Dorothy Maguire completed her PhD in Natural Resource Sciences in 2015, focusing on the effects of plant feeding insects on forest ecosystem services. She is currently an environmental scientist in the Office of Environmental Sustainability with the Environmental Protection Agency in Ireland. In this role she compiles national statistics on waste and emissions that help inform the country’s transition to a more sustainable circular economy.
Q: My first question is what made you interested in a PhD in natural resource sciences at McGill?
I finished my Master’s in forestry and forest conservation, and I loved the experience I got in research. I knew there was more to explore in that area, and I saw many interesting research gaps. I wanted to contribute to the body of knowledge, and push the science forward in that area.
So my supervisor at the University of Toronto, Professor Sandy Smith, recommended I speak to some of her colleagues at McGill, which led me to my PhD supervisor, Dr Chris Buddle. I was fortunate that when I started, I had the choice between two avenues of research, one which would take me away from forests, and into the arctic, and the other being a collaborative project with Dr Elena Bennett on ecosystem services in forests, which I jumped on.
Q: Were you able to get the financial support for your projects?
My supervisors were great with making the funding the work for the first year and then helping to find other grants within the university, while I was applying for external funding at the same time. It wasn’t all laid out when I started, but we pieced it together as I went along. It’s a bit of a risk when I think about it now, but I think if you really want to pursue something you’ll find a way to make it work.
Q: What about other supports during the PhD?
The most important support was definitely my supervisors, who were amazing throughout the whole process. I was also lucky to have friends in academia that were several years ahead of me, starting professorships and postdocs, that were core supports as well, and could provide advice, insight, etc.
Towards the end of my degree, I sought career support from the university since I knew I didn’t necessarily want to stay in academia. I met with career advisors at the McGill Career Centre, and they didn’t quite seem to know what to do with me; I think they were used to dealing with graduates from professional degree programs with clearer career trajectories. I found I had to look outside of the university network to find what kind of paths were available to me after the PhD. If you’re looking for unconventional ways forward in your career, you have to work a little harder I think.
Q: Were there opportunities for you to mentor other people during your PhD?
Yes, and in hindsight, I didn’t realize how special it was at the time. During my fieldwork over two summers, I supervised several students, and even published a paper with one of them. Supervising is hugely valuable, and you might not get that experience again for several years down the line, depending on what you do next in your career.
Q: What about your experiences outside of the PhD?
For my first year, I was also a varsity athlete on the track and field team. It was an invaluable experience—training very hard, working with your team to represent your school. I stayed with the running community at McGill throughout my PhD, and made some valuable friendships.
Q: How did you balance your time as an athlete and a PhD?
It was really tough, and that’s why I didn’t continue on the following year, because I wasn’t doing a very good job of balancing my time. In part, it was a lot of commuting among MacDonald, downtown, and home, though thankfully my supervisor was open to me working remotely several days a week. I wouldn’t have been able to do both without that.
Q: Speaking of challenges, what were the biggest challenges of your PhD?
I’ll be completely honest, because hopefully that can help other people in the same situation. I went straight into a postdoc, because through my network there was a position that was available. I got to go to France and live in France and it was this amazing experience. I don’t regret it at all, but it was delaying the inevitable, which was, “OK, what am I going to do in terms of a long-term career?” By the end of the postdoc, I had decided academia is not for me, I don’t see myself as a government scientist, I don’t see myself doing that kind of work.
And after that position, I applied for jobs outside of my field and just took a shot and I learned brutal lessons. I really struggled to find work—I think it was around nine months of job searching. In the meantime, I was teaching some classes at the University of Toronto, I was taking data science courses, I was trying to make the most of my time. But I went through interview after interview in industry where I was told that I was either overqualified: they would see the PhD and they’d go, “I don’t want to have to train them, they have a PhD, they’re going to be difficult.” There’s definitely a stigma in industry.
There was also the challenge of trying to make myself fit into different types of jobs that weren’t necessarily what I was trained to do. So I did take extra school. I did night classes in data science. It wasn’t that I didn’t know the material, but it was the signal on my resume that I had solid knowledge in that area. The biggest challenge of my PhD was really the transition into a nonacademic job.
For the PhD itself? It’s funny, at the time, I probably could have told you all sorts of problems, but in hindsight, nothing stands out…Oh! Other than in my final year, when there was no funding left. This happens to many students, I think, but the last year was financially super stressful.
Q: How did you overcome that?
We found some extra short term money, I got a bit of money through TAing, and I took out loans. And during the last six months, I moved back home to Toronto so that I didn’t have to pay rent. My parents basically supported me while I worked as hard as I could during the last six months, just to finish. But in the end I got it all done in 4 years, so was pleased with that.
Q: Let’s shift to talking about your current position. What do you do now? How did you end up there?
I am an environmental scientist with the Environmental Protection Agency in Ireland.
I work in the Office of Environmental Sustainability. My specific role revolves around the national statistics that inform how Ireland will achieve its circular economy goals. The EU has legislation to direct member states on what kinds of data we need to gain insight into how we can rely on fewer unsustainable resources and how we can sort of tighten up our economies so that we’re wasting less. My team gathers, analyzes, and compiles statistical data on waste and carbon emissions for our reporting obligations and for policymakers.
Q: It’s interesting to me that you ended up in Ireland! How did you get there?
The reasons are more personal than professional; after living in France, I knew I wanted to come back to Europe in some way. I was applying to jobs all over Europe. When the job came up it was such a perfect fit. I’m a dual Irish citizen, with lots of family here so that also made things easier.
Q: What are the connections between your current work and your PhD?
The quantitative side of my PhD—the statistics and modelling—definitely apply, and my postdoc’s focus on modelling was key as well. And before this position, I worked for a private company that did carbon offsets, so that showed that I could apply my statistical knowledge in an industry position as well. I don’t think I would have gotten my current job without all of those things, those broad experiences.
Q: One final question: if you could go back and give yourself advice at the start of the PhD, what would it be?
One of the great things about McGill was all the people doing amazing work, so if you find a project, get involved. For me, I learned a lot being part of these projects, especially ones linking different universities and disciplines. It seems like extra, but that’s what you end up taking with you, I think, in your career.
And in fact, it kind of doesn’t end. I feel like I’m still not done in terms of things like, have I found my dream job? Nope. In fact, I’m starting an MBA next year. [laughs] It’s a journey. You just keep finding things that interest you.
Many thanks to Dorothy for sharing her narrative! You can find her on LinkedIn.
This interview took place in May 2020. Interviews are edited by the TRaCE McGill Editorial team for length and clarity before publication.