Carolyn Samuel graduated in 2016 from the Department of Integrated Studies in Education. Her PhD research explored how university instructors who teach in their second or other language perceive their ability to teach. At McGill, Carolyn has received the Principal’s Prize for Excellence in Teaching and a Distinguished Teaching Award. She’s now a Senior Academic Associate at McGill’s Teaching and Learning Services.
Q: What made you interested in doing a PhD in the first place?
Higher education has always been a means to an end for me. At times when I seek something new in my career, I do another degree in the hope it will lead to different job opportunities. University education opens doors. I like to have that freedom.
Q: Did you go into the PhD program hoping to become a professor?
I can tell you unequivocally that I went into it knowing I did not want to be a professor. I knew a long time ago that I didn’t want to be a tenure-track professor. When I did my undergraduate degree in the Faculty of Arts at McGill, I didn’t know what career I wanted, but I knew that having a university degree would be beneficial. I did a degree in modern languages and I learned some languages, which was useful because I like traveling. Afterward, I applied for a position in industry. I responded to a job ad that required a Bachelor’s degree in any field and I ended up working in industry for about 10 years in a field unrelated to my degree. Eventually, the intellectual challenge of my work had waned—I became restless. So, I decided to study again and get another degree in the hope that I’d be able to have more flexibility with my career.
I did a graduate diploma at McGill in teaching and then taught at a university overseas for a few years. My passion for teaching developed—I thrived. I wanted to explore other teaching opportunities. Again, I felt that more education might afford more career options. So, I returned to Canada to do a Master’s degree in Education at OISE/UofT, during which I did a lot of teaching. Then, a Faculty Lecturer position, which is a teaching position, opened up at McGill. I applied and got the job. Teaching at McGill—it was great, I loved it! But after nearly 15 years, I became restless again. I was thinking, “What if I don’t want to spend the rest of my career teaching?” It was time to try something new. I knew I wanted to stay in the field of Education because I find being in an academic environment stimulating and enjoyable. So, I embarked on a PhD, again believing another degree might allow me new career opportunities. And it did!
Q: Was it unusual to pursue a non-academic path in your program?
Well, I think my path has been academic even though it was not the path for a professorship. And no, I don’t think it’s unusual. Often, people who study in the field of Education are doing so to make social change, policy change, for example.
Q: What did you value most about your time in graduate school?
Working with and learning from my committee members. They were super supportive at every step and that’s crucial to a PhD candidate’s success.
Q: Did you have any experiences during graduate school that have been particularly valuable to you post-graduation?
The process of conducting a study and understanding what goes into research is certainly valuable in the work I do now. Also, living the PhD student experience has enhanced my empathy for people in different roles in higher education. Empathy serves me extremely well in the work I currently do … and in life outside work!
Q: Did you feel like you belonged to any kinds of communities when you were in your PhD?
I did have a community—three of us in my cohort got together early on to create a study group. We came together because we were the three eldest in the cohort. Throughout the degree, we met weekly to give each other feedback on writing and ideas-in-development, address challenges, and cry over frustration. It was not only a productive study group, but also a necessary support group. The group still meets weekly … it’s been about nine years! I’m the only original member, though. I continue to participate because I write for my work and appreciate the valuable feedback I get from the group members.
Q: What advice would you give to someone who’s working on their PhD?
Schedules and deadlines work well for me. When I started the PhD, I planned to do it in five years part-time. I created a 5-year timeline and filled in the date by which I wanted to finish. Then, working backwards, I filled in milestone dates, such as defense, first draft, ethics application, proposal submission. The milestone dates were especially helpful for keeping me on track. Inevitably, some dates had to be shifted along the way, but the “finish” date never changed. Perhaps a timeline with milestone dates filled in would be helpful for others, too.
Q: What do you wish you had known before you started your PhD?
That I can trust my process. I believe I’m a slow writer. I need a lot of time to think before I write. And I had to just trust the process and not worry about the constant thought: “I need to write; I need to write!” So, I wish I’d been more confident about my knowledge of myself and my ability to simply get things done.
Many thanks to Carolyn for sharing her PhD narrative! You can find Carolyn here.
This interview took place in July 2020. Interviews are edited by the TRaCE McGill Editorial team for length and clarity before publication.