Laura Gougeon, Healthy Communities Scientist

Laura Gougeon graduated in 2014 from the Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences in Human Nutrition, where she studied dietary factors associated with depression risk among community-dwelling older adults. She is currently a Healthy Communities Scientist at Alberta Health Services.

Q: What made you interested in starting a PhD at McGill?

The reputation of the university. I came to Canada from Brazil. I did my Bachelor’s there and then I was accepted into the nutrition program in the University of Saskatchewan. But I did a PhD because I wanted the challenge. I really wanted to be a professor and teach at the university level. My father-in-law was from Quebec, so I’ve always heard about Quebec. And of course, McGill is a fabulous university. All of these reasons drove me to try it out.

Q: What do you do now and how did you end up in your current position?

This is one of the twists that I love in my career. After my PhD, I was a professor in the nutrition department at St. Francis Xavier University, in Nova Scotia. I did get an opportunity to do a postdoc with an amazing researcher in nutrition in Waterloo but between a tenure-track job and the postdoc, I went for the job. It’s what I worked my life for. I worked as a professor for four years. StFX is a small university, and my department didn’t have grad studies. As much as I loved teaching and doing research in a rural community—a much-needed focus in our Canadian research landscape—I pretty much had to do everything myself with little support. I had to teach, write my papers and grants, carry out the research, etc… all on top of spending time with family. After my second child was born, I felt my life revolved around work and was not really enjoying my family and friends, and soon my health started to deteriorate. That was when I decided to look for other opportunities but knew that academic openings in my field would be rare. After working hard to get into academia, I found the decision to leave was a tough one, but, looking back, I think it was the best decision I ever made. In fact, I never, ever thought I could find a job like my current one.

I am a “Healthy Communities Scientist” working within the provincial health system to test applied health promotion and disease prevention initiatives in rural communities. It requires a PhD, but I was able to highlight many transferable skills. Even though I had a nutrition background, my research has always been applied and based in the community, it was a perfect fit. What I’m doing now is implementation science, which is research to change practice in policy, communities, and programs. It’s amazing—I don’t have to worry about chasing after money, I can still publish, and I have amazing conversations with brilliant people. I never thought I’d be happy outside of academia but I actually am. I have a good work-life balance; when I come home, I have nothing to worry about but to enjoy myself and my family. I absolutely love what I do.

Q: Was it hard to balance your main work and the rest of your work?

In the five years of doctoral studies (plus one year of maternity leave), I worked on my PhD project and at the Teaching and Learning Services at McGill. Both were very flexible—most of the time, I could work any time as long as the hours and the tasks were completed. That flexibility was essential to have some work-life balance. After my first child was born, which was during the dissertation-writing phase, my supervisor’s support and flexibility was key to helping me finish while maintaining good mental health. I realize today how those experiences outside of my PhD research set me apart from other candidates. For example, because of my job at the Teaching and Learning Services, I could speak about course design, active learning strategies, and aligned assessments, when most graduates are too focused on research and not really prepared to excel in the classroom environment. Even if you are in a research-focused institution, you still have to teach, mentor, and support student learning. So what sets you apart? Everybody knows the research but if you can find something to really broaden your perspectives and make you different, you can stand out.

In my current job, I realize that skills related to leadership, team-building, project management, developing business plans, and reporting are needed. Outside of academia, that is what is expected from you—having this kind of business-like mindset. We are so narrow in what we do in a PhD that we forget that there is a whole world out there that expects you to be a well-rounded professional. We forget to see these opportunities when we’re in university, but it’s the prime time to try different things and broaden your knowledge and skills outside of your research project.

Q: Is there any mentorship that you wished you had during the PhD?

My supervisor was amazing. If she couldn’t mentor me in something, she would let me find that support elsewhere, such as through initiatives or services offered at or by the university. For example, I attended numerous workshops and took courses offered by the Career Centre; I took credit and non-credit courses to strengthen teaching and academic writing; I went to sessions on mental health and wellbeing offered by the counselling services. My supervisor was always very supportive in pursuing other activities beyond my research project. She never micromanaged me and always gave me the freedom to pave my own learning. That demonstrated that she trusted me, which helped me see myself as a professional and an independent researcher.

Q: Were there any other sources of support that you found helpful? 

Like I mentioned earlier, I went to the counselling services several times for individual counselling or for workshops on mental health, such as how to manage the work-life balance and how to reduce stress. I also attended career-related workshops and events, such as fairs and panel discussions. Those absolutely helped me. I was very proactive and was always keeping an eye open for what else was happening at the university.

But once I had a family, things became really challenging. I left the job at the Teaching and Learning Services to focus on caring for my son and finishing my dissertation. Going to the campus was even harder then—I never lived on the Macdonald campus. I did do some TA work but it wasn’t easy. Nowadays, I reflect back and think about equity and inclusion and how much support students who are also parents need to be successful. So, more services, policies, and initiatives that are family-oriented would definitely be helpful to those students. Universities (and supervisors!) should find better ways to accommodate mothers and fathers, and people with family.

Q: What are the biggest challenges for you in finishing your PhD?

I think definitely having kids. Some people would think that maternity would delay my finish (my defense) but in reality it was what pushed me forward. I was like, “You know what? That’s it. I’m putting my kid in daycare so I can finish this. I’m not horsing around”. So the time I actually had, that my kid was in daycare, I was working. I was actually way more productive than before my kid was born because you have that time. You’re going to write, you’re not going to browse the web, you’re not going to watch another Netflix show, like you’re actually going to write. So you start to use every single minute you have to be productive. The time that your kid is at home or wakes up from a nap, you’re not going to be able to do anything else and you want to enjoy the family moments, too.

Laura reflects on balancing PhD work and family life.

Finances were also a challenge. Maybe if I had more support, with scholarships and things like that, I could have concentrated more on my PhD and I would have done all these side projects. But in hindsight it was actually good because that forced me to look for other opportunities and put myself out there. Thank goodness I had a supportive supervisor, though! Of course the solution is not to cut the funding from students, but to support them with that money and, at the same time, give them the opportunity to try other things. But definitely going after the financial support added extra challenge, which stressed me out at times. The counselling services were very helpful then.

Another thing that was a challenge for me was the qualification exam. It added a lot of stress at that time (practically a whole year!). To this date, I can still pinpoint more negative than positive aspects from that experience. When I did it, it was like a pause for almost a year because it was not related to your research project or something that interested you. That added to the stress and it definitely held me back. When I finished the examination, I was burnt out.

Q: If you can go back to before you started your program, what would you tell yourself?

Definitely open up your mind to things outside of academia. I would try to think a little bit more business-like, and learn more about human resources, team management skills, project management, and leadership. I would have taken tons of stuff around leadership: like learning about how to be a good leader, manage change and people, etc. Then I could bring this knowledge with me on top of my research skills. That would have helped me a lot where I am right now and would have made me more competitive in the job market.

Many thanks to Laura for sharing her PhD narrative! You can find her on LinkedIn. To learn about her major project right now, visit the Alberta Healthy Communities Hub.

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