Cheryl Thompson graduated with a PhD in Communication Studies in 2015. She currently works as an Assistant Professor at Ryerson University.
Q: What made you interested in doing a PhD in the first place?
It wasn’t until I completed my MA that I decided I wanted to do a PhD. Just from my defense, I realized I really liked what I was doing and I really liked the idea of research. When I was doing my PhD, I knew that I wanted to become a professor—that was my purpose.
Q: What is your current position?
I am currently an assistant professor in the School of Creative Industries at Ryerson University.
Q: What was your path after graduating?
After I left McGill, I did sessional teaching for a year or so at the University of Toronto at various campuses. I also taught at Sheridan College. Then I won a Banting postdoctoral fellowship that supported me from 2016 to 2018. So during those two years, I was teaching and also doing my postdoc research.
Q: What kind of financial support did you receive?
Very little. During the first year I started school, because I had been working full time, I had zero debt, but I wasn’t successful in my SSHRC application. The department was giving every new PhD student one year of funding, but that was just one year. The idea was to win a SSHRC during your second year. Well, I never won a SSHRC throughout my entire PhD. So when I got into the second year, I pretty much had to start TAing right away, up until the last year of my PhD. Every semester, I was TAing sometimes two courses while I was doing my PhD. It wasn’t until the third year of my PhD that I won a fellowship from the McCord Museum. McGill was actually pretty good because there would always be opportunities to win money, like grants and travel awards. Then I became associated with the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada, which also provided research awards. I would win those too. But when you really tallied up that money, I was still pretty much living below the poverty line.
Q: Did your funding situation impact your research or the path you took?
I would say I handled it through time management. Because I came to my PhD after working professionally for eight years, I had the rhythm of how to create structure, and manage and write in the schedule. Even with all that TAing and all the other stuff I was doing, I still finished in a reasonable amount of time.
Q: Did you have any particularly important mentors during graduate school?
My experience at McGill was actually quite difficult from the very beginning. There was something that happened with another faculty member in a different department during my very first semester that I can only describe as intimidation and bullying, and it wasn’t handled very well by my previous supervisor. So I felt really alone and isolated. I basically started my PhD with a strong sense of “I’m in this by myself, nobody’s really here to help me.” I relied more on family and friends than on support within the department or at McGill itself because I was pretty much left to fend for myself, even though what had happened was actually quite traumatic.
Q: Did you ever find professional guidance or resources to help you navigate that situation?
After that incident happened, I went to SSMU—there are a lot of resources for students in terms of speaking to people. So I used a lot of those resources—I went and I saw a psychologist and there were other resources that offered free legal advice.
Q: So did you feel as if you had a strong community during grad school?
The cohort that I was in, we were actually a very close cohort—we did a lot of things, like pub nights. We really connected—we were the ones that brought back the graduate conference and launched a journal. However, to be very frank, I was a Black woman in a very white department. That included my cohort. So while I did all of those things, I can’t necessarily say that people really understood what I was going through, living in Montreal as a Black woman. Montreal itself came with its own stressors, and things that I was dealing with outside of McGill that had nothing to do with being at McGill. So, there’s a weird sense of being in a cohort but experiencing a lot of things that I didn’t feel as if I had anyone that I could really talk to about it.
Q: Did McGill offer resources to help you adapt to life in this city?
I think, generally speaking, in this 21st century, all of these institutions have to stop acting as if race doesn’t matter, right? In my humble opinion, McGill is an institution that believes that race doesn’t matter—they don’t prioritize it, or do anything to centralize it or make it visible. So anything that does happen always feels as if it’s under the watchful eye of surveillance. I can give you a perfect example: once there was a pretty active undergraduate Black student society that had an event in the arts building—an event that was publicized—yet there were still white students coming in and asking us if we were allowed to be there. I think that’s the culture of McGill, because there isn’t this real pervasive culture of anti-racism and diversity.
When I was on campus, I had a pervasive sense that I was being surveyed, so I had to monitor my behavior. Is that fair for Black students to feel that way? Or Muslim students to feel that way? Because I know a lot of Muslim students that felt the exact same way. So it’s like that to me—that’s a structural thing. That’s not just the students acting out. There’s something else going on in the university that is not being addressed.
Q: Would you say these were among the biggest challenges that you had during your PhD?
Yeah, I think those were really the biggest challenges. I excelled in my courses and I really took to being a PhD student—I found my place, in that sense, and I knew that this was exactly what I wanted. McGill has an unbelievably amazing library, so I did spend a lot of time there. Looking back on it, I was really insular at the same time—I just made everything about school. A lot of the people I had bonded with were my students, and they had gone. During the last couple of years, I would describe my life as being a hermit—there would be weeks where I really wouldn’t talk to anyone because I didn’t feel like I had anyone to really connect with. I kept some connections with people but after a while, being the only Black person in my program, it was really difficult—I really felt alone. That was probably my biggest challenge—just battling that sense of being isolated and by myself.
