Bob completed his PhD in 2009. His thesis research on leadership and learning showed that managers who teach their employees learn to lead more effectively and were also perceived to be more effective by their employees. He has led his own consulting practice in organizational learning and leadership development since 1989 and has been a graduate studies instructor at McGill since 1988, teaching courses and developing programs on leadership development.
Q: Why did you decide to do a PhD in the first place?
I started my consulting practice in 1989 and previously had years of experience working both in organizations and also with a major consulting firm. I started teaching at McGill in 1988 at the School of Continuing Studies, when I just had my bachelor’s degree. First I started off teaching human resource management and then I helped McGill design a graduate diploma and certificate program in leadership in the mid 90s.
In 1998, my daughters were a little bit older—they were doing their university studies—I decided to apply to McGill to do a Master’s in educational psychology with a major in adult education. About halfway through the program it became evident that courses from my Master’s could be applied to the doctorate, so I applied. I graduated with a Master’s in 2001 and I finished the doctorate in 2009, so it’s been eleven years now.
Q: You continued the same consulting work before, during, and after your PhD then?
That’s correct. I was doing the PhD on a part time basis because I had my full-time consulting practice and I was teaching and working with McGill part time. In terms of my professional status, there was no real change as a result of the PhD, the only thing is that doing the PhD informed my practice from a conceptual, theoretical perspective, which was extremely helpful. Through the PhD and also through the Master’s as well, I was able to apply what I was learning to past and current experience. That was particularly insightful. I was successful because the things I was doing intuitively were aligned with sound theoretical practice.
Q: You had a lot going on while you were in graduate school. What do you think are the biggest challenges that you had during the PhD process?
One of the largest challenges came from the fact that my previous experience was both an advantage and sometimes an impediment in terms of focus. It took me a while to focus on what my research topic was going to be, because I had so many ideas and it was hard to reduce the ideas to specific research hypotheses, but I was ultimately able to do this. My research really focused on my background, so I was looking at the relationships between leadership and managing and teaching and learning. Once I got clear on what the topic was, I was able to move forward.
One of the other difficulties that I had was the comprehensive exams. Rather than just looking at one body of literature, I actually looked at three bodies of literature. I looked at the instructional psychology and learning sciences literature, the adult educational literature, and the leadership development literature, so it was very broad.
There was a lot of effort exerted and once I finished the comprehensive I said “well, where do I go now?” The comprehensive literature review should be the foundation for your dissertation, but in my case, it wasn’t specific enough. When I started to write my dissertation though, all of this information was useful because I drew on those three bodies of literature.
Q: How were you eventually able to narrow it down to a doable PhD project?
It was with the help of my dissertation committee and supervisor. I was actually thinking of doing a mixed methodology project, with a qualitative portion and a quantitative portion, but they said to draw on my professional and academic experience and to focus on what was sufficient.
Q: Do you feel like you had enough opportunities throughout your PhD to interact with fellow students or were you mostly isolated in your work?
During the course component of the doctorate I was at McGill, so I interacted frequently in classes. The other students were dynamic. Hopefully they learned from me, and I know I learned from them. For the comprehensive exam and the dissertation, you basically do that on your own, but there were some frequent contacts. Those of us who worked for my doctoral advisor would come together, we would talk, we would support each other, we would present what we’re doing, and we would get feedback.
In the department, all of the students would come together maybe once every couple of months and somebody would make a presentation. So there was some contact going on, but obviously, less than when I was doing the courses. One of the things that I thoroughly enjoyed is that while there were some people in my various classes that had a lot of work experience, there were some people that had gone directly from their masters to the doctorate without work experience. And this was enriching. One of the reasons why I enjoy teaching so much is that I’m energized by younger students, their intellect, their questioning. So that’s one of the things that I enjoyed that I wouldn’t change.
Q: You said you were already teaching at the School of Continuing Studies. Did you have other opportunities to teach or develop courses during your PhD?
At the time, the course on Teaching and Learning in Higher Education was a four-day workshop. My doctoral advisor—who was part of teaching and learning services—she asked me to be one of the facilitators. It was a good experience, and one of the things that amazed me going through that program was that a lot of people that were completing their doctorate to go into an academic setting hadn’t received any training in the area of teaching, which would occupy anywhere from 75 to 80% of their time as young academics.
I remember one doctoral student from physics, she said “I realized that I’d been in school for years and I’m ill-equipped to do what I’m going to be asked to do for the first several years working in the academic setting”, which is teaching, designing courses, giving feedback to students, setting up evaluations. I thought that was really interesting.
Also, one of the requirements for the doctorate in my program was to design a course. The course that I developed “Developing Leadership Skills in others”, I subsequently taught in McGill’s Graduate Diploma and Certificate in Leadership program.
Q: What advice would you give to someone who is working on their PhD or will be starting their PhD?
I guess the first key advice that I would offer is to have a subject that you’re passionate about, that you’re interested in, that you want to study in an in-depth way. It’s a very long-term commitment.
The other thing is having a support network, both professional and academic, and family that’s there to support you. A lot of people go through the doctoral degree and they finish with ABD (all but dissertation)—there are a lot of people who drop out. In my cohort, I know at least three people that didn’t continue on. Again, it is a big commitment
Also, the relationship with whomever you choose as your doctoral advisor is so important. The doctoral advisor needs to be interested in you and what your interests are in research rather than promoting their own research agenda. And the other thing is, you know, persevere [laughing]—it is a journey—and don’t be afraid to reach out when you do need help.
Many thanks to Bob 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.