Dawn graduated from the Department of Integrated Studies in Education in 2012. She is currently a professor at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.
Q: What made you interested in doing a PhD in the first place?
I was working in state government in New Hampshire and did my Master’s degree. By then, it was pretty clear that I wasn’t going to be satisfied with just a Master’s degree. What I saw myself doing in the future required a PhD. We had always loved Montreal—we visit sometimes more than once a year—and we liked the multicultural environment, especially for raising our daughter.
My husband has a PhD, so the other part of it was just competition with him. He can’t have a PhD without me having a PhD—we needed to equalize the expertise! Finally, when I was getting my Master’s degree, I saw the funny hats that certain people were wearing at graduation. They told me that I needed a PhD to have one of those hats. So clearly, I needed to do that because that hat is something I am going to wear. So these were all the reasons I ended up having a PhD.
Q: What is your current position?
I’m a tenured professor at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. I’m the program director of the early childhood program. I teach classes and I do some research, but not as much as my advisor wished that I was going to end up doing.
Q: Did you ever consider a non-academic route or were you certain you wanted to be a professor?
I was certain of being a professor—I’ve always known that I wanted to be a teaching professor, much more so than in a research track. I don’t know what the average age of a PhD student is, but I think I was forty two when I did my PhD, so I had a pretty good sense of what I could do, but also where I wanted to be in my professional journey with an understanding that I had other things to fall back on. I had policy experience, so if the academic thing just didn’t work out, there were other positions affiliated with early childhood that I had done and could do again.
Q: Who would you say were your most important mentors during your PhD?
Certainly my advisor Teresa Strong-Wilson. She was really grounding. She was the perfect fit for me in terms of temperament and personality—she knew how to push me, but not push me too hard. Another person who entered the program at the same time as me, Maija—we were a very good match together, went on to write an article together, and still stay in touch. I would say those two got me through the program. I don’t know how the program is now, but there wasn’t really a ton of opportunity to get to know other people—it was kind of insular.
Q: Did you feel as though you were part of a community?
I had the attachments to the one or two people that I was attached to. But in terms of feeling like there was a strong graduate community, I mean, I would hang out at the grad house every once in a while. But I didn’t really feel particularly super attached to the grad culture at McGill. I don’t know if it was due to my age. I was moving into my late thirties with a kid and I was managing her transition from being in a monolingual culture to suddenly having half of her day in French. It was kind of a shock for everybody. It may have been different if I was a Montrealer who was transitioning into graduate school, but I had other life stuff I was managing on top of graduate work.
Q: Is there any kind of mentorship that you would have found helpful prior to starting your PhD?
I think some of those emotional things that happen when you’re a PhD student aren’t really touched on much. Depending on your discipline, it can be much more cutthroat—education was a little less. But I still think it’s good for us to acknowledge that there are people who are experiencing pitfalls. So I think even getting together once a month to talk about how you are doing—talk about depression, mental illnesses, mental health stuff in the PhD population—that sort of stuff might have been helpful to have.
Q: What do you value most about your time in graduate school?
I think that I valued the space to read and think through the connections to what I was reading. And then to have additional theory layered onto that, and then go “Oh! Yes! Oh my god! That connects!” I don’t have that sort of time to meander through foundational philosophies in the same way that I did during grad school because I’m helping to make sure that 350 undergrads make it through their program. I loved going out for drinks with Maija and just being like, “Let’s think about how we can combine these two ideas together.” So, you know, to be very cliché, it was that sort of Life of the Mind stuff.
Q: Did you have any particular experiences that have been valuable to you since you graduated?
I think that I was lucky that Teresa brought us in on her research projects and she rigorously had us publishing with her. She would then take us with her to present at various venues. That was super helpful because it did that soft acclimation of the skills you’re going to need in further academic life. It also gave us a stepping stone towards getting our own publications rolling.
The other thing that I think was helpful in the program was the TAships. They were really helpful in showing me how the classes flowed and what those expectations were. It also, in some cases, reminded me of the way I did not want to teach a class. It helped me visualize what I was going to do moving forward.
Q: What would you say has been your biggest challenge after you graduated?
I think the most challenging thing for me came about year two of being a professor when I no longer had any releases. I think at that time, because I was a more junior faculty, I was doing more teaching and supervision of student teachers. But in addition to that sort of teaching and workload, the service workload was really ramping up. I think that’s really hidden because students are never going to really understand the service obligations of faculty members, like committee work and all of that behind-the-scenes work. That service part is a massive part of my job that nobody really knows, unless you’re an active faculty member.
Q: What advice would you give someone working on their PhD?
I think for women in academia, you need to learn to be very prepared to be assertive and stand your professional ground. Another advice is to really take care of your mental health, because if you’re not mentally able to just keep yourself fed and watered, then doing research and writing is impossible.
Q: If you could go back to before you started and tell yourself something, what would it be?
I would say to enjoy it more. Don’t fight so hard against everything. I was thirty six when I entered and I had been working and I just resisted the whole first two years. I was like, “Why do I have to do this?” But I have to do this. I wish I had enjoyed it more. I wish I enjoyed that transition to being a student more.
Know that it’s going to be just truly exhausting, but that you can do it. And then on the other side of that comes the job search, which is really refining who you are as an academic and what you want to accomplish and what’s important to you. Teaching is really important to me and it’s what I am really good at, and that’s okay. Not every academic has to be a researcher.
Many thanks to Dawn for sharing her PhD narrative!
This interview took place in July 2020. Interviews are edited by the TRaCE McGill Editorial team for length and clarity before publication.