Joan Wry graduated with a PhD in English in 2010. She is now a Professor of nineteenth-century American Literature and Honors Program Director at Saint Michael’s College in Vermont.
Q: What made you interested in doing a PhD in the first place?
I had been teaching with a master’s degree for a number of years, and due to family circumstances I wasn’t able to complete my PhD when I first enrolled in graduate school. I stopped at the Master’s degree. I had been employed at Saint Michael’s College in northern Vermont since 1988 and I became interested in doing my PhD at McGill because it was a place that I could commute to.
Q: How did you end up in your current position?
At the time that I enrolled at McGill, I was serving in an administrative position as the Associate Dean at Saint Michael’s College, and I was teaching part-time. In order for me to get promoted to full professor, I needed a doctorate. So, McGill is absolutely the reason why I advanced in my career.
Q: While you were in the PhD program, what kind of financial support did you receive?
It was a lot less expensive to go to McGill than it was anywhere in the US. My alternative was commuting to New York University and flying back and forth between Vermont and New York which would have been more expensive. I received some small grants that were awarded to graduate students, but I never did a teaching assistantship because I was in an unusual situation. I was commuting one or two days a week and I also had a full-time job.
Q: What was that experience like?
I would make the most of every moment I had at McGill. I knew Montreal a little bit because I had grown up in northern Vermont. My father was a professor and we used to go up to Montreal several times a year, but I didn’t know McGill very well. I quickly learned that if one is to commute in a single day-—up and back and across the Champlain Bridge twice—not to do it at rush hour. I left my home in Underhill, Vermont around 4:15 in the morning, so I would beat rush hour traffic. I had a place that I parked just off Rue Peel. I went into buildings that were open early. I could sit at a table and read. I would go to the library as soon as it opened. I was always making use of the time. I met with my professors. I had my classes. I was very efficient about how I spent my time, and I enjoyed it very much.
Q: Since you were commuting, did you feel integrated in the PhD community?
Obviously it was quite different than if I lived there. I was also an older student. I felt a bit like a mentor for the other individuals in my cohort. There were only seven of us in total, and I was 20 years, if not more, older than all of them.
Q: What were the biggest challenges that you had during that time?
Holding down a full-time job while completing a doctorate is not advice I would give to anyone. For me, it was a necessity because I knew I wanted to advance my career and I needed a doctorate. It was an unusual situation, but McGill was willing to work with me. The president of my college—I teach at a small liberal arts college—had agreed that I could take those days to go to McGill. I was able to arrange everything—independent studies, my projects, my pro-seminar—on a single day during some terms. It was a full day, but it worked, and I never had to commute more than twice in a week at any point.
Q: What was your path like after you finished the doctorate?
I still had my job as the Associate Dean of the college, and I was still teaching one course. Our college president granted me tenure when I completed my doctorate–which is not the usual process, of course. They (our Faculty Council and the administration), reviewed me just as if I were applying for tenure the regular way: I had my publications and teaching evaluations and service all reviewed. But it was really a result of having had a lot of success in the way things worked out at McGill. I was able to publish quite a few papers and I didn’t have any problems defending my dissertation. I’m a longtime teacher, so that was a comfortable forum for me, the dissertation defense. And my advisor Peter Gibian was very helpful throughout.
Q: What advice would you give to someone who’s currently working on their PhD
Have faith in yourself. It’s really easy to get discouraged. I was able to stay positive, I think in part, because I had experience in a very competitive program. (I completed my Master’s degree at the University of Virginia in the early 1980s, which was then the number one graduate program in English in the U.S.) And so, you know, I was able to be a little bit more positive, but I constantly had to say to myself, have faith in who you are and what you’re doing.
Many thanks to Joan for sharing her PhD narrative!
This interview took place in March 2020. Interviews are edited by the TRaCE McGill Editorial team for length and clarity before publication.