Matthew Wyman-McCarthy graduated with a PhD from the Department of History in 2015. His dissertation considered the origins and legacy of the British antislavery movement in the late eighteenth century. He is now a Research Facilitator at Wilfrid Laurier University.
Q: What made you interested in doing a PhD in the first place?
I guess there are two answers to that. First, I was really interested in a specific research question: why did Britain end the transatlantic slave trade? In seeking to answer that question, I was thinking a lot about how people’s moral perceptions shift and what factors make collective action possible. It was an interesting historical problem. Second, I just really liked being a grad student—the learning, the socializing, the challenge, and the independence. All of those things really appealed to me in my early and mid 20s.
Q: What is your current position? What are you doing now?
I’m a research facilitator at Wilfrid Laurier University, which means I work with faculty to develop and secure funding for their research programs. I also do freelance academic editing and occasionally publish short academic pieces.
Q: How did you end up in this position?
During the final years of my PhD, I was managing editor for an academic journal at McGill. After I finished my PhD, I did a two-year postdoc at Columbia University in New York. From there, I did another two-year postdoc and managing editor position with another journal at the University of New Hampshire. My role at New Hampshire involved a lot of project management and administrative work alongside the academic work. That was the skill set and background that my current posting was looking for.
Q: Had you planned to pursue a tenure-track position?
I wanted to be a tenure-track faculty throughout my PhD program. A few years ago I was offered a tenure-track position and a three-year faculty position, which could have evolved into something more. But when those options came up, I actually turned them down.
Q: What were your reasons for that?
One was in the US and I wanted to come back to Canada to be close to family. I also reassessed my work-life balance and thought that pursuing a non-faculty career would make me happier in the long run.
Q: What would you say that you value most about your time in graduate school?
There was a lot of freedom. At no other point in a person’s career, unless you get some kind of dream job, can you follow your own instincts so fully and control your own time. I wrote a 400-page dissertation on a topic I was interested in and got to meet with interesting people. I got to share my ideas and get feedback. It’s a unique experience.
Q: Did you feel like you belonged to a community while you were at McGill?
We were a large department. We had twenty to twenty-five Master’s students a year and seven or eight PhD students. Enough of us in my cohort were new to Montreal that we were kind of looking for friends and community. There was a lot of socializing, particularly in the first few years. One thing that is particularly memorable is that one Friday afternoon a month a graduate student would present their research at Thomson House. The department would pay for a few pitchers and it was a very informal gathering. You could stay for as long or as little as you wanted after the talk. It epitomized what grad school is all about: the socializing, the camaraderie, the exchange of ideas. Thomson House provided an environment that facilitated that type of community building.
Q: What were your biggest challenges during your PhD?
You’re dealing with a project that is so big it’s hard to break it down into manageable chunks. It sometimes feels as if everything’s ahead of you and nothing’s behind you. I don’t think that’s a challenge of time management; it’s a challenge of having one goal that is so large. Another challenge was motivation to finish because it was hard to imagine careers after graduation. If I had of proactively identified post-PhD jobs during the program, I know I would have finished my dissertation sooner. What ultimately got me to finish the dissertation—which is true for many of my colleagues—is that I got a postdoc. I had to finish.
Q: During your PhD, were you ever presented with career alternatives or was academia the only path?
I think the expectation of an academic path was implicit. The year I began on the job market, there was a weekly professionalization workshop for the academic job market, but nothing equivalent for non-academic professions. I got the impression that most faculty in my department assumed that most McGill grad students would go on to a faculty position. I think that’s a McGill-wide problem. Our supervisors are among the very small percentage of people with a PhD who have tenured jobs at a well-funded, research-intensive institution. For many, a major measure of success is how many of their students go on to academic careers. I hope that’s changing, but it’s something that I think the university needs to improve on.
Q: What were the biggest challenges for you post-graduation?
Finding a job. Finding a steady job where my academic skills translated into employment.
Q: Did you have a hard time conceptualizing how those skills could be transferred?
I did. It’s only now, looking back, that I understand that my dissertation was actually project management and that I was dealing with a budget, timelines, and producing deliverables. A course or a workshop to help graduate students think about their work not just in academic terms would have been really valuable.
Q: What advice would you give to someone working on their PhD?
Think of your dissertation as a project. You’re engaged in project management, data management, and strategic communication. Break down the project into manageable chunks so that you can check things off when they’re done. And, find some secondary or even tertiary employment or interest to get involved with. For me, it was editing. I have a number of peers whose side interest was what they were able to parlay into full-time employment. So get involved in something other than your teaching and research world. It’s also great for mental health!
Many thanks to Matthew for sharing his PhD narrative! You can find more about him on LinkedIn.
This interview took place in March 2020. Interviews are edited by the TRaCE McGill Editorial team for length and clarity before publication.