Keiko Shikako-Thomas, Associate Professor

Keiko Shikako-Thomas graduated with a PhD in Rehabilitation Science from the School of Physical and Occupational Therapy in 2012. She is currently an Associate Professor.

Q: What made you interested in doing a PhD in your field?

I did my undergraduate degree in occupational therapy in Brazil, and I worked as an occupational therapist in pediatric neurology there. I came to McGill to do a Master’s, and fast-tracked into the PhD in Rehabilitation Science. I chose McGill first because it’s one of the top universities in the field and it was one of the programs in Canada that has an important, significant research-intensive rehabilitative science program. My research interest is pediatrics and children with disabilities and McGill has several renowned researchers in this field. 

I was initially in the Master’s program and my graduate committee invited me to fast track to the PhD program since my project was a good fit for a PhD, and I had done most of the coursework. It was not part of my career plans to do a PhD—my plan was to be a clinician and to do some research, but not to become a researcher. Now I do clinical research, and work closely with different populations of patients and stakeholder groups, but I don’t do clinical work. 

Q: What was it like coming into graduate school as an international student?

I actually came to Canada as an immigrant skilled worker, as an occupational therapist. I did the equivalence of my OT degree as soon as I arrived and did work as a clinician while I was doing my graduate studies. In terms of learning in a second language, adapting to a new culture,  it was tough. It was the first time in my life taking classes in English. Taking Stats and Research methods classes in English was really intense in terms of language. I took literally every English Second Language course available at McGill: science and academic writing, pronunciation, —anything that I could take, I took. That was really beneficial, but operating on a daily basis and performing academically in a language that is not your mother tongue, for me, is still a big challenge. 

I had fantastic mentors throughout the process, my supervisor and committee members were extremely helpful, as well as other faculty in the department.  I think having the right mentors was absolutely essential for the process. I did the equivalence of my clinician license and passed the French exam early on so I could apply for clinician scientist scholarships and secure a research salary early on. 

For international students coming to a graduate program, it’s an intense process. It’s important to consider the amount of adaptations that students are required to go through:  language, culture, and being away from most support networks—when designing programs that have a large amount of international students at McGill. So we need to be considerate of those struggles.

Q: What would you say were your biggest challenges towards finishing your PhD?

The biggest challenge for me was the participants recruitment portion of my PhD. My project required recruiting human subjects: adolescents with disabilities. It is really complex to get people to participate in research studies. The evaluations for my study were super complex—it required a hospital visit of three to four hours, and I needed to schedule the neurologist, the occupational therapists, and the physical therapists for the evaluations. There was a lot of coordination involved. I spent a lot of time just making phone calls to families, scheduling appointments, and making sure they were there. I had to change my data collection strategy midway through because we weren’t reaching the target sample size. I also had to go to Quebec City for two summers in a row to recruit and evaluate patients there. So I had to move my family to Quebec for two months to make sure that I got the data that I needed. Then of course, writing the thesis. Again, writing a thesis is challenging, but writing in a language that is not your first language is an immense challenge.

I also found it challenging to understand all the other aspects involved in doing research. One must learn how to network, how ethics review boards work, how HR works, how to manage finances, etc. I was very fortunate to be part of some great graduate training programs, such as  the Canadian Child Health Clinician Scientist Program. In these programs I learned about the “research soft skills”, that are not purely academic, but are important. We learned about finance management, grant applications, manuscript writing, hiring, negotiating contracts—and that was beneficial for my career development. I think this should be part of every PhD program’s training because it’s something we all spend too much time on and everybody struggles with it.

Q: Can you talk a bit about your path after your PhD?  

During the last year of my PhD, I started applying for a postdoc. I contacted a potential supervisor that I wanted to work with at McMaster’s University and I started applying for grants as a postdoc as soon as she accepted me. I started my postdoc project right after my PhD. 

I did my postdoc remotely because I didn’t want to move from Montreal because of my family. But I would travel to Hamilton once every two months and spend a week or two there. That was also good because it allowed me to maintain a lot of the research projects that I had ongoing with my PhD supervisor and it really expanded my network. 

I then applied for a tenure-track position that opened at the School of Physical and Occupational Therapy at McGill, before finishing my postdoc. I was accepted under the condition that I would have to finish my postdoc, and I started the position then.

I was tenured in 2020, so I’m now an Associate Professor. It has been a non-stop track, which is exhausting, but on the other hand, I am very fortunate that things worked out to me as they did. I think there’s always an element of luck in career paths, but there’s also being prepared and attentive, maintaining a good network, and being proactive when an opportunity strikes. 

I believe having good mentors throughout my career is still one of the main elements for success in academia—mentors are essential to get you through the necessary steps, to provide guidance through challenging times,  and to show you the way the system works. I always had excellent mentors, like my PhD supervisor who is still a mentor for me. I also had very good peer mentors, like when I was in my PhD, I had a postdoc that I would always check in with. As a faculty, it’s the same thing—we have a system of more senior faculty members mentoring junior faculty members, a mentor for teaching, a mentor for research. That has been really helpful.

Q: Was there any point you considered other options?

Yes, I did. My initial desire was to stay in clinical practice and do some research, then it shifted towards doing research and some clinical work, but now I only do research and teach future clinicians. Up until my postdoc, I was still very determined to keep up with the clinical work but it was hard, especially during the PhD—I quit because my scholarship only allowed 10 percent of my time to be non-academic work. Then I had kids, which is another full time job, so that’s when I had to make some decisions at this point.

My postdoc was on knowledge translation to policy so I also considered applying for positions in the government such as policy analyst. I applied for one position, but at the same time, I applied for a tenure track position at McGill and got it, so it unfolded that way. I think it’s important to consider some options and invest in more than one possibility when considering a career path. 

Q: How do you maintain work life balance with two children?

I don’t think I’ve achieved that work life balance yet!! But now, after getting tenure, I’m trying to establish better boundaries, like not working on weekends. I haven’t been able to make them throughout the process. But I try to prioritize and focus on the things that I must.  I’ve written many papers with my kids on my lap or running around. I’ve brought my kids to conferences, to the research lab, to the university. So this has been my life, and I don’t think it’s bad – academic life is intense, but it’s also flexible. I’ve been to every field trip and every daycare activity because at two in the afternoon, none of the other parents with regular jobs could attend,  but I could most of the time—and just had to juggle working extra hours after putting kids to bed. It’s not impossible in terms of balancing work with family, but it’s challenging. You have to set your boundaries and be organized. This is still a work in progress for me: saying “no” is an important exercise. Eat well, exercise, and don’t let work consume every minute of your life. Don’t procrastinate too much if you can, and be fully present in each activity: whether it is work or the kids. These are basic things, but they are hard to apply. It’s an ongoing learning process.

Q: Lastly, are there any other remarks that you want to share?

Enjoy the journey and find what drives you. I’ve always been fortunate to do the research that I was really interested in and have good mentors. That’s the key—to find people that have your best interests at heart and are willing to support you. 

Many thanks to Keiko for sharing her PhD narrative! You can find her working on: Childhood Disability Link, Child Bright Network, and Jooay.

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