Chelsea Cavanagh graduated with a PhD from the Integrated Program in Neuroscience in 2016. She currently works as a Senior Consultant at Ernst and Young.
Q: What made you interested in pursuing a PhD?
I started out in the Master’s program. I had the choice of finishing with a Master’s or taking on a co-supervisor and transferring to a PhD. I felt like my study just wasn’t done yet—I was still interested in the questions I was asking, so I just decided to keep going. Having a co-supervisor would have exposed me to a whole bunch of new and different techniques. It was really just based on my interest in science.
Q: So what do you value the most about your time in graduate school?
The community that I worked with, including both of my supervisors. I also had an opportunity to work with a nonprofit organization called Science Policy Exchange. It exposed me to a whole world outside of just academic research. That got me really interested in science policy, which led me to a job that I had.
Q: What was your role in that organization?
I started off just volunteering, but then after a short period, I ran for and was elected co-president. We were running the organization with a team of students. We had public events where we talked about a scientific issue that the public might be interested in and had experts try to break it down. We also really wanted to advocate for science policy and evidence-informed decision-making.
Q: What kind of support did you get from your supervisors?
Both of my supervisors were amazing—I couldn’t have asked for better supervisors. The key thing is that they allowed me to do all this extracurricular activity. I know some supervisors really discourage that—they just want their students to be in the lab 24/7. But my supervisors were really supportive of me doing all kinds of different stuff.
Q: What were some of your biggest challenges for you in the PhD?
Definitely the length of it and on top of that feeling like there was no light at the end of the tunnel. Thoughts about what I was going to do with my life afterwards were constant.
Q: What helped you overcome these challenges?
I think pushing myself to take advantage of all opportunities. I tried to work with as many people as I could. I kind of just jumped into anything. If someone needed something, I helped out. Even if I didn’t know how to do it, I figured it out as I went along. It was that attitude of taking advantage of all the opportunities I could grasp. That helped me meet people, which exposed me to other opportunities like teaching, writing, and science policy. I ended up doing a lot of different things and working with a lot of different people, which gave me a better perspective on different jobs that might be out there and things that I might or might not like to do.
Q: What were the biggest challenges for you post-graduation?
I have to admit, things fell into place pretty easily. After graduation, I had a friend who started her own boutique consulting startup. So I worked with her briefly because she needed some help. I got exposed to the industry of consulting. Having that experience, even if it was just for three months or four months, allowed me to get a job at McGill in research administration, which was linked to the science policy work that I was interested in, only with a focus on university policies. After that, I ended up getting the job offer for what I’m doing now.
Q: What would a typical day look like for someone in your position?
Generally what we do is read documents, meet with clients, and summarize information. We also need to stay on top of new regulatory developments so we can help our clients. We need to understand the problem the client is having then make recommendations for how they can move forward.
Q: What connections are there between the work you do now and the work you did as a graduate student?
The main thing that stands out is project management. I was quite in charge of my own project and in charge of my days. In grad school, I would try to take advantage of whatever opportunities there are to speak or give presentations. Now, if I have client meetings where I need to present something, I’m not so stressed because I’ve done it so many times. Also, I have to go through lots and lots of documentation, so another skill is knowing how to synthesize all of that and pick out what’s important and where the gaps are.
Q: What advice would you give someone who is currently working on their PhD?
What worked out for me is to try to get as much experience outside the normal stuff of doing a PhD. Keep an open mind. I think people have this idea that they either need to become a professor or go into industry. What people don’t say is that there are so many different industries—it’s not just the pharmaceutical industry. For example, right now I’m working in consulting, but we work with the financial services sector, so nothing related to science. I think it’s really important for people to just be open to lots of different possibilities.
Q: If you could go back in time and tell yourself something about the PhD, what would that be?
Keep doing what you’re doing and don’t give up. It’s going to work out.
Many thanks to Chelsea for sharing her PhD narrative!
This interview took place in June 2020. Interviews are edited by the TRaCE McGill Editorial team for length and clarity before publication.