Heather Newell, Linguistics Professor

Heather Newell graduated with a PhD from the Department of Linguistics in 2008. She is currently a Linguistics Professor at Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM).

Q: Why did you do a PhD in the first place?

I did my undergraduate degree at Queen’s University in Kingston. Then I came to McGill to do a Master’s but I hadn’t really decided if I was going to do my PhD. When I got here we all realized that there were out-of-province fees for Master’s students but not for PhD students. So I switched into the PhD program, just because it’s cheaper. Then if I had decided to stop, they would have given me my Master’s. So that’s why I got into the PhD program. I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to stop with a Master’s. I just wasn’t done with school. I didn’t want to do anything else.

Q: Did you have a supportive supervisor?

So I went to McGill to work with one professor. The way it works in the linguistics department is that generally you do a couple of years of coursework, then you do a year of evaluation papers, that you present at conferences and try to get published, and then you write your thesis. Right at the point where I finished my coursework and was about to start my research, the person who was going to be my supervisor left the university. That meant that I had to have a different supervisor and I had to take a couple more courses. It didn’t faze me because there are other good people in the department and I just kept going. I ended up drastically changing what I was going to work on and my thesis had a completely different focus. My supervisor, Glyne Piggott, was absolutely amazing. He was supportive and encouraging and we ended up working together on many projects. I still keep in touch with him and everybody else there—the professors in the department are all great and they were always around.

Q: Did you feel like you were part of a community during your PhD?

Yeah, absolutely. The first year students in the grad programs were always put in the same office. Even though you didn’t do exactly the same thing, you would be all put together. Then the second, third, and fourth years would be put in offices with people who were doing the same things as you so you would have people to actually talk to about your research.

Q: Looking back, what were the biggest challenges for you?

I didn’t find the PhD challenging. Things become challenging after getting a job and trying to organize all the administrative work and supervision of lots of different students. That’s the kind of thing that I find challenging—time, organization, and paperwork. The PhD did not have a lot of that. I had all the time I needed to focus on my research and I also taught English as a Second Language at UQAM while I was doing my PhD, and taught linguistics courses at Concordia and McGill. I usually taught at least two courses a term and had TAships in the linguistics department. I also had a kid. Even given all that, I look back on my PhD as a relatively stress free time.

Q: What were the most valuable experiences of your PhD?

The background, skill set, and level of the professors that I had were valuable. They all were incredibly talented teachers and researchers. I came from a background where this is the first PhD in my family—I didn’t have academics around me before—but it was easy to learn from the professors and it was modeled for us how to be successful. I do wish that they had put a little more emphasis on publishing, but usually the students who get into McGill are very good students. I really enjoyed the department; the people and classes were great, and the level of research they were doing was exceptional. In my cohort, a large number of us have jobs in academia.

Q: How did you end up with your current job?

Two months before I defended my thesis, I got a job at UQAM—a tenure-track teaching position. So no research. So I had a full time job from when I finished my PhD, in academia, but it didn’t leave time for research. But my supervisors continued to include me on grant applications, and we had a big project where we organized multiple conferences and we published a book. It really helped me keep working on my research because I think if I hadn’t had other people around, then I would have just been exhausted by work and probably would not have kept going. Then, five years later, the job that I have now opened up. I would not have been competitive for that job had I not had the community around me who kept me doing research.

Heather describes how her previous mentors kept her in the research community.

Q: What advice would you give to someone in their PhD now?

Make connections and try to figure out what is going on in the domain that you’re studying that is not happening at McGill or in your department because in the softer sciences, there’s a lot of disagreement out there. That’s what I find incredibly interesting now. The progression that I have made in my research and my teaching is due to expanding my knowledge base.

Also make sure you go somewhere where people will pay you so you can actually spend time on the things that are important for your PhD. If I had had more money, I wouldn’t have taught but I probably wouldn’t have my job now. So it’s not terrible to have to work for the purposes of a PhD. But you also need time. If you don’t have time and you do not have space, then you cannot progress.

Q: Finally, is there anything that you want to add?

What is important for people to keep in mind is that doing a PhD is not a thing that you should be doing to get a job. You’re normally still young and there are lots of things that you can do afterwards. But this whole idea of academic success and competition takes away from the fact that you are there to learn. Once you’ve learned, then you can progress with your research and continue on in the field and make discoveries, but I feel like the entire university complex these days is very job-oriented. I know it’s important to get a job, but I think there needs to be more focus on people just being educated for education’s sake.

Many thanks to Heather for sharing her PhD narrative! You can find her at heathernewell.ca. Heather is also the Head Editor of the Canadian Journal of Linguistics. She recently published an encyclopedia article on Bracketing paradoxes, a subject she has worked on since 2005. Lastly, she is currently part of a project on wordhood in Inuktitut, whose PI, Richard Compton, is also a professor at UQAM, and was a post-doc in the linguistics department at McGill.

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