Lilia Eskildsen-Torres received her PhD in 2018, focusing on the role of dance in Mexico and the Mexican diaspora. She is currently a Fellowships Officer at McGill.
Q: What made you interested in doing a PhD in the first place?
I love research. I am the kind of person who likes to get to know about something in a deep way. When I was finishing my Bachelor’s, they said, you could do a Master’s and keep researching this emerging literature movement in Mexico. And then, when I was finishing my MA, my professors encouraged me to do a PhD.
I felt comfortable that I could do it, and I went looking for options, especially for funding. I applied to universities in Canada, since the US was harder for non-citizens. And it wasn’t that I didn’t want to go back home, to Mexico, but I wanted options other than the government, which is the main career for PhDs in Mexico.
Q: What kind of support did you receive at once you started?
I was the first one in my family to finish my university degree, and my family was very supportive of me, especially in terms of emotional support. And I was also getting married at that point as well, and my husband was also pursuing a PhD—we had met during our MA. It was a big difference to have someone going through the same thing as me.
But the main issue was the funding. We saved as much as we could for about a year, which gave us about enough for the first year. And when we both applied, we both got offers from McGill and the University of British Columbia. But they were different: at UBC, we would have had the same thing, and at McGill, I had all of it, with a potential for funding for him in the future.
We made the decision for McGill together, and it was great for the first year, but then when we depleted our savings, he withdrew from the program. He thought about coming back, but he decided not to pursue it anymore.
And there are things you wonder—why did I get it instead of him, and so on. But he’s always been very supportive and there for me. And even after my funding ran out after a few years, he supported me for the whole six years. And we had a child in the middle of it!
Q: Wow! What about other supports like mentorship, or a professional or academic network after you finished?
Very early in my PhD, I decided academia wasn’t for me. So when I chose my supervisor, I chose someone who would accept and support me in that. I also wanted to do research that was more cultural and social, and of interest to more people than, say, a niche Middle Ages poem. My supervisor was open to that, but as chair of the department, he was very busy, and I found a lot of support in myself, my husband, and readings by people who didn’t have a PhD, but were doing related work.
When I graduated, it was hard to find anything beyond generic advice on the internet. One of the things I am doing now with a friend is creating a support group for PhDs in my field that are thinking of alternative careers. The sciences, and even social sciences, have more support for careers outside of academia, and we want to create that for people in the humanities; it’s different when you have someone from your own field tell you what they’ve done with their degree.
Q: What was the most valuable experience for you from your PhD?
Because I realized at an early stage that I wasn’t going to look for academic jobs, I took the PhD as a personal challenge. And while I love research, the experience also taught me that I was very resilient and adaptable.
At the same time, I also realized there were a lot of resources at McGill that I wasn’t taking advantage of. So I took every SKILLSETS workshop, every business workshop, every opportunity that I could. And that helped me realize that I’m not just an expert in my smaller field, but I can navigate so many other things, ranging from workshops to data to teaching!
Q: What made you decide that you weren’t interested in academia?
I have a lot of friends in academia, and the feeling I got from them was that even if you’re doing research, you’re never doing what you want to do. There’s so much stress trying to find a job, and then they weren’t really enjoying what they were doing; even if you get a permanent position, you have to consider the priorities of the university and the discipline. It was just a lot of things that didn’t align with my philosophy of life.
And I liked teaching, but it is such a secondary part of academia. Even on a smaller local level, there are so few Cegep positions, and for high school? I was not going to do another degree.
Q: What was the biggest challenge of your PhD?
Funding. I’m really lucky to have had my husband supporting me, but in my last year, I was about to withdraw because I couldn’t afford it anymore. My supervisor came in with last minute funding for a final term, but I had to finish, and I did.
I was very lucky, and I struggle with feeling like whether I deserved it, especially when so many other students are also struggling. And I see it even more clearly now, especially seeing how some departments with less clear relationships to industry and productivity don’t have as many external donations and resources, which is also connected to the general perception of the humanities.
At the same time, there’s much more funding in Canada for research than in other countries. Even while I have the perspective of “Wow, I can get a SSHRC? Twenty thousand a year, for research?!”, I also recognize that that amount only provides for a minimalistic type of life because of the cost of living, and that people in other fields often receive much more.
Q: What is your current position, and how did you end up there?
I’m currently a Fellowships Officer at McGill. I had run out of funding and I needed work experience. I went to the Work Study Program, and because I spoke Spanish, I got involved in an agreement that McGill had with Mexico. Then, I started negotiating McGill’s agreements with other countries. And then they gave me another position as the program manager working with the international agreements team, where I started understanding how these agreements impacted McGill’s funding.
So, when a position for Fellowships Officer opened up, they suggested I do it, because I understood it so well.
Q: What skills from your PhD do you use the most in your current position?
The thing I appreciate the most is wanting to…understand things more than what I need to? For example, I work with funding, but I try to understand the process more beyond just allocating funds to departments. What are the goals, what are the expectations of the various stakeholders? And that desire to understand more is how I ended up in my current position.
Q: Is there anything that you wish that you had known about the PhD before starting it?
I wish that someone had prepared me for what it took to get an academic job, and how I could prepare for different scenarios. I would have done a lot of things differently and chosen different opportunities.
Universities and professors argue that we are making thinkers, that we’re not a technical school. And while I get it, the reality is that people need to eat. Even within departments, there is conflicting information about academic jobs, or you’re not certain how a professor will react if you say you might want to work outside academia. And I don’t want universities to be subject to the whims of industry or seen as a production of workers rather than the production of thinkers, but universities also have to foster these difficult conversations. There doesn’t need to be a severe division between the professional and research; they can, and should, inform each other.
But…don’t get discouraged. I feel like I tell my story and I discourage people. Doing a PhD is a great thing, but you have to do things your own way. I think that the big lesson of all of this is to look for the opportunities in front of you, and you’ll not just make it through, you’ll do great.
Many thanks to Lilia for sharing her narrative! You can find her on LinkedIn.
This interview took place in April 2020. Interviews are edited by the TRaCE McGill Editorial team for length and clarity before publication.