. The skills learned through the MPP program can be applied to a variety of different careers, and that type of flexibility is valuable for those of us who were not set on any specific job in advance of applying to the MPP program.

Since you both have the same training, do you sometimes call each other to consult on issues or “talk policy”?

Sukhraj: We share upcoming policy events, conferences or opportunities that link with each other’s job but we don’t usually talk about work issues. Part of this is because of our positions but it’s also just nice (and refreshing) to catch up on other non work related topics.

Bhar: Sukhraj and I are quite close, but we don’t often consult each other on work-related issues. This is partly a result of the jobs we hold, and simply not being able to discuss certain things. I find it’s the same when I speak with close friends from the MPP program who have moved on to work for various orders of government. It could also be that the work is sometimes stressful, and Sukhraj and I would rather just talk about other things when we’re interacting with each other.

What would you say to friends or family members if they were thinking about studying public policy?

Sukhraj: A degree in public policy offers an applied approach to studying and solving some of the most pressing issues facing society, such as climate change, Indigenous reconciliation, housing unaffordability, and mental health and addiction. If you’re interested in any of these issues, a degree in public policy gives you the complete toolkit to build a successful—and rewarding—career.

Bhar: Choosing a Master’s program is a very important step in life. While I’m happy to discuss my own experience with friends and family, the most important piece of advice I could give would be to do your own research. That’s how I came to apply to the MPP program; I never had a friend, family member or guidance counselor even mention public policy as an option.