Jeremy Macdonald completed his PhD in mathematics in 2012, focusing on the algorithmic theory of groups. He is a faculty lecturer in the department of mathematics and statistics at McGill.
Q: What was the moment when you decided to do a PhD?
It’s the same thing, kind of, as going to university. You finish high school, going to university is the next sort of natural step, going from a Bachelor’s to a Master’s was the next natural step, and it kind of flowed from there. There was never one of these big moments, like, “Oh, I’m definitely going to do PhD.” More like, “Well, the next step is PhD, I’m still having fun, so let’s go ahead and do this.”
Q: Did graduate school meet your expectations of what it would be like?
There are shifts as you go through, but it was always fairly gradual. Undergraduate, you’re studying and have classes, then you get a bit of research, maybe some teaching during your Master’s, and then the balance continues to change into your PhD.
Q: And why did you choose McGill for your PhD?
Mostly because of the research topics that some people were working on. I hadn’t done any work in that area yet, but I had an idea of what it was about, and it looked interesting to me.
Q: How did you find out about those topics, or those professors?
My Master’s supervisor sat me down one day and we talked about where I might want to study, and he directed me to the groups and people that he thought I might find interesting.
Q: I know it varies from field to field, but did you come in with a topic? Was your work limited by your supervisor’s equipment or project?
In math, we’re not limited by equipment. We’re often sort of guided by what your supervisor is working on at the time. So, for example, my thesis is mostly two papers. One of them is quite closely connected to what my supervisor was working on; she needed some of the results in that paper to work on some of the stuff that she was doing. The other one is less connected. Figuring out a question that you can get going on fairly quickly and get a result is difficult in mathematics, so the supervisor is important. Though sometimes the supervisor will give you a problem, expecting it to take a few months, and then two years later you solve it. [laughs]
Q: Was that a recurring challenge? Meeting your supervisor’s expectations?
Not so much in terms of pressure—I think it’s just the nature of mathematics research, especially when you have less experience. You don’t know as well how it is supposed to go, or how fast you can do it.
Q: When you came into your PhD, did you have an idea of what you would do afterwards?
I was already thinking about academia, aiming for that trajectory rather than going into industry.
Q: What drew you to staying in academia, or maybe, what drew you away from industry?
One of the biggest advantages of academia is the colleagues that you have. Especially when you’ve been around people in math through grad school, undergraduate even, it becomes very fun to be around them. You have this commonality with them; you understand them, and being around them and their work, in the academic environment, is interesting and fun.
Q: So what was the end of your PhD like, when you were trying to figure out how to stay in academia?
The job market wasn’t great. My first position was a postdoc, where my supervisor knew someone who had a postdoc position available. Then, I got a position in the United States for a couple years through a connection with a former McGill prof who had moved there and was forming a research group. Then, I applied to some positions, went through the interview processes and so on, but it was still fairly difficult. Not a lot of choice, not a lot of freedom where I was going.
Q: And then, you were at Concordia for a bit, and now at McGill?
Yes, I was at Concordia for three years, with a one-year position that renewed a couple times, and now, since 2018, I’ve been at McGill, as a faculty lecturer. It’s a teaching position, not a research position. The main difference is that my position at McGill is a bit more senior, and a bit more permanent, so I’m more involved with administration duties, committees, that sort of thing.
Q: Were you teaching in your postdoc as well?
I first started teaching in my PhD, and then taught two courses during my postdoc. I was in the teaching stream fairly early, and I realized that I enjoyed it and I was good at it, so after my time in the United States, I applied to the teaching position at Concordia.
Q: The PhD is challenging in different ways for different people. What was the biggest challenge for you in your PhD?
In a math PhD, the biggest problem is you have a bunch of very, very abstract material that you have to absorb. You have to read a lot of different literature to make sense of things, but the field is so vast that you can get sidetracked and go off in different directions. Your supervisor has a broad picture of how it’s going to look, but you have to fill in all the details. That’s definitely the hardest part.
One of the things you have to learn is that you can’t skim too much. You really have to absorb things in mathematics. So sometimes, you have to just read the whole article in detail, even though it isn’t entirely relevant. That deep reading and understanding really makes a difference.
Q: Is there anything that you know now that you wish you knew coming into your PhD?
Maybe more about the job market, post-graduation. It changes fairly quickly; I hear stories from older faculty members about graduating and getting five tenure track offers, and now, people are going from postdoc to postdoc, a different place every year. Knowing more about what to expect for post-graduation would have been helpful.
Q: If somebody came to you and was wondering, should I do a PhD in mathematics, what kind of advice would you give them?
Other than about the job market, just that the research aspect of it is very challenging. And in math, it’s entirely on you; you have to be independent, especially once you graduate and have to come up with your own ideas for research in positions like postdocs.
Many thanks to Jeremy for sharing his narrative!
This interview took place in May 2020. Interviews are edited by the TRaCE McGill Editorial team for length and clarity before publication.