Erin Parkes, Founder and Executive Director of Lotus Centre for Special Music Education

Dr Erin Parkes graduated with a PhD in Music Education in 2015. Her research focused on training music teachers to work with students with autism. She continues this research as part of her work at Lotus Centre in addition to teaching music. Recently, she became an adjunct professor at the University of Ottawa, giving courses on teaching music to students with special needs.

Q: What motivated you to pursue a doctoral degree? 

At the time, I thought I wanted to be a professor and go into academia full time. I did my Bachelor of Music in piano performance, and then I did a Master’s in musicology. I had been teaching music all through that, and I realized that I just loved teaching young children and students too much to give it up.

So, I did a Graduate Certificate in Piano Pedagogy Research, and I enjoyed that, but you can’t really do much research if you just have a Graduate Certificate in research. That’s why I went on to do my doctorate. 

Q: Are there any experiences you had during your doctorate that stand out to you as defining where you are now? 

There are, but not necessarily in a positive way. As I got into my doctorate, I saw that the academic culture—and this is not at all specific to McGill, this is everywhere—is…“toxic” may be too strong a word, but it’s very intense and competitive. I just kind of realized I don’t want this for my life. I do love research and I do love being in an academic environment, but do I want this to be my job where I’m feeling at competition with everybody around me all the time? No, not really. I had the same sort of pangs that I had when I was doing my other academic work, which is that I really still love teaching music, I love teaching students, I don’t want to give that up. So, I sort of crafted a job for myself that would allow me to do all the things that I wanted to do. 

Erin Parkes reflects on academic culture and crafting a career based on her interests.

Q: Did your work with the University of Ottawa start the moment you graduated with your PhD, or later? 

It actually evolved somewhat slowly. I did have a long history with the University Ottawa—my previous three degrees were all with the University of Ottawa so I had very close ties there. But, really, after finishing my PhD, I wanted nothing to do with universities at all.

I was really head-first into Lotus Centre—at that time, I was working 60, 70 hours a week, still getting it going—so that was enough at the time. But the professor of Music Education at the University of Ottawa, two years ago now, asked me to lead some weekend workshops for the students there on teaching music to students with special needs. And that evolved into making it a regular course and then making me an adjunct professor so I could also supervise, and that evolved into a whole stream of their Master’s in Music and Cognition program. Many of my students now volunteer at Lotus Centre in the summer and a few of them are teachers now at Lotus Centre. It’s been a very symbiotic relationship for me, having those two organizations working together.

Q: The PhD seems to have helped give you a research platform and also informed the boundaries you have with academia. Circling back to the academic environment, could you list the top two challenges you experienced during your PhD? 

One was that I did not feel encouraged to share my research or further explore lines of research because it didn’t fit into the box that my supervisor thought it should fit into. He was very, very old school—only quantitative data. I wanted to go a different direction, and I felt like where I wanted to go was valid, but it just wasn’t interesting to him. I was very discouraged. It’s not that I didn’t want to move forward; it was just that I didn’t want to be in academia if this was what it was going to be like. 

Beyond that, when I raised the issue to other professors in the department of Music Education that I was working with, all they did was acknowledge, “Yeah, he’s just like that. You just have to take it with a grain of salt.” I saw that it is toxic in that way, when everybody knows this person is not very supportive, but nobody does anything about it and we all just have to tiptoe around. It didn’t seem like an environment that would be good for my mental health, long term. 

Q: How did you cope with all of this during your PhD? 

For one thing, I did it at a distance. I lived in Ottawa the whole time. I had two young kids at the time and when I started my PhD, my oldest had just been diagnosed with autism. That’s part of what lead me down this path. 

There was a lot of stress in commuting a couple of times a week, but it was good to have that physical distance, so I wasn’t just on campus all the time. That helped, but I still had to take a year off after my comprehensive exams. Instead of finishing in four years, I finished in five because I had a whole year off, though I did start Lotus Centre that year. I took a whole year where I just had to not look at my thesis and give myself a bit of a break. 

Q: How did you come to the realization that the doctorate is yours to use for whatever you want to do, even something way outside academia?

I think for me it really was life experience. I was already doing all these other things and I had had fantastic work experiences. I worked on this project, for example, where I taught students in a remote Inuit community through video conference, and I got to go visit them, etc. I’d had all these very rich work experiences that I knew were still there for me outside of the doctorate. 

Also, I had had quite a varied academic experience as well. I can see how if I had just gone from a bachelor of music to my Master’s in musicology to a PhD in musicology, it would be hard for me to envision what else is there, but because of all these interesting experiences, I knew that there was more out there.

Q: Do you notice that people give you a certain degree of automatic respect or deference based on the fact that you have a doctorate? 

Definitely. I think my doctorate has served me very well. Particularly, being the executive director of this organization, I think that it gives me a lot more clout when people know that I have the degree to back up that I am able to develop evidence-based practices and train teachers to have evidence-based practices. I also think the fact that the executive director of Lotus Centre is also a research partner and is publishing papers and is presenting at conferences elevates the status of the work that we’re doing quite a lot. 

Q: Is there one thing that you know now, having finished your PhD, that you wish you could tell yourself before you started or that you tell incoming students?

The advice that I would give is to not put yourself in any kind of box, but to make the PhD your own. It can open so many doors and can provide so many opportunities to learn and grow, and you have a lot of agency to take from it what you want. So, do that. Be open and then create what you want out of that.

Many thanks to Erin for sharing her PhD narrative!

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