Heather McShane, Program Director for the McGill Sustainability Systems Initiative

Heather McShane graduated with a PhD from the Department of Natural Resources Sciences in the Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences in 2013. She is currently the Program Director for the McGill Sustainability Systems Initiative.

Q: What made you interested in doing a PhD?

So thirty years ago, I studied for a Bachelor’s degree in plant science and then a Master’s degree in soil chemistry. Afterwards, I worked on a plant fertilizer trial with the United Nations but, for personal reasons, then moved into information technology, where I soon became a project manager on large projects. It wasn’t long before I realized I needed to do something that meant more to me and that I thought would benefit the world but it took me 18 years to finally make the break. Eventually, I gave up my job at a large Montreal I.T. company but finding work in the environmental sector with such out-of-date knowledge and experience was challenging. After a year of intensive volunteering and networking, I ended up at the Faculty of Agriculture talking to somebody in Natural Resource Sciences who had a funded opportunity for a PhD student to study the effects of engineered nanoparticles on soils. It was as if the stars had aligned to provide this opportunity and I finally arrived at a place I had been searching for, for the last 20 years.

Q: Was the transition back into academia difficult after working for 20 years?

It was an enormous challenge for me—I previously worked in a very fast-paced, active, solutions-oriented environment and it took me three years to really understand the difference between business and research. When I first started, I gave my supervisors charts of what I planned to do for the first year—this is something we do in project management—and they told me research doesn’t quite work like that, that we are always finding new challenges and having to rethink our expectations and plans. As a project manager, I was always running around, putting out fires, solving problems, and making decisions; just sitting down and spending a long period of time studying and thinking is a very different skill which took me a long time to develop.

The other thing that was quite eye-opening for me to realize was how much I didn’t know. As I progressed through my PhD, the more I learned, the more I realized I didn’t know. Having to think about things in a much deeper way and challenge my assumptions were things I really enjoyed, but it was definitely a challenge.

Q: What kind of support did you have during your PhD?

One really amazing thing to me was that the PhD came with at least one year of funding from the National Science and Engineering Research Council (NSERC). After that ran out, I successfully applied for a Fonds de Recherche de Quebec grant that covered me until the end of my studies. The structure of the NSERC research project I was attached to was exciting because it required cross-disciplinary supervision, so I had three supervisors from three different fields. I also got teaching assistantships, a Dean’s Excellence Fund grant and some Faculty travel grants to attend conferences. The internal grants really helped me and made me realize how important it is to donate because even small amounts are immensely helpful for students.

I made great use of the Mac campus Careers Advice Centre and the downtown CaPS center. The staff in both centres helped me focus on the steps I needed to take for my career. This was quite challenging for me because I am well out of the normal age range for PhD students (and the parent of another McGill student!) and felt like I was in quite a different space compared to my PhD candidate peers.

The support I received from my cohort at Mac was immensely important, as was the support I received from my family and friends. Nobody questioned why somebody in her mid-40’s would go back and do a PhD—they were all incredibly positive. In fact, people would often tell me how brave they thought I was. That made a huge difference because if people had questioned me, maybe I would have questioned myself.

Q: Could you tell us about the mentors that were important to you?

All my supervisors were very supportive of me, particularly at the beginning when I felt quite lost. I also had great mentorship and support from people who worked in the lab. The teams I worked with in the National Research Council and Environment Canada where I did some of my fieldwork were also immensely supportive and taught me much about being a professional scientist. Mentorship was particularly important because I was coming from an environment far away from academia and I didn’t even really know where to begin with being a student, let alone what my career could look like after my studies were complete. Ideally, I would have liked more industrial mentorship, but the nanotechnology field that I was in was new at that time so industrial contacts were limited.

Q: Did you have any activities that benefitted you during your PhD?

As well as being a full-time student and a mother, I also took in international students. Homestay is a great way to meet young people and fortunately I love cooking so I spent a lot of time preparing meals and eating together as well as introducing my students to Montreal. I also danced my way through my PhD! I have been studying Argentine tango and Latin dance for many years and getting moving on the dance floor is a great way to forget your PhD studies for a short while.

Q: Were there other experiences that you wished you had?

Because the field of environmental nanotoxicology was quite new, I didn’t have a large peer group, particularly in Quebec. If I started over, I would have made more of an effort to reach out to other people in my field in Quebec and across Canada, and make those research connections that will stay with us for the rest of our lives.

Q: What kind of challenges did you face during your PhD?

Studying and being a single parent—that was very challenging. Nobody else is there to take charge. Your number one priority is not the PhD—it’s your children. So the PhD has to come second, but it’s a very close second. It was hard because I couldn’t drop my family and focus wholly on my PhD. I also had a social life that I wasn’t prepared to drop. It’s a different experience going back as an older person because when you’re younger, you can really focus on your studies. But as somebody with a family and responsibilities, you can’t do that—it’s a different experience. On the positive side, having a family and a life outside the student world keeps you grounded and helps you put your challenges into perspective.

Q: What helped you to overcome these challenges?

Support from my community and cohort helped tremendously. Advice from my supervisors, as well as their patience in answering my endless questions, was also really helpful. I also read up about time management, focus, and all the skills we needed to develop as PhD students—even how to write. I think accepting that I actually knew very little and that doing a PhD was really difficult thing was also helpful.

Q: Could you explain briefly what you do now and how you ended up in your current position?

I am now the Program Director of the McGill Sustainability Systems Initiative (MSSI). McGill has many strong researchers in sustainability-related areas but they don’t always know each other or have opportunities to connect. The MSSI builds these networks and provides funds to develop innovative research projects that will help move humanity toward sustainability.

Similar to being offered the PhD position, I came to my current job by connecting with people and networking. I wanted to give back to McGill, the scientific community, and the community at large and looked for something that would unite my twenty years of project management experiences with my newly developed scientific expertise. I was again fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time because the Dean of Science was looking for someone to spearhead the development of the new MSSI project, a position that required both these skills.

I think that any change in career brings humility, self-reflection, and respect for others and their knowledge. It also makes you immensely flexible and adaptable. One of the skills I had to develop in my previous career was communication—bringing different groups of people together, listening to them and finding points of commonality. I find that in my current position, I use this skill, as well as my newly honed analytical skills, on a regular basis. In fact, I think it would be fair to say that all the skills I’ve learned in my careers up until now have finally come together to help in what I’m doing now.

Q: If you can go back to your very first day of your PhD, what would you tell yourself?

First, be disciplined, create a schedule, keep to that schedule, and give yourself some guilt-free time off by getting up early in the morning and working hard. The other thing I would say is build a professional community. The community of researchers that you’re with is as important as the research that you’re doing. Lastly, right at the beginning of the PhD, work night and day to understand your research. Immerse yourself into the subject so that when you come to do your fieldwork or your research, you know what else is out there and you really understand what you’re doing in the context of what everybody else is doing.

Many thanks to Heather for sharing her PhD narrative!

This interview took place in April 2020. Interviews are edited by the TRaCE McGill Editorial team for length and clarity before publication.