Caolan Kovach-Orr completed his PhD in biology in 2015, focusing on predator-prey interactions. He started, in industry, as a Data Scientist, and currently heads a data science & engineering team for Verisk Analytics.
What made you want to get a PhD in biology at McGill?
About half way through my undergrad, I was inspired by a few amazing professors (the late Barbara Goff, Tim Casey, and Peter Morin). Before connecting with them through courses, research, and mentorship, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. Their influence helped set me on a course towards academia—I was drawn to the freedom to follow interesting ideas, the potential to discover new concepts and phenomena, and to solve hard problems.
I had always had a strong passion for nature, ecology, and helping make things better—I thought that going into academia and focusing on ecology would let me combine all my interests, and it did for the most part. I was decided on McGill not because of its reputation, but by the research and personality of my supervisor, Gregor Fussmann.
What was the sense of community and mentorship like during your PhD?
When I was there, my area of study was full of really good professors and graduate students. Even beyond the direct support, learning from your peers and learning from professors, there were a lot of conversations and learning that I took from most of the people who were there, who were incredibly bright. I think it would’ve been a really difficult PhD had there not been these labs that were full of really brilliant scientists who are doing mathematics or mathematical biology.
And there were other community elements too—camping trips, Thomson House. But that community had to be built, and it was tough to maintain. [When I started] There wasn’t any type of, say, infrastructure to have a big group of people together outside of once or twice a year—to meet new friends. Over time that infrastructure developed, but it goes in cycles; it was isolating when I first arrived at McGill, which does a pretty good job for undergraduates, but for graduate students, it was harder to create a connection.
What were some of the challenges during your PhD? How did they change your path during your graduate degree?
So I was dead set on becoming a professor and staying in academia. I was that way for the first three, three-and-a-half years of my PhD. And I think about this a lot, these days—one of the things that really drove me away from academia was being so poor during grad school. It’s not that I didn’t have anything, but when you’re making probably around 16-19,000 dollars a year—after coming from undergrad, another four years of living in pretty rough conditions…I just didn’t want that life. I came out of grad school, not in debt, but with no assets, in my late 20s, and worried that it would be six years before I had a decent paying job.
When you look back on your PhD, then, does it feel worth it?
I do think it was worth it for me, for my career trajectory post-PhD. I don’t think I would be where I’m at today had I not gotten a PhD; even if I’d been in the workforce for those six years, I don’t think I would have moved up to where I am now.
Can you talk about how you transitioned out of academia?
When I first started to think about leaving academia, it was just for the amorphous “industry”. As I got closer to graduation, it started to be closer to data science and analytics. But I didn’t really have a lot of foresight. I didn’t start looking until after I submitted my thesis, and really, after I defended.
Looking took about three and a half months. The hard part wasn’t finding a job; it was finding a job that was good and put me on the right trajectory. One of the hardest parts was the American job market, where the industry view of PhDs is different than in Canada. Even to this day, I often have to explain to American employers that the last five years of my PhD were research, not course-based, as they can be in the US market.
And then, I got really lucky. The original job I got five years ago was part of a rotational program for Verisk, the company that I still work for. They had been hiring five people every six months, and then rotating them into different business units and settling them there. It just happened that I started applying for jobs and someone else had backed out of a position, so they needed someone who could start in five weeks. Someone I knew connected me to the company.
What is your current position like?
I work for an analytics company, and then within that, I work on their research and development team. I would say that the most surprising thing is that it is extremely similar to my PhD: on a day-to-day level, like in grad school, I sit behind a screen, write code, Google the things I don’t know the answer to, and solve problems. The big picture questions change, the expectations on when and how you work change, but in many ways, it’s the same job.
And what I look for when I hire people, and what the people who hired me look for, are people who can do research and apply it; not people who get caught in the weeds with obscure things, but rather people can take a problem and find a solution or highlight the most important information. It’s important to sell yourself as someone who can solve problems and doesn’t need too much oversight, especially if you’re trying to get into a research and development position.
What were other valuable experiences during grad school that have contributed to your career, post-PhD?
A few things: there was a biology graduate student symposium, and the feedback I got during those was valuable, especially when I got to industry. Same thing with TAing; just getting to a point where you’re comfortable speaking in front of 40 people who you don’t know makes a big difference. Now, I speak in front of our company, anywhere from two to five hundred people.
In some ways, people in the workforce aren’t that different from people in a classroom; if you can get a group of students motivated to do their lab work, it’s pretty similar to keeping a team engaged and motivated.
Even your committee is almost like a board of directors: They don’t actually know what you’re doing, and they’re not super invested in your project. But, when they come in, they want to be able to quickly understand what’s happening and if you’re going to be able to accomplish what you think you are.
What are some experiences or training that you wish you’d had?
We don’t go through training on this during the PhD, but building your network within a community or company is really important for advancement. It’s not about just pleasing your boss. It’s about pleasing bosses, peers, employees, coworkers, your boss’s bosses—if everybody agrees that that person is great, it’s good. But if some people don’t know you or if people don’t like to work with you, that can be a huge detractor. And of course, networking is important for even getting the job, which is how I first got my position.
Some people might learn networking and meet good connections through academic conferences, but I didn’t find much value in them; but I’ve never been particularly good at networking at conferences. I think I was often overwhelmed with the amount of things going on.
I think the concept of networking can be intimidating, walking up to someone you don’t know and trying to sell yourself/impress them is not a skill that most people have, let alone scientists who spend all day isolated. There are a couple of things you can do to help here, first and foremost remember that people at conferences are there to network, secondly, if you can find a mutual connection to introduce you that can take a lot of the pressure off.
If you could go back and give yourself advice at the beginning of the PhD, what would it be?
I think the most important thing I would reprioritize is mental health. Looking back, I think I was always afraid that if I gave up my anxiety, I would give up my drive, and I wouldn’t be as good at my work. After graduate school, I made more of an effort to get rid of anxiety and deal with it in an emotionally healthy way. And that has opened up so many more doors than what I knew were available. I’m able to work much more effectively, and I didn’t give up anything. Had I known that, I think my (already reasonable) PhD experience would have been better.
I also wish people had told me—or that I had remembered, if they did tell me—that there’s a tradeoff for graduate school. You see your friends getting jobs and progressing with their lives, and yours is on hold in a lot of respects. I wish I had been more aware of the sacrifice I was making. Now, looking back, I’m glad I did it, but it was still shocking how rough the experience is compared to undergrad.
Many thanks to Caolan for sharing his narrative! You can find him on LinkedIn.
This interview took place in April 2020. Interviews are edited by the TRaCE McGill Editorial team for length and clarity before publication.