Jennifer Hutcheon graduated with a PhD in Epidemiology and Biostatistics in 2009. She is currently an Associate Professor at the University of British Columbia.
Q: What made you interested in doing a PhD in epidemiology?
I’ve always been interested in research, and I think doing a PhD was appealing to me because I liked the idea of being able to develop hypotheses and lead studies myself.
I worked as a summer student at the B.C. Cancer Agency, which was mostly lab-based research. That experience made me realize that I did not want to go on in lab research. But I had wonderful research mentors there, and the organization as a whole had epidemiologists and scientists doing research in a number of different fields. So I think that exposure was very helpful in terms of seeing the scope of opportunities within health research.
Q: What kind of support did you receive during your PhD program?
My PhD supervisor was my biggest support. He gave me room to learn independently, but had an open door policy for answering questions or helping with problems. I learned so much from our many scientific conversations and debates. The department at McGill as a whole was also very supportive. The faculty members really took an interest in the students, supported the students, and were generous with their time.
I think there certainly is an element of luck in terms of finding a good supervisor because you just don’t really know if you’re going to be able to work closely with someone for five years until you’ve actually worked closely with them for five years. However, there are some things you can do. Before starting my PhD, I made a point of talking to my supervisor’s current students to hear their experiences and get a sense of what the supervisor’s style of supervision was.
Q: What would you say were your biggest challenges?
There are inevitable setbacks in doing a PhD. For example, when I obtained access to the study data that I’d originally planned to use for my research, it turned out that the sample size was too small to do what I’d hoped. So I had to come up with a different idea. What you think is a great idea in the planning stages doesn’t always turn out to be a great idea when you actually try to do it. But it’s part of the process of learning. Then you find another way, maybe a related question that’s looking at the issue a little bit differently, and you move forward with that.
Q: What experiences did you particularly value during your PhD?
Looking back on my PhD, what I really appreciate was that I learned what good mentorship looks like, not only from my supervisor, but also from other departmental members who really took the time with their students, valued their questions, and valued engaging students in research. I felt like the amazing mentorship role models I had during my PhD experience have made me a much better mentor and supervisor, and made me want to take on an academic position.
Q: What is your current position now?
I’m an Associate Professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at the University of British Columbia.
Q: What was your path like getting to this position?
For me, the transition was fairly smooth. Through the professional networks of my mentors at McGill, I was able to find an excellent postdoc supervisor, who, in turn, helped me to navigate and secure an academic position within the department.
Q: When did you realize that you wanted to go into academia?
I never thought I wanted an academic position. I thought it was too stressful of a job, with too much uncertainty in terms of struggling to secure grant funding and publishing your work. I put a high value on my work life balance, and I always thought that a position in an applied public health institution would be the right balance for me in terms of having some independence as an investigator, but not needing to continually apply for grants to be able to do research.
But as I got further into my PhD, I realized that I was more and more interested in methodological research and methods. That’s something that I think is much harder to pursue if you’re in a government or public health agency compared to an academic setting. So I wound up continuing in academia after I finished my PhD.
Q: Is there a connection with the work you did during your PhD and the work you are doing now?
I did my PhD on the detection of fetal growth restriction and that’s an area that I’m still working in. However, I’ve also expanded my research to work in new areas. My faculty appointment is in a clinical department, and I’m collaborating more with clinical colleagues so I’m putting more of an emphasis on knowledge translation and identifying the practical questions that people in my department want answered in order to help their clinical care. In many ways, this strengthened my research because I’m able to hear from them what the important gaps in clinical knowledge are.
Q: Many students experience disinterest and sometimes burnout with their research, especially near the end of their PhD. What is your advice on managing that?
Talking to more senior students early in the program about what to expect later on was very helpful. By the time you get to the end of your PhD, you’re likely going to be so sick of your research that you don’t even want to open the thesis word document. But it’s helpful to have heard beforehand that it is normal, and that you aren’t the only one to feel disengaged with your work. The best advice I had was to try to split up my day so that I had other projects that I was still interested in, but that part of my day was still dedicated to finishing my PhD. Otherwise, it’s too easy to set it aside and not move forward on it. Find other things that keep you excited and engaged in research, but make sure that you have a plan to finish your PhD so it doesn’t fall by the wayside.
The other advice is to try to publish your work and write your thesis chapters as you go along in your PhD. That way, by the time you get to the end of your PhD, it’s just maybe one final article that you have to struggle to remain engaged to write up, as opposed to doing all the research and then trying to write up the whole thesis at the end.
Q: How did you manage a work-life balance during your PhD?
I think learning to say no is a big thing. There are so many things that you can do and you want to do, but you just have to be realistic about how much you can do. I feel like that’s something that I’ve gotten more experienced in my career, I’ve gotten better at saying no—and realizing that once you say no, people are usually fine with it and you can focus on the things that you need to prioritize. If you have time after that, you can take on other things.
Q: If you could go back to before you started your PhD and tell yourself something, what would that be?
To take advantage of the fact that it’s part of the faculty members’ jobs to teach you about their areas of expertise. You will never be in the situation again where you have all these really smart people whose job it is to help you learn and help you understand things. Now, whenever I’m struggling to learn a new method on my own, I think of how great it would be to be a student again and to have access to experts in every field that you can turn to.
Many thanks to Jennifer for sharing her PhD narrative! You can find her at: https://www.bcchr.ca/jhutcheon.
This interview took place in July 2020. Interviews are edited by the TRaCE McGill Editorial team for length and clarity before publication.