Jessica Toste graduated from the Department of Educational and Counselling Psychology in 2011. She is currently an Associate Professor in the Department of Special Education at The University of Texas at Austin Her research focuses on methods for intensifying interventions for students with or at-risk for reading disabilities.
Q: What made you interested in doing a PhD?
I often say to people that I loved school and I loved learning. So I wanted to keep learning about things I was interested in. At the end of my undergrad, I got really interested in research—the process of investigating, discovering, and understanding new things.I decided to complete a Master’s. I was good at research and I liked doing it, so I continued on into the PhD because I realized I wanted my career to center around research.
Q: What is your current position?
I’m an associate professor at The University of Texas at Austin.
Q: How did you become a professor?
After graduating from McGill in 2011, I did a two-year postdoc at Vanderbilt University. I did that mainly because I wanted to get into a slightly more niche area that most Canadian institutions don’t really have—I wanted to work with someone directly in that field. In the second year of my postdoc, I started applying for academic jobs and then got the position here at UT.
Q: So when you were doing your PhD, were you set on becoming a professor?
In the first year of my PhD, I was probably 70% sure that was going to be my path, but I was still kind of open to other things.
Q: Were you ever presented alternate career paths or were you always encouraged to do the academic paths?
Our department trained a lot of clinical professions. I think most of the PhD students were training to be in the clinical field—it was almost less common to be going into academic positions, although it definitely was still a potential pathway. In my lab, there were many PhD students who went into high-level administrative positions with school boards or things like that. So I think I had a good understanding of what different options could be.
Q: Since becoming a professor, was there anything that you were surprised by?
I think the most different thing is that at a lot of US institutions, especially R1s, there is a different culture around work, like how much people work and how busy people are. I was used to working with faculty who worked really hard and were very present, but had clear boundaries, such as going home at 5pm, not responding to emails until the morning, and not doing work on a weekend (generally). That was certainly not the case when I moved into other institutions, but I’m not sure that counts as a “surprise.”
Q: Who would you say were your most important mentors during your PhD?
My advisor. I actually completed my Master’s with her as well. I had considered going elsewhere for my PhD, but for family reasons at the time, I decided to stay at McGill. So I didn’t have as steep of a learning curve lwhen I started my PhD—I was ready to just get into it right away.
Q: What would you say that you value most about your time in graduate school?
I valued my advisor the most. I credit a lot of my career success to what I learned from her. We had a great relationship—I learned a lot from her and I was able to seek her advice on things I may not have been comfortable asking other people about. She was very open to giving doctoral students opportunities to do work on different projects, teach, and learn new things. I felt like I had a lot of opportunity to become really well-rounded before I applied to academic positions.
Q: When you were in the PhD program, did you feel as though you belonged to any type of community?
Yes, we had a really great lab team. Our lab was very close and we all still keep in touch. I served on the Education Graduate Students Society (EGSS) and then also McGill’s Post-Graduate Students Society (PGSS), and built a community of grad students outside of my lab and outside of my department. Through serving on many committees, I also got to know a lot of faculty members really well.
Q: Did you have any experiences that you found to be particularly valuable since you graduated?
I think one thing that has been very valuable, especially very early in my academic career, was that as a PhD student at McGill, I sat on a lot of committees. I was president of our faculty’s graduate student society, I sat on our department’s executive committee, and I got to sit on a couple of hiring committees. That really helped me understand the inner workings of academia before I got into it.
Q: What would you say were the biggest challenges during your PhD?
I think just balancing all of the demands of work, the dissertation, other projects, and life outside of that. I would say the biggest challenge was just finding time to do those things and still take care of yourself, which I don’t think I did. The pressure of doing all those things, whether it was self-imposed pressure or not, could be a lot to keep up with.
Q: What advice would you give to someone working on their PhD?
Maybe one of the most general pieces of advice I would give if they were already in a PhD program would be to become very good at scheduling your time and protecting your time now because that is going to be a hard habit to develop once you are already in an academic position. So I really encourage my doctoral students to take time off—weekends, evenings, whatever works for them—to make sure that they have time to recharge, and to book writing time into their schedule and get into the habit of doing that. Really practice prioritizing all of the work in academia that has no deadline attached to it, but is central to your job. I wish my past self would have been better at developing a writing schedule and sticking to it. I think that would have saved me some stress in the long run.
Q: Lastly, is there something else you’d like to add?
I think one of the most predictive factors for success in a PhD program is the relationship you have with your advisor. I encourage students to choose really well when looking for an advisor, and to talk to people to make sure it’s someone that they’re interested in working with. Also, it is important to recognize that they’re going to have a relationship with this person for at least four years. Next year will be a decade since I graduated and, even now, I feel very lucky that I had the advisor I had.
Many thanks to Jessica for sharing her PhD narrative! You can find her on Twitter @DrToste and on her website.
This interview took place in July 2020. Interviews are edited by the TRaCE McGill Editorial team for length and clarity before publication.