Daniel Poremski, Senior Research Fellow

Daniel Poremski graduated with a PhD in Psychiatry in 2014. He is currently a Senior Research Fellow.

Q: How did you decide to start a PhD?

My background was in psychology—my focus was abnormal psychology and I worked in a neuropsychological clinic. For a while after my undergraduate, I sort of realized that psychology wasn’t enough to really handle all the problems that you see and really explain all the manifestations that you see.

So I got more interested in the medical side of things. I did an MSc in Psychiatry in the UK, which is a taught program that physicians take before they do their exit exams to become a fully-fledged consultant psychiatrist in the UK. That basically taught me everything I needed to know about psychiatry per se.

But there’s not much that you can do with a MSc in Psychiatry if you’re not an MD. Once the MSc was done, I thought I would go to medical school or do a PhD first to make me more competitive for medical school. I applied for medical school and the PhD at McGill at the same time. I got the acceptance for the PhD program before finishing the full application for medical school. Because the PhD project that I had been accepted to was a relatively big project that was very much already underway and I wouldn’t have had to lay much groundwork, I chose to go with that project and hence the PhD. I left the medical school application where it was and I didn’t finish the full process. I don’t know if I would have been accepted to medical school or not but it seemed like the PhD program and the project was too good to pass up.

Q: What was your path like after graduation?

After doing the PhD, my appetite for studying was sort of sated. I can’t imagine going back to medical school and it’s been five years since I’ve actually done any studying. After that, I started applying for postdoc positions and I was lucky to get a postdoc position in Toronto with an organization that was doing follow-up work to my PhD. I did that for about ten months before I found a job at a hospital here in Singapore.

Q: What do you do in your current role?

I work for the Institute of Mental Health in Singapore. I’m a senior research fellow in the Health Intelligence Unit.

My training allows me to do a lot of evaluation but no clinical work. Because of my MSc, I’m very familiar with the psychiatric problems and the actual practice of psychiatry in various settings. My PhD gave me the education to know how to evaluate various programs, knowledge on clinical trials, knowledge on qualitative studies, knowledge on economic analyses, and putting that altogether, how to evaluate a program.

So my role here is evaluating the various programs that they have and answering clinical questions based on literature. The portfolio I have range from full academic reviews and evaluations, to smaller clinical practice improvement projects that run in the departments.

Q: What is a typical day for you?

It’s sort of a hard question to answer because it depends on the project. Usually we would have some time for literature review to keep up to date with journal articles. If I’m consulting on another project, I would have meetings. If I’m running my own project, I would have a degree of data collection. I like to have time to do these types of qualitative interviews. I don’t do quantitative data collection, but I do the qualitative interviews so that I can be relatively well-informed of what’s going on with the project. Some days have more meetings and some days have more data analysis. Peppered in there is management of the RAs and management of expectations of my superiors.

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

Everything was valuable. There were the friendships, and the courses that were offered to me. Because the PhD is ad hoc, I was able to choose which courses were relevant to my goals, which gave me a lot of flexibility to go from epidemiology to psychiatry to statistics. It gave me a basket of tools that I was able to cultivate. Another thing I valued was exposure to colleagues. My supervisor had a relatively good network of collaborators in Canada and America. Exposure to that is a good way to always have your foot in the door somewhere.

The project that I was on was already advanced when I joined, so I was able to publish two RCTs based on that project. The fact that I was able to take part in such a favorable and impactful project was definitely valuable. So overall, the knowledge, the output, the connections, and the friendships were valuable.

Q: What role did your supervisor play during your PhD?

In addition to the basic mentorship tasks, I’ve improved my writing skill. It’s worth mentioning because he took time to literally look through every sentence that I had in the article and say what was wrong and what needed to be improved and how to improve it. That’s the technique I use with my RAs now. Afterwards, he played a role in opening the door to the first postdocs that I had in Toronto because he knew the supervisors.

Q: Was there mentorship you wish you had more of?

Before the PhD, I wish I had mentorship to guide me better in terms of career choices, because looking back on it, an MD would have been the way to go. Granted, I’ll never know if I would have been successful in my candidature and I feel like it’s too late to go back. But I’m happy doing what I’m doing now.

Q: Were there any skills you wished you developed during your PhD?

I’ve got friends who took longer to do their PhDs and I was able to see the difficulty they had in developing their project. I guess I traded the customizability and the personalization of the project for the stage of development. I didn’t get to choose my topic or choose what I was going to study. The project was already laid out for me.

It might not have been my own, but I got something that was already on foot and already had ethics approval—it was already ready for me to go do it. Because I was willing to make that trade-off, I wasn’t stuck with worrying about developing something.

Q: What were the biggest challenges for you post-graduation?

There’s not much of a market for a PhD in psychiatry. So you’re only as good as you are at marketing yourself. It means that you’ve got to argue your way into any position. I’ve got some epidemiological education and economic education, so I can argue that I could fit almost in any box. If I had gone to become a psychiatrist, I would have no trouble fitting into a box at a hospital.

Q: What kind of advice would you like to give to someone who is currently working on their PhD?

If the student is in the Psychiatry program, I would say you have to be very careful about what you plan to do afterwards. I didn’t really have a clear plan. You have to have a clear understanding of what your career trajectory needs and how your PhD can be tailored to boost that career trajectory. If you don’t have a career trajectory, you have to be diversified and creative with how you market yourself and your skills, because there’s no market for a PhD in Psychiatry. For me, I have to explain that I’m not a clinician but I’m trained in mental health. It’s definitely confusing when I have to tell them that I have a MSc in Psychiatry, which gave me clinical exposure.

For PhD students in general, I would say to enjoy it. It’s a lot of fun. The work you do afterwards is less entertaining. The PhD is probably the second best experience for me, after the MSc. 

Many thanks to Daniel for sharing his PhD narrative!

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