Anna Taylor graduated with a PhD in Pharmacology and Therapeutics in 2010. She is currently an Assistant Professor.
Q: What made you interested in doing a PhD in the first place?
I had an undergraduate research experience that was really positive. To be honest, I didn’t know what I wanted to do at the end of my undergraduate degree career-wise. Graduate school just seemed like a logical extension to be able to keep doing the research that I enjoyed doing in my undergraduate research program. I had initially been exposed to doing research in the field of chronic pain and McGil is the world headquarters of chronic pain research. So that’s how I ended up there.
Q: What would you say were some of the more valuable experiences you took from your time in grad school?
In terms of academics, the most valuable experience was the opportunity to explore and develop independent thought and critical thinking. I valued being able to work on a project and being given the freedom and the flexibility to explore that topic that I’m interested in without a certain curriculum or strict guidance of where I should go. I was pretty fortunate in the lab that I was in, where I was given a fair amount of freedom in terms of what questions I wanted to ask and how I wanted to take my project forward. I think that was really valuable in terms of my personal development.
Our graduate program was set up to foster lots of interactions both in the lab, as well as outside of the lab. So I was able to interact with a wide variety of different types of people coming from a different background, and that was a broadening experience.
Q: Was that your main source of support?
I had a supervisor that was available, and we met very often. He was often in the lab, so if I had an immediate research-based question, he was the first person I went to and he really provided a lot of good support. Beyond that, there’s certainly a wider network of professors within my general area I would often seek out. In general, it was actually a pretty excellent collegiate environment. I was also pretty fortunate to have a good crew of fellow graduate students in my department and within my lab that were really integral to my mental health support throughout graduate school.
Q: What would you say a typical day is like?
My official job position is 65% research, 25% teaching and 10% service. So that’s probably a fair reflection of how my day is broken up. I do an hour or two of teaching a week and also preparing lectures, interacting with students, writing exams. The rest of my time is really research-based. I’m still a young investigator, so 50% of my time is spent writing grants and writing papers. I mentor graduate students and help them in the lab. Currently, I’m the one with the most lab-based experience so I do spend a little bit of time on the bench doing pipetting and showing students how to do techniques.
Q: How did you find the transition from PhD to your position now, especially in terms of skills?
You don’t get a lot of formal training in writing grants as a PhD student, but I got a lot more of that during my postdoc. The PhD helped me to learn how to think through problems, how to research them effectively, and also how to communicate complex ideas clearly. You really start to develop fundamental communication skills in graduate school, and further develop them in your training. My graduate program gave me lots of experience writing and communicating to a wide variety of groups. So much of your time is actually spent trying to comprehend what you’re doing and then relaying it in a way that makes sense—that in itself is a vital skill and it’s really the crux of grant writing. If you can’t explain your idea and why it’s worth money, then you are never going to get funding.
Q: What were the more challenging parts of your PhD?
For me, the most challenging moment was the end of my first year. It was really the mental transition from the undergraduate brain to the graduate brain. Part of that was not receiving consistent feedback on my progress in graduate school. In undergrad, you have midterm exams and final exams, and you know if you’re hitting the benchmarks. In graduate school, you have committee meetings once a year. I think I would have liked to have more formal assessments peppered throughout to make sure I was on track.
Also, the undergraduate degree was paced in such a way that you have these lulls and then you cram for exams, and then you have summer breaks—it’s a series of sprints, whereas graduate school was much more steady and you don’t get a break. I really struggled with learning how to manage work life balance at the beginning. I had a reckoning in my second year and realized that I needed to figure out time to exercise, spend time with friends, and not be in the lab every single weekend—that wasn’t going to make me graduate any faster and it’s really detrimental to my mental health.
Graduating with your PhD is only step one of the rest of your life—it’s not like as soon as you get your PhD, everything relaxes and it’s easy. You’ll always feel the pressure, especially when it’s coming from within, which was the case for me. You’ll always feel this drive to achieve and accomplish and so you need to make the decision now about how you want to live your life.
In my experience, the skills and habits that you develop during graduate school are the ones that you’ll carry forward throughout, regardless of where you end up. So make sure you’re taking care of your mental health, your physical health, and your relationships. Work hard in the lab, but at five o’clock, shut your laptop, go home, and do something else. It makes you a better scientist when you’re not super stressed out.
Q: If you go back and give advice to your former self about the PhD, what would that be?
I would say “You can do it. It’s going to be okay. You’re smart enough”. When you first start in your program, everyone seems super smart and you feel like you don’t know anything and you’re going to fail. In my experience, anyone can do a PhD if they want to. Often it’s self-doubt that erodes your confidence and impacts your mental health. So I would just want to assure Anna when she’s starting her PhD that she’s smart enough. You grow so much through the whole process and you don’t even realize because it happens kind of slowly.
This interview took place in August 2020. Interviews are edited by the TRaCE McGill Editorial team for length and clarity before publication.