Sandeep Subramanian graduated with a PhD from the Department of Physical and Occupational Therapy in 2013. He is currently an Assistant Professor at University of Texas Health Science Center San Antonio.
Q: So what made you interested in doing a PhD in your field?
I was a physiotherapist in India and I was working in a school for children with developmental disabilities. Our mandate was to push for these children to be included in the mainstream school system in India. The place where I was working also had a nonprofit organization that was fighting to make environments more accessible for those with physical disabilities, and I was working with them as a consultant physiotherapist in my free time.
I applied to different schools in Canada and the US, and there was one professor at McGill who was doing work that related to what I was doing. When I wrote to her, she told me to apply next year because she was on sabbatical. I had no idea what a sabbatical meant so I didn’t withdraw my application and it was still there. Then another professor, who eventually became my mentor, picked up my application and asked if I would like to work for her. I agreed, not knowing much about McGill or Canada because in Mumbai, where I come from, there was not a lot of information about universities.
Q: What was it like applying to PhD programs as an international student?
There’s a funny story in my application process because McGill accepted my application but then I got an email saying I didn’t meet the minimum GPA requirements for the program. I remember having a call with my mom and I’m saying, “What university is this? What are they looking for?” Our school system had rankings and I was within the top five or top 10 in my province. In India, the passing grade is 50% and it’s difficult for us to get good marks in that system so my marks were around 75% or so. But the next day, I got an email saying “Sorry, not only do you meet the requirements but you are one of the top applicants, please do not withdraw your application.” I remember thinking, “Withdraw my application? What is that?” I had no idea you could do that. To be frank, McGill wasn’t on my radar—I applied to the US but my visa didn’t go through. But I was welcomed into Canada and so I came to McGill.
Q: Did you get a lot of support during your graduate studies?
My mentor was very supportive of me. She made sure I had stipends and she gave me teaching assistantships and a lot of other scholarships. As an international student, it gets expensive and I had taken a bank loan. McGill also changed its tuition around that time, and so we ended up only paying the Quebec supplement of the tuition. So instead of paying ten or twelve thousand dollars, we only paid around two thousand plus health insurance. So that was very helpful to me. I was also well supported by other professors and lab mates in terms of dressing for the winter, etc.
Q: What would you say were your biggest challenges or your PhD journey?
It took me some time to get established and to have my own friends. I had classes three days a week, and so I was sitting at home pretty much on the weekends. And this was pre-YouTube—I came to McGill in 2005. So, you know, there’s only so much music you can listen to and newspapers you can read. The loneliness was there, which was the biggest challenge. Something that really helped me in those days was going to an Indian temple. I used to be there every Sunday when they would have their community kitchen and help out. They had free community meals and would often give me food to take home. Being a part of the Indian community allowed me to slowly build relationships with people. Everything was good.
Another challenge I had was when one of the equipment in the lab was broken. I was just sitting for four months so my PhD had to be extended for about six more months than I would have liked. But I got my paper out, so it’s not that bad. You’ve got to factor in these things because they can happen. Things can always go wrong. But the good thing was my mentor always had other work for me to keep me busy.
Q: Is there any support you wished you had?
I think in general, students don’t have too much of an idea of career choices other than being an academic. It never even struck me that there can be non-academic academic opportunities and that I can go out and work in the industry as well. I think that’s something that McGill can improve upon. I think that is one thing I would have liked to know.
Q: How did you end up in your current position?
The American Physical Therapy Association, the APTA, have a job portal. I used to go on the portal every week. I had applied to a few positions over there. There was a program in San Antonio and I really didn’t know much about it but the posting was very simple—they just wanted me to send a cover letter and a CV. A week later, I had a phone interview. That was in June 2014. I didn’t hear back from them until September when they asked me to come visit San Antonio for an interview. But I was going to India in October for a family wedding, so I went in December. It was my first interview and it was an excellent experience. They were really nice—I stayed an extra day before flying out and the department head gave me a tour of the city. I’m very happy I made the move.
Q: Can you describe what you do in your job day-to-day work?
I am usually more research-focused, so my teaching duties were very low when I started. Now, because we’ve had some faculty resign, I had to put in a little bit more in teaching. So I teach two courses for a semester, which is not very common for the kind of research-based position I’m in. But I love teaching, so that’s fine. My typical day can start from anywhere between 7:30 AM to 10:30 AM depending on when I want to go to work. If I go to work early, I leave early and if I go to work late, I leave late. There are no restrictions on how we are expected to spend 35 to 40 hours a week in office, as long as we finish our work and complete our work.
Q: Is there something you wish you knew before starting your PhD?
The PhD is not a sprint, it’s a marathon race. Don’t be afraid to seek help. I think often the key is communication, and having a good support system around you. Things happen, like the COVID-19 crisis, and everybody has to stop. Or your machine breaks for months and you can’t do experiments. But if such a thing happens, “never let a good crisis go to waste”, as one of my colleagues would say. What can you do? Can you write a review paper? Yes. Can you write the background part for your thesis? Yes. Maybe you have some data to analyze. You also have to do things that keep you going—your PhD doesn’t define you. Have a life outside of the lab. There’s the academic you, and there’s the non-academic you. It helps you stay grounded and stay sane.
Many thanks to Sandeep for sharing his PhD narrative! You can find him on Twitter.
This interview took place in May 2020. Interviews are edited by the TRaCE McGill Editorial team for length and clarity before publication.