Vanessa Bao received her PhD in School/Applied Child Psychology in 2018. She is now a licensed psychologist specializing in helping children, adolescents and families.
Q: How did you decide to do a PhD in the first place?
I knew since I was quite young that I wanted to be a psychologist, and early on I realized the only way to achieve that is to get a PhD. So that was always part of the plan. I was eleven when I decided I wanted to be a psychologist. Prior to grad school, I did psychology courses in CEGEP and then that was also my undergrad focus.
Q: How would you describe your overall PhD experience?
Overall, there were definitely some ups and downs. There were certain things that were positive experiences. For instance, my experience with my supervisor was fantastic. He was incredibly supportive. I learned so much from working in his lab; it was an amazing experience. In terms of peers, that was also a really positive experience. We had a wonderful cohort and we were very supportive of one another. I have friendships that were forged throughout the grad school process that I know I’ll have for a very long time. In terms of the rest of the process, there were times when I was feeling really good about the PhD, other times where it got a little bit tough, especially towards the end. It gets to be a lot of pressure and a lot of work.
Q: Did you receive financial support?
Initially, no. There isn’t that automatic financial support from the Department that comes along with being a PhD as there might be in other programs. So that was difficult at first. I did have to work quite a bit on the side throughout both my master’s and my PhD, just to support myself financially. But eventually I did get external funding.
Q: Would you consider the lack of financial support one of the biggest challenges that you faced while doing the PhD?
Definitely. I’ve always found it difficult to imagine how I could have gotten through it without working on the side. It just didn’t seem to be an option—I needed to support myself. In the end, I learned a lot about balancing my workload and how to manage and multitask. But the financial aspect was a lot of pressure.
Q: What other challenges did you have while doing your PhD?
One of the biggest challenges was definitely financial. Which leads to emotional stress in a way—just trying to figure out how to get by. Other than that, the biggest challenge was, I think, managing so many tasks and expectations all at once. Being able to juggle everything and all the while trying to achieve at the highest level—it was a huge challenge. Admittedly, I put a lot of pressure on myself. I think people who go through this process want to do the best that they can. That can lead to a lot of stress.
Q: Did you feel like there was help for coping with that stress?
I reached out to different support services throughout the program. One thing that I always did feel that was lacking was more formalized support for self-care and mental health for students within the program, especially within a program that is all about mental health. I found it a bit ironic that there wasn’t more support embedded within the system and more focus on balancing achievement with mental health, self-care, physical health, and all of those things. It is something that not only the program, the department, and the university could do better, but also the entire academic community.
Q: What experience did you value the most during the PhD?
One of the experiences I actually really appreciated was doing a TAship. I did a few of them towards the end of the program for some clinical courses at the master’s level. It was a really great experience in developing my own supervision skills for others, providing support for other people within the program, and just learning more about myself. That was a really rewarding experience.
Q: You mentioned the support of your peers, your cohort, and your lab. Did you feel like you belonged to the community?
Yes and no. I was not involved in the kind of extracurricular activities, like committees or that kind of thing, where I was really immersed in the culture of the department or the program. Within my cohort, I did create some strong bonds and friendships. We would lean on one another in terms of studying, our different courses, our research or even personal struggles. I felt that on an individual level that I connected with people, but not so much within the program.
Q: Is there something that you wish you knew before starting PhD?
I wish I knew just how much work it was going to be. I knew it was going to be a lot, but it can be incredibly overwhelming at times. Looking back on it, I don’t regret having gone through it. But knowing beforehand just how many sacrifices I’d have to make and how much stress there would be, might have helped me manage it better throughout.
Q: What do you do now?
I’m currently working full time as a clinical psychologist in a private practice clinic. I moved to Toronto from Montreal to pursue different career opportunities. I found this great job opportunity and I’m really enjoying what I do. I love to focus on doing assessment with children and adolescents.
Q: Did you begin this job right after graduation?
No, not immediately after. Right after graduation, I started working for the English Montreal School Board as a school psychologist and I was there for the school year. That was an interesting experience. I learned a lot there. Toward the end of that time, I started working in a private office in Montreal and doing both jobs at the same time. When my husband and I decided to move to Toronto, I looked for different opportunities.
Q: What advice would you give to someone who’s working on their PhD?
From my experience, even though there were definitely some challenging and difficult times–for a little while after graduating, I even wondered if I should have done the PhD–I can now say with certainty, having found a career path and a job that I really enjoy, that it really was worth it. However, even though it may be worth it down the line, if you’re getting to a point where you’re finding it too difficult and are having a hard time managing, then that’s a sign that you should consider reaching out to others for support. In those moments, it’s really important to check in with yourself, ask for help, seek out connections, engage in self-care, and even slow down for a bit so that you don’t lose yourself in the shuffle.
Many thanks to Vanessa for sharing her PhD narrative! You can find more about her on LinkedIn.
This interview took place in March 2020. Interviews are edited by the TRaCE McGill Editorial team for length and clarity before publication.