Sara Antunes-Alves, Psychologist and Program Manager

Sara Antunes-Alves graduated with a PhD from the Department of Educational & Counselling Psychology from the Faculty of Education in 2017. She is currently a Psychologist and Manager of a mental health program at Carleton University.

Q: What made you interested in doing a PhD?

I think I knew from about grade eleven that I wanted to be a psychologist. In most cases, you have to have a PhD to be a psychologist.

Q: So you went with the more applied stream for the PhD rather than the research stream?  

The program I was in offered both options, which is why it’s so long. So you can be a professor/researcher or a practitioner.

I think most people from my program ended up going the clinician route—it was rare to find somebody who wanted to stay in academia afterwards.

Q: In your program, was one route more encouraged than the other?

My sense is probably that most people who do a PhD in psychology want to do therapy. We do get a lot of training and a lot of work experience doing the therapy, but we also get just as much training on conducting research. I feel like the research portion probably wears people out more than the practicing portion. So even if students initially went in with the idea of doing research, the dissertation might discourage them because it’s one of the hardest parts of the degree.

Q: What is your current position?

So I manage a mental health program called FITA: From Intention To Action. While there are various mental health professionals at Carleton, I’m actually the only staff psychologist there at the moment, and my role is to be the manager of this program.

Q: How did you end up in that position?

When I did my Master’s at the University of Ottawa, I did my internship at the Paul Menton Center, which is a center for students with disabilities at Carleton University. And I kept in touch with the director there. A few years later, during my PhD in Montreal, I reached out to him and I ended up doing a project about his program for one of my courses. I said to him that I’m going to have to do an internship at the end of my PhD, and he told me that the psychologist in their program is retiring soon, so they will create an internship site for me. It was a big decision for me at the time because most students from my program go the APPIC route, which is this huge compendium of internship sites, mostly in the United States, that are very difficult to get into but it really helps with your future path and getting hired somewhere. I discussed this with a couple of my professors, and they told me that it wasn’t necessary to do things the hard way or the most prestigious way; going back to Ottawa could be better networking for me. So I went through a process of getting the internship accredited or acceptable to the program and then I did my internship there. The year after, I was hired and then moved into the management role when my boss retired.

Q: During the program, what kind of financial support did you receive?

When I was applying to PhD programs, McGill was very upfront with me about whether I would be able to afford to go to the program because McGill was one of the schools that do not offer funding to its students. There were some extra funds through the department and my thesis supervisor happened to be in a lab where he did have grants. But the hourly wage for being a TA was only a little more than half of what it was at the University of Ottawa. So I just had to get the biggest loan I could get from the bank.

I applied many times for government funding and I did end up getting funding from the Quebec government. That was a huge opportunity because I don’t know what I would have done—I don’t know if I would have been able to stay in the program. I’ll always be thankful to the Quebec funding because it allowed me to stay in the program.

Q: What do you value most about your time in graduate school?

Probably the networking. I’m a sociable person and I think there are lots of benefits to networking with people. Being able to meet people and put myself out there with colleagues is valuable because we’ve kind of moved all over the place after graduation. The friendships were valuable—some of the best friends I’ve made in my life and kept have been through the PhD and the networking.

Q: What would you say were the biggest challenges for you during the program?

Probably feeling unsupported at times. Our program was quite small, and there were just six or seven professors in our department. Around my second year, two of them left at the same time, and there were also administrative changes, which made things feel kind of chaotic. The remaining professors had to absorb the students now without thesis supervisors, and their workloads got heavier. I was very self-directed in my learning so I was glad that I was able to work independently when I needed to. It’s an important trait to have as a graduate student anyway, and helped me savour the moments I had with my thesis supervisor and any other professors or mentors, for that matter. The hundreds of changes to my dissertation along the way were certainly stressful as well, but that’s the name of the game.

Q: What advice would you give to someone working on their PhD?

I often tell people you don’t have to be brilliant to do a PhD, you just have to be really hard working and have a lot of grit. I am sure there is a way that you could do it with a bit more work life balance. But there isn’t much. As long as you can get through that period of time, it gets better eventually. There’s a lot of sacrifice involved with being a PhD student—you’re not going to make money, you’re going to work harder than you probably will for a long time, but you have to really want it and it’s going to be worth it.

Q: If you could go back to before you started, is there something you would tell yourself?

I am tempted to say to go easier on myself. But if I did, I might not have finished quite as fast or gotten the opportunities that I’ve had because I don’t have regrets in that way either. I’m very happy where I ended up and it paid off in the end. I would say it’s mostly through my own efforts because it was just from maintaining relations from years before and making a good impression. That’s why I think that the networking piece is so important. So keep networking, putting yourself out there, and making favourable impressions on others because it can open doors.

Many thanks to Sara for sharing her PhD narrative!

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