Q: Since becoming a professor, have those same experiences and challenges carried over?
No, they haven’t carried over at all. Now that I’m in the same position as the people that I was dealing with were in, I just make a conscious point to not be the person that they were to me. So I reach out to my Black students, I reach out to my queer students, I reach out to my racialized students. I make a point to tell them that they can talk to me because I know what I didn’t get. I am very conscious of the fact that even at a university like Ryerson, which is very diverse, it doesn’t mean there aren’t still issues.
Q: What would you say were the biggest challenges you experienced in regards to the job market?
I did the typical thing, the hustle—getting a sessional contract and teaching. The first year after I finished was a very stressful year because I was teaching three courses at U of T and two courses at Sheridan College. They were at different campuses too—one was in Oakville, one was in Brampton. I was teaching downtown, and then I was teaching at Mississauga and then at Scarborough. I don’t even know how I got through that year. That was extremely challenging. But I knew that the only way to get out of this hustle was to get a postdoc, so I was constantly working on my postdoc applications. Once I got the Banting, I taught two courses and I kept teaching those same courses because I knew I wanted to be a prof. So I kept doing that while I kept doing my research.
Q: Are there skills that you developed in graduate school that you found particularly valuable?
The challenges I faced taught me to be resilient. Even though the experience was horrible at the time, it really did, in a way, give me certain tools. I learned to be resilient, adaptive, and resourceful, and figure things out without panicking. Now that I am on the other side as a professor, I realize how difficult this job really is and why it is that everybody doesn’t get this job. There are certain qualities that go into being a prof that you don’t even know until you become a prof. You have to be a very forward-thinking person.
Q: Were there experiences during the PhD that have been particularly valuable to you since graduating?
I think definitely organizing the grad conference with other PhD students. That experience has definitely helped me now because in my current position, I just finished organizing a Black History Month event and I sit on committees now. Having had that experience as a grad student—just starting with an idea, writing the call for proposals, reading all the abstracts, and figuring out the topics—that experience alone was so invaluable.
Q: What advice would you give to someone currently working on their PhD?
It depends on what year they’re in. If they’re in the first or second year, I would say just focus on the coursework and don’t be thinking too far ahead—just focus on learning your craft and becoming an expert in your area. For those in year four and above who are close to being finished and entering this so-called job market, I would say to start thinking about your dissertation as a body of work. This is the beginning of your body of work and start thinking about where it could go. That’s really what’s going to aid the person who does a PhD, who then wants to be a postdoc, to get a postdoc or a faculty position. That’s going to be the difference between those who end up on that path and those who don’t.
For me, I realized that in my own trajectory. When I was in year four of my PhD doing archival work, I started to find other types of things in the archive that were not related to my dissertation but I just intuitively collected those too. I realized this was another project. So by year four, I was already pivoting. In between doing my dissertation work, I started working on this other project because I kind of knew that there was a lot to it.
I think part of what gets students stuck is that they are so insulated in their one topic and they’re no longer looking at other things that might come up in their research. But when you’re in year five and six, that’s exactly the thing you need to start looking into if you have aspirations to get a tenure track job.
Q: Lastly, is there anything else you want to add?
In my own experience, worldview, and standpoint, everything is not equal because people are accepted into a program and they all start together. We are all sitting on very different axes, whether it’s race, class, sexuality, or whether it’s an intersection or a combination of those things. I think a lot of these graduate school programs really have to start to pay attention to those nuances in their cohorts and provide structure. Think about diversifying your material to reflect those people that are in your midst.
When I was a student in the program, while I enjoyed my courses, there was really maybe one course I took that I saw myself, out of the I don’t know how many, I can’t even remember now, that you have to take. And I would sit there and I would think, “Man, my other classmates seem so engaged with this material, and I feel so disconnected from it.” You know, it was like the distance between us was so grand that I would never dare raise my hand sometimes and say anything because I think I would have looked crazy, because they literally wouldn’t even know where I was coming from.
I would say, be cognizant of who’s sitting in your classroom and what it is that you’re telling them. Because I’ve sat in classrooms where people are almost literally saying that they don’t see race and I’m the only Black person in the room. We can’t allow this kind of thing to happen anymore. We really got to start tackling these issues. I think it’s not going to start from the university administration—it has to start with faculty. We’re actually the ones doing research and the ones that are most engaging in students’ lives.
Many thanks to Cheryl for sharing her PhD narrative! You can find her on her website, on LinkedIn, and on Twitter.
This interview took place in March 2020. Interviews are edited by the TRaCE McGill Editorial team for length and clarity before publication.