Andrew Komar graduated with a PhD in Civil Engineering and Applied Mechanics in 2017. His thesis research focused on concrete durability and the development of new experimental techniques to evaluate concrete deterioration from issues like freeze-thaw and cyclic loading. Today, he is a project coordinator at Aecon, based in Toronto.
Q: What made you interested in doing a PhD?
I think it was a combination of being interested in the material that I was going to be studying (concrete) as well as the opportunity to work with my supervisor. I started my Master’s degree with him, and as that work was progressing, we realized that the project was going to be a lot bigger than something that would be captured in a Master’s degree. I thought it was quite promising. Instead of cutting it short and leaving it for someone else, we made the decision to continue with the PhD.
Q: What role did your supervisor play during your PhD?
I really valued him because he gave me a lot of independence. My project wasn’t strictly defined from the very beginning so there was a lot of flexibility and trial and error in terms of figuring out what was going to work, then running with that. He was more hands off, but when there were especially tricky problems where we were at an impasse, his door was always open. I could go in and we would collaborate and figure out a path forward.
The other thing that was really nice about my supervisor in particular was he really fought for me. He took a sabbatical probably in my third year. I got the opportunity to basically cover his classes, so I was able to go and teach the course that he was doing. I got really important hands-on experience on the teaching side of things. He wouldn’t have it any other way. The faculty was considering getting a course lecturer for the semester, but he really stood up for me. He was like “no, no, Andrew’s the guy for the job. I think he would do it better than anyone else.” He really went to bat for me. I really am grateful for that experience I got as a result.
Q: What were some of the biggest challenges of your PhD and how did you overcome them?
I think for me, one of the biggest challenges was getting myself organized. It’s a very independent position and it’s so easy to fall into rabbit holes as a PhD student. You design an experiment and you go through the entire protocol, and when you start it up, sometimes it doesn’t work. You end up being in a position where you feel like you may have wasted months of your life, and that’s frustrating. Then, you get to writing it up and what do you say in your thesis after a failure? Maybe failure isn’t the right word… maybe a path that would have been nice to avoid had you known it would have turned out that way.
Once I finished the experimental part, taking all of those individual papers and conference submissions and wrapping it all up into a thesis that was cohesive was definitely tough for me. It took me a lot longer than I anticipated to tie it up. I think had I been more proactive at organizing myself and setting down to write what I wanted the overall project to be, I probably could have saved myself a good six months to a year of the program.
Q: What was your path like after your PhD?
It was a bit of a struggle to get my thesis all finished up, but after that, I tried to go into the civil engineering industry in Quebec. I had some problems getting hired, honestly. I think the big concern coming out of the gate as a fresh PhD was the fact that a lot of people considered me “overqualified and under-experienced.” I felt like there were a lot of positions that I thought I would be well suited for, but people wouldn’t really consider me for the position because of the PhD. A big challenge was just getting my foot in the door in the industry.
Actually, one former student of mine, who was an intern with my research group, had an opening in his group with my current company. He got the door open for me and I just jumped at the opportunity. I moved to Ontario and I’ve been working in the same job since. In the end, it was actually because of my academic connections that I got into the industry.
Q: What connections are there, if any, between the work you do now and the work you did as a graduate student?
I had a couple of situations where my direct expertise has come in handy. I got the opportunity to be sworn in as an expert witness in some ongoing disputes between my company and a third party. It bore on my background in concrete durability, so I was able to use my specific technical academic experience directly in that dispute. But those kinds of experiences are few and far between.
Definitely some of the more quotidian skills come in handy, like data analysis. I’m the go-to guy in my group in terms of compiling and extracting meaningful data. The statistics side of things, using databases, spreadsheets, Excel, and Matlab in order to synthesize the data that we’re trying to do work with, that’s been a huge asset.
The other thing that was a huge advantage was my background in technical writing. At the end of the day, a big part of being an engineer is communicating science and technical engineering concepts to people who may not be familiar. Having that background in taking my highly specialized research and editing it so that a generalized journal will publish it, that type of experience is really helpful and it’s definitely transferred well. In addition to being the data guy, most of my peers in my current job will come to me when they need to punch up a document. I have no doubt my experience putting together a 400-page thesis with 300 citations was helpful in that respect.
Q: If you could go back and tell your younger self something about the PhD or the postgraduate journey, what would it be?
Personally, I think I would take myself aside and say “you should do your literature review right away.” I struggled with that because—it was a silly thing—for some reason, I didn’t do it until nearly the end because I did the thesis on a manuscript basis. I had all these individual papers, but there wasn’t anything cohesive between all of it. I probably wasted six months having to go back and redo something I should have done in the first month. If I could go back and tell myself something, I would say, number one, do your literature review right away. Number two, you should have a plan for how you’re going to do all the work because there’s a lot of freedom. The other side of the coin of freedom is if something doesn’t go the way that you’re expecting it to, you’re still on the hook for those consequences. It’s better to be prepared than caught unawares.
The other thing is that you’ve got to maintain your work-life balance. I think with a lot of grad students, there’s this expectation that because you’re only accountable to yourself, you should spend every waking hour working as hard as possible. I saw a lot of grad students burn out and drop out because that was their philosophy and it’s just not sustainable. A PhD takes three, four or five years. If you’re running at a full sprint that entire time, you’re not going to make it to the finish line. You’ve got to find a way to put the laptop away or give yourself permission to take a week of vacation or go back home or something like that. Your supervisors, the faculty, they’ll be happy to keep you working—frankly, grad students are cheap labour—so you’ve got to look out for yourself. You’ve got to be sure that at the end of it, you’re still there. All that hard effort can become fruitless if you don’t make it to the end, so it’s in your own interests to take care of yourself at every step of the way.
Many thanks to Andrew for sharing his PhD narrative! You can find out more about him on Linkedin.
This interview took place in August 2020. Interviews are edited by the TRaCE McGill Editorial team for length and clarity before publication.