Dia Dabby, Law Professor, UQAM

Dia Dabby received her Doctorate in Civil Law (DCL) in 2017, focusing on religious diversity in public schools in Canada. She is currently an Assistant Professor in the Département des sciences juridiques at the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM).

What drew you to do your doctorate in law?

Since I started my studies in law, I’ve been very fortunate to work in a research capacity and I knew that’s where I would be at my happiest. Coming to McGill for my doctorate, after having completed my LLM at the Université de Montréal, not only seemed like the logical step, but the only step, given my research interests. 

What did your path look like?

It wasn’t linear, but there was always a guiding thread. I completed my first degree at McGill in 2002, where I developed a strong interest in constitutional politics, thanks to professor Christopher Manfredi, now Provost of McGill University. I finished my bachelor’s degree in law in 2005 and then did the Quebec Bar. Between 2006 and 2010, I completed my LLM at Université de Montréal and articled and then worked at the Court of Quebec as a research lawyer, conducting research for judges in fields as diverse as criminal law, civil law, public law—basically everything.

I started my doctorate at McGill in 2011. In 2015-2016, I worked as an assistant professor at the Leiden Law School in the Netherlands in their child law department, teaching in their advanced LLM in children’s rights. And so my husband and I moved to the Netherlands for a year before I finished my thesis, which is not always the best advice! I was teaching and completed my doctorate at the same time. 

I defended my thesis in September 2016. Following that, I completed a postdoc with the Religion & Diversity project at the University of Ottawa, and then got my current position at UQÀM. Some people have more linear pathways than mine, but I hope that my experiences have made me a more understanding academic. 

What is your current position?

I’m a law professor in the Département des sciences juridiques at UQAM, where I’ve been since 2018. I teach constitutional law, comparative law and religion, and methods classes. I teach in French and my research is conducted in both English and French. I’m happiest when in both languages. I guess that’s a very Montreal thing to say!

Can you talk about your mentorship experience at McGill?

I was supervised by professor Colleen Sheppard, who I first met when I was an Aisenstadt Fellow at the Centre for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism. Colleen was very encouraging and I had a lot of room to explore within the doctoral experience and take interesting research projects along the way. I was fortunate enough to have had quite a few other mentors at the Faculty, aside from professor Sheppard, including professors Shauna Van Praagh, René Provost and the late Rod Macdonald. Mentoring is an essential part of what we do and it is something that I endeavour to continue and engage with in my current role as well.

What about other kinds of support, from McGill or other sources?

I’d had an entrance scholarship from the Faculty of Law at McGill and was then awarded the SSHRC Bombardier scholarship the year after. So financially, it was never a burden for me and I acknowledge that I am very fortunate to have been able to complete my DCL in such conditions. Aside from financial considerations, I also had a lot of external support from family and friends, many of whom had also done graduate studies—so they understood where I was going with this.

What about your fellow students?

The year that I started my doctorate, I think we were 14 doctoral students, which is quite a large entering class at the time. We were quite collegial, which made the doctoral process less isolating and engaged in activities that built a sense of community. I also was part of an amazing writing group with some fellow DCLs at the Faculty, which was a great source of support and inspiration. It’s fun when this happens organically.

Q: Was there any other non-law communities that you belonged to during your doctorate?

I belonged—and still do—to the ethics community at McGill. I was nominated to McGill’s Research Ethics Board III during my doctoral studies, as the legal person (I am a member of the Quebec Bar). This enabled me to get a bird’s eye view into all the amazing empirical research that was being conducted on the subject of children and other vulnerable populations at McGill. I developed a strong sense of service (another integral part of the academic job) and still sit on that committee today.

Q: Looking back on your doctorate, what was most valuable about the experience? 

I think it’s time. Since then, I don’t really have the time to work on anything with the same depth as I did for my doctorate. And for me, time was a good thing because I could explore: I could go engage in research projects on the side, I could attend conferences, and still know that I had a place and a purpose here. 

Q: Are there other aspects of the doctorate that were valuable?

There was a strong emphasis on teaching mentorship through an established faculty program when I was in the doctoral program. I’d taught before my doctoral studies, but it was the first time where I was actively thinking about the “whys” and the “hows” that I ended up teaching. The culmination of the mentorship program was a teaching fellowship, where I co-taught a course with a professor. I now teach a version of that course too! The way that I engage with materials, the types of exercises that I use, is very much shaped by the legal education approach that I received at McGill.

Q: Is there anything else that you wish you knew before starting your doctorate, or afterwards?

The doctoral experience is a unique moment and time for each student. We live through huge amounts of stress—both external and internal—but I think it’s an extremely rewarding experience. We talk a lot about the doctoral experience as being a long moment of solitude, but I don’t think it has to be—it takes work to “make community”—but there is a payoff though. So “doing a doctorate” is not only about the thesis, but all the components that make up our academic lives—and it takes time to figure out the right mix of elements.

Many thanks to Dia for sharing her narrative!

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