David Tang received his PhD from the School of Information Studies in 2012, focusing on innovation in information services. He is currently an Officer at the National Research Council’s Knowledge, Information and Technology Services branch.
Q: What made you interested in doing a PhD in the first place?
I did my Master’s at McGill, so the first natural thing was to come back and do the PhD here, as I live in Montreal. But they were six years apart; I completed my Master’s in 2002 and then I started my PhD in 2008, after speaking with some current faculty, including France Bouthillier, Andrew Large, and Jamshid Beheshti.
Q: What did you value about your experience?
I valued that it was an ad hoc program back then, and I valued my supervisors, the committees, as well as the environment that the school offered me. At that time, financial support to students wasn’t as strong or organized as it is now, but my supervisors did the best they could, although I was well-funded, partly because I was working, and I received all kinds of funding that you can imagine—any avenues that could possibly give me money, we applied.
Q: What about support for career development? What was the job market like then?
The job market was more normal back then, which was in part due to the School’s strategic diversification into technology and computer science. There was a window in the hiring cycle where a lot of the library schools were opening.
Especially if you were willing to leave Montreal, there were opportunities, but my family is in Montreal. And I even could have extended or expanded my dissertation project, but I liked the type of job I was doing, and I’m still doing now, as an officer at a government agency.
Q: How do you feel that the PhD enriches or complements the work you’re doing now?
Well, it’s not quite necessary, especially from the day-to-day point of view. I often forget that I have a PhD degree, though some people will put an aura around you. It’s a social environment that we live in, and so even just the title itself has played a more important role than the actual work or training. We learn something in the 4-5 years of training during your doctoral study, but it doesn’t really change you substantially.
Q: That’s a surprising answer to me, personally!
There’s a certain skill set which I learned and which I brought into my work! But if you ask me to honestly reflect…for example, if I hadn’t done a PhD, I could have spent four years gaining some other experience. But if I didn’t have this PhD experience would it necessarily make me less capable in doing my present work? The answer, I think, is more likely no. I would be still performing as well as I have been, and I am, in my current position, probably in different ways, right?
Did it help? Did I use the [knowledge of the] field? Yes, I did. Because I did the degree, right? I was inevitably influenced and changed by this experience. So did it add to my work? Yes, it did. But if it wasn’t for this experience, I would have had other experiences that might have equally contributed to my career.
We cannot have multiple experiences at the same time. The PhD was a great experience and I enjoyed it. I really liked it. And, in my present-day work, I try to relate to what I learned at the school to my work—those are the results of doing a PhD.
Q: So what do you think is the most valuable experience that you took from the PhD?
There are two aspects. First, I had the luxury, and I have to say it was a luxury, to read, and then reflect, for a couple of years. I took advantage of the McGill library system, both on campus and interlibrary loans. I still remember the day I graduated, when I had to use plastic bins to carry my books back to the library, uphill in the winter (though thankfully only thirty meters away)! Sometimes I even donate to the library, because so often the library system saved me money from buying all the books I wanted to read.
And secondly, it helped me to connect with a group of people who I really like, and who I really like working with. This network is invaluable. It doesn’t sound like very potent language, but I have to say that it is the most enjoyable and long-lasting part of my PhD experience—and not just long-lasting, but ever-developing. Even these days, without that network, I don’t know where my present career would be. And this community makes up more and more of my professional life.
For example, immediately after I graduated, I got an offer to do a postdoc at McGill through these connections. And it was a postdoc that I couldn’t have dreamed of, in terms of subjects, its location, in terms of the type of work…and it presented opportunities in terms of transition, in terms of where I wanted to reposition myself in my research life. And when I think back, it doesn’t seem like something that is achievable with human power; it’s almost like that God arranged those kinds of things, when they play out in ways that we could never have imagined.
Q: Was the small nature of the School of Information Studies part of that community building?
Yes and no. We had around 25 PhD and postdoc students for the three years while I was a representative for our faculty, so I knew a lot of what was happening in this loose group. And it was a healthy, positive environment. But the biggest factor for me was my supervisor, France, who is extremely open. From her connections, I was led to connections with more researchers, faculties, and departments. And even my other committee members; I had three past directors, and a lot of experience, concentrated in my committee, so I got the best advice anyone could have imagined. And being in the ad-hoc program had its own advantage of being extremely flexible and free from some of the rules of more regulated programs.
And I know not every networking opportunity bears fruit. Not only are people different, but there are different situations, even economical ones, that can limit opportunities. I was lucky to go through my PhD when I did, because at different times, you have different effects, structures, even just different people that influence what you’re exposed to.
Q: What were the biggest challenges that you faced during the PhD?
University bureaucracy is the biggest challenge. [laughs] You know, the university has a system, it has its own collective will. Although those incidents, they weren’t significant.
Q: Do you have any specific advice for people starting their PhDs?
I would say, be open-minded. It’s okay to have objectives, but we sometimes think, okay, we’ll do this, then do that next…well, if you can choose that, not bad! But the best things happened during my PhD, I didn’t anticipate. So be open-minded and accept every opportunity.
Many thanks to David for sharing his narrative!
This interview took place in May 2020. Interviews are edited by the TRaCE McGill Editorial team for length and clarity before publication.