Dea van Lierop completed her PhD in Urban Planning in 2017. In her thesis research she studied ways of increasing satisfaction and loyalty among users of public transit. Today, she is an Assistant Professor of Human Geography and Spatial Planning at the Utrecht University, in the Netherlands.
Q: Let’s start by asking, how did you decide to do a PhD?
I did a Master’s degree in urban planning at McGill, and I discovered that transportation planning was fascinating to me and I had more questions that I wanted to explore. I wanted to dedicate time to thinking about and solving problems that I probably wouldn’t have the opportunity to solve outside that PhD setting.
Q: What opportunities did you have to teach during your PhD and how did that fit into your professional development?
I consider myself very lucky that I had a supervisor who really valued making sure that his PhD students got a chance to teach. I co-taught a class with my supervisor and got to develop lectures and exam questions. I also gave a lot of guest lectures in different classes that were related, either very specifically or a little bit more broadly, to the research I was doing.
During my PhD I used the Teaching and Learning Services to take a class on course development because I thought that was an interesting skill to build. Right after I defended my PhD but while I was still doing the revisions, I developed what they called a “Practice and Principles” course that they had at the School of Urban Planning. I developed the course outline with readings and activities and then I taught that course. It was a really wonderful opportunity because I had the training from the Teaching and Learning Services that was not subject matter specific and I was able to apply it to my area of specialty. I really value that, now that I’m teaching, I had that training before.
Q: That’s wonderful. Not many people have the opportunity during the PhD to develop courses and actually get to teach them.
I think that there might be more opportunities than people think, especially through the Teaching and Learning Services. Anyone can send an email to them asking to join their seminars. That initiative came from my interest in teaching, and I recognize that not everyone has the opportunity to actually teach a course they design.
Q: How did funding impact your PhD experience?
In my first year, I received a MEDA (McGill Engineering Doctoral Award). One of the best things that came out of the MEDA is that I met some of my best friends at the welcome reception. At the funding reception, there were not that many women compared to men, and we ended up sitting at the same table and introducing ourselves. We started chatting and we are very good friends still to this day—one of those women even ended up being a bridesmaid at my wedding. That social bond right at the beginning of the PhD had a huge influence on my wellbeing. The MEDA funding also helped that entire group of friends develop doctoral research that ended up landing all of us jobs we are very happy with in various countries around the world.
I was incredibly lucky to receive SSHRC funding in my second year. That federal funding helped me attend conferences and gave me a sense of security. The day I received that funding, I felt so relieved. I remember it being extremely stressful, not knowing if I would have that funding or not.
Q: What was your path like after you graduated?
I applied for public and private sector jobs and I also did some interviews for Assistant Professor positions, but I wasn’t successful with those. I had some opportunities for postdocs, but I wasn’t really sure whether that’s exactly what I wanted to do.
I ended up going into private engineering consulting working as a transport planner, and I absolutely loved it. I worked with a great team. It was very interesting and I had a great time, but it was not an easy transition, emotionally. I felt very isolated from McGill because my perception of what McGill was communicating to me was that the story of a successful PhD finishes with a job as a professor.
Developing business skills relevant for industry was not a big challenge though. I had taken a business course at McGill for non-business students that helped me learn some of the vocabulary that business analysts use. And besides, your PhD isn’t just science. It’s human resources, it’s project management, it’s figuring out legal agreements for data, etc. There are so many parts of the PhD that are not just calculating something or developing theory.
Q: Can you tell me about the job you work in now?
I work in the Netherlands at Utrecht University as an Assistant Professor in Urban Accessibility and Social Inclusion. I had been working in the private sector for a while when a job opportunity opened up. At the time I wasn’t actively looking for an academic job, but I just saw this particular opening with a group of great researchers that was interesting to me and in a really nice location. I thought to myself “let’s just try and see.” These jobs are extremely competitive, but you never know, and this particular academic job was exactly focused on my research interests. So, I applied and I ended up getting the job. I moved to the Netherlands first while my husband was finishing his PhD at McGill, and now we’re both living here very happily in Utrecht. It’s a great place to live and I am very happy with the academic environment. It’s a different university system compared to Canada, but I’m still working on the questions and the research that I’m interested in and teaching also.
Q: It’s great to see an example of someone like you who was able to go back and forth between the private sector and academia.
I think it’s one of the most important things to be discussed at some point during the PhD. These newsletters that lay out the percentages of people working in one sector or the other always seem so binary, but I’m sure there must be more people like me who go back and forth. Why wouldn’t you? Some people find their one job and stay there because that’s what they want to do, but in an international school like McGill, you have people from all over the world. Sometimes you do a job because you need to be in a certain place geographically. Other times you do a job because you need the money. These things change during different phases of your life. I think that’s what students need to know, that you don’t just choose one job after your PhD until the end of your life. You can switch. Maybe you’ll need something now that you won’t need in 10 years. I think that’s a much more honest way to think about it, but I never heard that dialog during my PhD. I never thought switching between industry and academia was a real possibility.
What I did hear a lot was that if you want to go into the private sector, you should do it before the PhD, or else you’re going to be too expensive to compete with the Master’s students. But having a PhD usually means you have a different skill set, so of course it’s likely that you’re going to have a different salary. I think any PhD student should have a way to find out what they’re worth in the market either in the private sector or academia. I think universities can help with informing students of their value to empower them in job negotiations. It shouldn’t be such a mystery.
Q: One final question. Is there something you wish you knew before starting your PhD?
I would have appreciated being reminded that the PhD is really the time to learn, because there are very few other moments in your life where you get that opportunity. Especially in the first two years when you’re not rushing to get papers done, you should be selfish about that time. Take the time to read and learn and reflect and talk to different people. It’s rare to have that much time for thinking. As soon as you get into the post-PhD phase, you’re expected to deliver.
I did do a lot of reading and I did learn a lot, but I also was nervous about making sure I finished on time and I completed all the milestones you’re expected to achieve. I’m sure I would have been fine if I’d relaxed a little bit more about those strict deadlines and focused on the knowledge.
During the PhD, there’s a lot of space to think about the knowledge you want to acquire. That will make you more creative and more successful. It’s not the time to fear failing your comprehensive exam or not completing your PhD. It’s a time to live in the moment of what you’re learning.
Many thanks to Dea for sharing her PhD narrative! You can find out more about her at Utrecht University or on LinkedIn.
This interview took place in June 2020. Interviews are edited by the TRaCE McGill Editorial team for length and clarity before publication.