Eliza Bateman received her PhD from the Faculty of Law in 2019. In her dissertation, she explored religious and sexual identity conflict through a legal theory lens. Today, she is the Senior Research Analyst at the University of Ottawa Refugee Hub.
Q: My first question is, what are you doing now and how did you end up there after your PhD?
I’m currently working as the senior research analyst at the University of Ottawa Refugee Hub. We are a small research, policy, and programming organization that operates out of the University of Ottawa; we do a lot of excellent interdisciplinary, knowledge translation work.
A lot of my work is academically linked—I do some writing, I lead a team of students and researchers—but we also do a lot of international and national advocacy work around improving refugee protection and looking at creative avenues for refugee resettlement and third country solutions for refugees. Part of that advocacy work might be working on large scale policy projects and writing reports or might be liaising with stakeholders internationally. A lot of my job requires tying those two pieces together—producing and supporting high impact policy work and producing high impact academic work, and trying to get these two areas to speak to each other in a meaningful way.
Q: That sounds fantastic to be working on both sides, doing both research work and policy work.
I feel very, very lucky, because I think it’s exactly where I wanted to be. I didn’t apply for purely academic jobs, and that’s because I didn’t want to be a traditional academic. I knew that when I started the PhD, so I’m a bit of a different PhD candidate. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy the academic aspect. I loved it. But I wanted something that was more active in terms of the social justice impact of my work.
Q: When you were at McGill, were you part of any research institutes or was this something you found after?
This is where things come full circle, because I actually worked as a student researcher and then grad fellow for IPLAI (Institute for the Public Life of Art and Ideas), which was directed by Paul Yachnin, who is the director of the TRaCE McGill project. It was a really fantastic opportunity to see a big project start up, see how it was run, and see the value of the skills that you get from doing the doctorate, how that can translate these into real world experience. I was given that opportunity to work directly on those projects, and that was so rewarding. I also worked with the McGill Centre for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism as a research associate throughout my LLM and the first couple of years of my PhD.
I’m pretty sure that my experience working for IPLAI and the Law Faculty at McGill in no small way helped make me a good candidate for my current job, because a lot of what we do is writing grant applications, design projects and get quality projects up and running. Working with institutes at McGill (particularly IPLAI) was really important to me, not just in terms of skills, but also for networking and meeting really cool people also doing interesting research. It stopped my doctorate from being just about my project (which would have made me incredibly myopic, I think) and made my project and work part of other people’s projects, which I thought was an incredibly valuable experience.
Q: Did you receive any financial support during your PhD either from these institutes you worked with or within or outside of McGill?
There are a couple of big fellowships offered to PhD candidates which I wasn’t eligible for because I was an international student until the end of my PhD. So, I hustled all the way through my doctorate because, as an international student, things are just more complicated and more expensive. At the same time—while I know extra-curricular work is a huge problem for a lot of students and it definitely made for longer days—it did mean that I worked for a couple of excellent professors, which also gave me great opportunities, I worked for my supervisor editing a book, I took on editing contracts from other profs, I worked for Paul at IPLAI, and I worked as the Senior Liaison Officer for the TRaCE project.
Towards the end of my PhD, I got an award from IPLAI for finishing PhD candidates which made a huge difference. It was about seven thousand dollars for the last year of my doctorate. I think that without that my life would likely have been really very tricky.
Q: What was your relationship like with your supervisor?
My supervisor was Shauna Van Praagh. She is an exceptional supervisor. She is a member of the academy who really takes seriously her obligations to her students and, whether you knew her or not going in, if you were assigned to her as a student, she worked so hard for you in terms of getting you extra funding or extra work, linking you up with academic opportunities, and in terms of supporting you through the drafting and research process. It was fantastic.
We had a very adult relationship, which is something that—if I’m ever in the position of supervising someone—I’m going to use as a model. She would say “You’re an adult. You write the way you want to write, but if you don’t give me material, I can’t help you. If you give me material, I commit to you that I will turn it around quickly and thoughtfully.” And she did exactly that. I think that was wonderful to me because it made me feel that I was being listened to. She was often very critical and sometimes the feedback wasn’t good (she pushed me when I needed to be pushed!), but her feedback was always thoughtful and on point. I knew that if I took three months to get her a chapter or a piece of writing, that was fine. There was no one breathing down my neck every week wanting to know where my work was. Her attitude was “It’s what you put into it. If you give me four thousand words, I will take it very seriously and respond to you within the week” and she always did. In addition, she is a wonderful person, with a great sense of humour, who always took me out for a coffee when she wanted to meet up and discuss my work. Which was a lovely, courteous move, and also made me feel more like a junior colleague, and less like a student.
Q: Did you have any experiences in publishing in your PhD or was that something you took on after?
I know a couple of my very dear friends—who are now junior profs—who did a lot of publishing during the PhD. I didn’t, partly because I was rushing to finish and partly because I was hustling all the time and, honestly, partly due to a lack of confidence. If I look back at what I should have done, I should have published my Master’s thesis. I’m not saying it was great, but it was fine, and it was saying something interesting. I should have published it, but I justified it by saying I’m busy, I’m on all these committees, doing all this work, I simply don’t have time—which was partly true, but I think I was still feeling uncertain of myself as an academic writer. Because this wasn’t my first career (I used to be a human rights lawyer, more focused on the ‘doing’ and less on the ‘reflecting’), I felt like I wasn’t ready to be sending my work out into the world and that was a mistake.
Q: Did you have any challenges after graduating because you weren’t really in an academic field anymore?
Honestly, not being a citizen in the country you move to makes it difficult to break through barriers to get your CV on the right table or to be selected for interviews. I think people stopped reading my CV after they got past my McGill experience—which meant that my ten years of employment as a lawyer in Australia didn’t mean much to anybody and that was very demoralizing, and led to a lot of soul-searching.
Also, I wanted to move into policy and social justice and human rights while having a graduate school degree—I wanted to bring those two skill sets and interests together. It’s not a traditional route, and it’s difficult to find places who value it, so I was very lucky that the Refugee Hub thought my skills and experience were a good fit for my role. Without them picking me up, I don’t know what my employment search would have looked like. There don’t seem to be enough opportunities out there that bridge those three things: practice, policy, and academia. There should be more.
Q: Is there anything you learned after the PhD that you wish you’d learned during the PhD?
Going through the trial by fire that is the open McGill defense—even though everyone says it’s a rubber stamp—is still pretty harrowing. I remember at the end of it I felt like I could do anything. I thought: if I can stand up in front of those people and defend my position, all this work that I have thought through- then I can absolutely send things out for publication. I can put myself out there. I don’t know whether what I wish I had was the confidence in myself or the confidence to be wrong or to be told no, but I wish I had that confidence.
The PhD was one of the best things I have done in my life. The people I met, the networks I made, the ability to write my dissertation. It was an amazing experience. I wouldn’t change it for anything. Massively inconvenient to do mid-career [laughing] but I wouldn’t change the experience for the world. To be paid to think for three years is one of the most transformative things that’s ever happened to me.
Many thanks to Eliza for sharing her PhD narrative! You can find out more about her on LinkedIn, and read a piece she wrote about the PhD and social justice work here. You can learn more about the University of Ottawa Refugee Hub here.
This interview took place in July 2020. Interviews are edited by the TRaCE McGill Editorial team for length and clarity before publication.