Daniel Lametti graduated from McGill with a PhD in Psychology in 2013. His thesis research focused on the brain basis of limb movements and speech production. He is now an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Acadia University in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, studying how we learn complex movements such as speech production and teaching courses in cognition and psycholinguistics.
Q: Did you always want to be a professor? What was your career search process like?
I have an uncle and aunt who are professors at McGill actually and it seemed like a great job, just learning all day. But I started doing a PhD and it seemed very, very hard. It was a real slog at times and everybody was complaining about how the academic job market was terrible, so I started to think about doing other things.
One of the unique things about my PhD is that my advisor let me take two summers off and I did internships at two different magazines doing science writing, which—although I didn’t go into a science writing career—has proven to be so helpful in terms of my writing ability, producing papers, telling stories etc.
Q: How did you get into science writing and find these internship opportunities?
During one of the low phases in my PhD where I was thinking “man, academia’s the worst”, somebody told me I should try science writing. So I started writing for the McGill Daily and I ended up writing a science column for them. Based on those clips, I applied to this internship advertised on Twitter or something, and I got it. It was fun, for sure—a cool experience.
Q: That’s so great of your supervisor to give you the time to explore that.
He was a great supervisor, and very generous in that way. I know some supervisors would not be up for that, but I think he was starting to realize just how tough it was in academia, and that allowing students to broaden their experiences is a good thing.
Q: How did you choose the postdoc position that you did after your PhD? Had you reconsidered the idea of becoming a professor?
During my PhD I spent six months at University College London thanks to an NSERC travel grant. It wasn’t the best lab for me, but I really liked London as a place to live, and I had decided to stay in academia, so I wrote an application to FQRNT for a postdoctoral award to go back. To be honest, it wasn’t the smartest choice because it was a very big lab focused on topics I wasn’t particularly interested in. I was there for a year, not really accomplishing anything useful, and then my funding started to run out.
Meanwhile, I had made some contacts with a professor at Oxford who I really wanted to work with. I applied for a Marie Curie Fellowship and an NSERC postdoctoral Fellowship, and had everything riding on receiving this funding, hoping that I would then move to Oxford to what I thought would be a better situation. But it didn’t work out.
So I was in this situation where my funding was drying up, I was in this really expensive city thinking, “what am I going to do?” I thought it was time to leave academia.
Q: It can be difficult to adjust to selling yourself to industry when you’re used to an academic environment. Was there anything you consciously highlighted on your CV or in job applications?
Two things really helped me. One was that I had this little bit of non-academic experience—I had done these two writing internships—and that showed that I had some knowledge of the world outside of academia.
The other was that I had a friend, who worked as a consultant, basically redo my CV for me. He would say, “this is too loose”, “this is stupid”, “get this down to a page”, “don’t say ‘research supervision’, call that ‘project management’ instead” etc. These little tweaks really made a huge difference.
I ended up landing a job at a biomedical charity in London called the Wellcome Trust. They fund a lot of research in neuroscience and psychology, so I was in this team responsible for that funding. It was cool because I was reading all of these grant applications from all the bigshots in the U.K. and figuring out what works and what doesn’t. It was a very interesting experience.
I probably would have stayed there forever, actually. I was pretty sure I was done with academia, but, six months into my job at this charity, the advisor at Oxford I had been trying to get funding to work with suggested I try one more fellowship application. “You’ve already got the proposals written” she said, “why don’t you just give it a go and see what happens?” Seven months later, I got the fellowship: three years of salary and research funding to be pseudo-independent at Oxford. I couldn’t give that up! Even if I didn’t continue in academia after, just being at Oxford for three years would be a lot of fun.
I think there’s this feeling in academia that once you leave, you can’t come back, but I don’t think that’s necessarily true. There are things you can do outside of academia that are very helpful. Certainly the time I spent at this non-profit reading all these grant applications has been so helpful with my academic career now.
Q: How did this new lab at Oxford compare to your first postdoc in London?
I was just as independent as I had been in my first postdoc, but in a much better environment for me. My supervisor was much more involved and interested in what I was doing, and there were other postdocs and graduate students in psychology to bounce ideas off of in weekly lab meetings. I sort of got back to the atmosphere that I had at McGill.
I got some papers published and, for the first time, I felt like I knew what I was doing, at least in my own little area of research.
In academia you’re always battling imposter syndrome. Everybody seems so smart. You go to conferences and people are giving these amazing talks and they’re brilliant… and you’re lost within 30 seconds. The thing is, everybody else feels the exact same way. The key for me was finding my own niche and pursuing that. Suddenly I had a lot of ideas and I could see how I could link them together into a grant proposal, for instance.
Q: It sounds like the sense of community was a big part of your success at Oxford.
For sure, the other thing I’d like to mention as well is teaching: I’ve always enjoyed academia when I’m teaching. At McGill, I was a T.A. and I loved that. In London at UCL, I wasn’t doing any teaching. We were in a research institute—there was no teaching to be done. At Oxford I was teaching again.
As a psychologist, we talk about reward schedules, and the reward schedules are very sparse in research. It’s just constant rejection and all of a sudden, once in a while, maybe once a year, once every two years, you get a reward and that sort of strings you along. But if you add teaching onto that, the relationship between effort and success is much more clear, much more linear. So it’s a way to give yourself these rewards that are lacking in research.
I guess that’s also kind of why I ended up at an institution that is more teaching-oriented, because it’s something I really enjoy.
Q: As a professor, having finished your PhD, done a couple of postdocs, and gone in and out of industry, what advice would you give to current PhD students?
The PhD is kind of the best time of your life: You explore a bunch of things that you’re interested in and you have time to cultivate extracurricular activities. In my case, writing for the school paper and doing internships in journalism went a long way to help me in my career.
I hope that supervisors are realizing that it’s very important for graduate students to be able to broaden their skillset. It could be something like taking a data science course or a graphic design course or something like that. Allowing students to take a couple of months off and try something new is super helpful, especially when the traditional trajectory of PhD to postdoc to principal investigator is just such a hard trajectory.
Many thanks to Daniel for sharing his PhD narrative! You can find out more about him at www.lamettilab.com
This interview took place in May 2020. Interviews are edited by the TRaCE McGill Editorial team for length and clarity before publication.