Petra Gyles graduated in 2016 from the Department of Educational and Counseling Psychology. She is currently a Child and Adolescent Clinical and School Psychologist.
Q: What made you interested in doing a PhD in the first place?
For this field, getting a PhD opens more doors in terms of living in different provinces or different countries. And as well, I think maybe just because I had already been at McGill for however long, the academia push was pretty strong. I think regardless, maybe I would have done it anyways. Beyond that there are more career opportunities.
Q: What is your current position right now?
I am a Child and Adolescent Clinical and School Psychologist. I have a position at a school board and a private practice as well.
Q: What was your path like after you graduated?
Because the School/Applied Child Psychology program is a fairly applied program, there were already many practical internships. During my PhD, I had already been working in the field and I ended up taking a job at one of the places that I did an internship.
Q: Have you ever considered a more academic stream, like being a professor?
It had crossed my mind. Ultimately for me, I was mindful of what seemed to be the work-life balance with that route. I didn’t want it to be the rat race that it can be and I made a choice that this kind of lifestyle wasn’t what I was looking for. In my program and cohort, there definitely were people that did pure academia or maybe some clinical applied work on the side. But I would say the majority of the people in my program took a more applied clinical route. I went into the program because of the option for the applied and clinical aspect.
Q: Who were your most important mentors?
My research supervisor, Bruce Shore, was an extremely amazing mentor. Every student that’s ever worked under him will say the same thing. Clinically, there are a few supervisors that I’ve had over the years too. I had actually connected with Bruce Shore beforehand, and had some initial discussions and meetings with him when I was still in the application process. I’d actually started working in his lab beforehand as well, so that was really important and helpful. So I think in terms of comfort and confidence and even just knowing what I was getting into was helpful. There were also grad students a couple years further along in their degree that I was able to connect with and have conversations about what to expect from the program, job opportunities, and things like that.
Q: What did you value most about your time in graduate school?
I think for me, the most important sort of learning outcomes that I thought I was there for were not actually the most important learning outcomes. So I thought it was kind of more, you know, you get mastery over the material—which obviously is an important part of it, at the end of it, you’re supposed to be an expert in the field—but I think the sort of personal battles and struggles to kind of overcome everything that you have to overcome, whether it’s self-doubt or self-concept aspects, the funding piece (which is huge for so many people), interpersonal relationship within people in the department or things like that, just trying to navigate your way through.
Another thing is learning how to get the job done no matter what. At a certain point, you learn that if you want to meet that deadline, you make sure that you’re meeting it no matter what, and that you’re doing everything in your power, you’re thinking of every sort of contingency, and addressing that in advance. When I think of different written and oral communication skills and all of these different skills that I learned, I feel like that comes first. Then the content came more incidentally, as I was focusing on these other things. I would describe it as confidence and self-growth.
Q: Did you feel like you were connected to a community?
Yeah, I would say the research lab that I was connected with at McGill: being a part of that community, and having academic collegial sorts of conversations. It was very much a space where regardless of where you were in a program, your age, or your expertise—everyone had a voice in the room. It was a great experience and often intimidating, but awesome. Even some of the connections with other graduate students I made and learning their work habits were important. I find that those who had a good community felt confident, like “I’m definitely making it through this program”, and people who didn’t have a community, there was a lot more second guessing if they would make it all the way.
Q: What would you say were your biggest challenges during your PhD and how did you overcome them?
The money aspect can’t be understated. For me, throughout school, I worked almost full-time to pay for living expenses and education and things like that. I was working even when I had a grant. The amount that was given was awesome—I was extremely grateful and it was a huge burden that was lifted. But it was also like at the poverty line. If I was just only a hundred percent living on that, it would have been difficult. At a certain point as you are nearing thirty or so (for me anyway), I was at a point where I felt like I was putting my life on hold this entire time to live in a very meager way. So working a lot while I was going through the program was definitely something.
The self-motivated aspect of a PhD is also a challenge. Different people choose different projects to work on. Some people will take a tiny piece of a bigger project. I wanted [my project] to be something where I’m not just passing, but something I’m proud of and something that I think is a true contribution to the field. So I created my own idea from start to finish and just went for it, and that made the project a bit bigger. Those kinds of standards also made it harder to get through. My supervisor often said “it’s a dissertation, not a program of research,” keeping in mind that this isn’t supposed to be a ten year grant with a research team working on it. Rather, it’s one person, and maybe a research assistant or two, with very little funding to push the project through.
Q: What was it like after graduating with your PhD?
It was like the most amazing weight that was lifted. I remember not even realizing the chronic stress that I just lived with for like ten or eleven years from undergrad through graduate school. All the sudden it was like this feeling in my shoulders, my jaw—all of these places that I guess I didn’t even realize I was holding tension—just lifting. I remember thinking that this must be what childbirth feels like—so intense and then at the end just magical euphoria and lightness. I was pregnant while I was doing the Ontario licensing process, which is fairly involved. And then I had a newborn baby while I did my oral exam for licensing. But none of that compares to finishing the PhD.
Q: What advice would you give to someone working on their PhD?
I just think it’s extremely commendable. If you want a job where you just make a lot of money or where you have prestige or stability, there are so many different routes that are probably easier and better to take. In order to get a PhD and go through pretty intensive academia, you have to enjoy learning for the sake of learning. You can’t do it for any other external outcomes otherwise it’s going to be horrible and brutal. A PhD won’t always necessarily mean better work options for people. But to be able to get that level of expertise in a field is a pretty amazing thing. It’s pretty wonderful to be able to provide that expertise.
Q: If you could go back to before you started and tell yourself something, what would it be?
This is going to sound silly, but for me, it would be that thirty years old isn’t that old. Get over it and just don’t worry about finishing before this magical number.
Many thanks to Petra for sharing her PhD narrative! You can find her at www.petragyles.com
This interview took place in July 2020. Interviews are edited by the TRaCE McGill Editorial team for length and clarity before publication.