Jocelyn Moore completed her PhD in biology in 2008, studying Drosophila (fruit fly) oogenesis and RNA. She currently works as a Senior Scientific Evaluator in the Indoor Air Program at Health Canada.
Q: My first big question is when did you decide to do a PhD?
For a long period, if not most of my undergrad, I intended to do graduate work. When I was in high school, I was involved in a project where I got to work in a university chemistry lab. Then, when I was in undergrad, I did an undergraduate honours degree and had multiple projects in different labs. I can’t think of a particular moment, but I knew that I could follow the path of a scientist, whereas med or law school weren’t for me.
Q: So you decided to do graduate school early. Why did you choose McGill?
I went to high school in Calgary, but I was originally from Toronto, so for undergrad, I only applied to McGill and UBC, based on a desire to live in Montreal or Vancouver. UBC gave me a generous scholarship, so I went there for undergrad, but then when it came time for grad school, I chose McGill. And I chose Paul Lasko’s lab because it was a vibrant, well-established lab with a large number of graduate students, so I thought it would be a good, collaborative environment.
Q: How supervised were you in the lab at the beginning?
My first year in grad school was Paul’s first year as chair so he was very busy with his new role. He asked the lab manager to help me out and she was very friendly and helpful. But I was glad that I’d had significant experience previously. I wasn’t anybody’s particular responsibility, so it was up to me to go and ask for help.
Q: Speaking of challenges, I was wondering what was your biggest challenge during the PhD?
It was challenging in so many ways! As I said, I had to figure out my day-to-day tasks on my own, and I was shy, so I had difficulty asking people. And there are a lot of personalities in labs, or politics or other things that were intimidating. And there were also technical difficulties, though if I’d had more confidence or mentorship, perhaps they wouldn’t have been such a problem. I think I hit all the boxes, though, on what was challenging for me [laughs].
Q: Did it get easier or harder over time?
I think it got easier over time. I got more competent and I knew people more, so while the challenges grew, I was better able to handle it.
Q: How was the sense of community during the PhD? Did you find connections in your department, or did you find that elsewhere?
I absolutely did. One of my best friends from grad school was my bridesmaid. And we just had an isolation Zoom birthday party for her. When I was there, there wasn’t a lot of formal student society going on, but just a lot of labs close by. Seminar series, joint lab meetings, everybody eating lunch in the same place—things like that.
Q: And meanwhile, did you have opportunities to teach or go to conferences or anything extracurricular?
I TAed once; one of the upsides of being in a large, well-established lab is that I didn’t have to TA unless I wanted to. And we got to go to two conferences every year, one small and local and one larger, and sometimes international. It was a very privileged position to be in, a really big perk.
Q: When in grad school did you start thinking about options outside of academia?
If I’m completely honest…I can tell you what happened in my career, but I don’t know if I can tell you things that you can actually do.
I worked with the careers office a fair bit, but I found that they weren’t very concrete regarding job opportunities. So I applied to a medical writing group, and I think because the manager knew my boss, it helped me get hired. So I did medical writing for a few months.
But, in the year prior to graduating, I happened to go to a seminar on campus by Health Canada, and I applied. So then a few months after I started my medical writing job, I got a job at Health Canada and moved to Ottawa.
Q: How long was the turnaround from application to getting the job? I heard it can take a long time to hear back from government positions.
Yes, I applied in late winter, did the interview in late summer, and then got the phone call in February, and that was during a big recruitment drive!
Q: What was your experience as a PhD on the job market? Was it hard to market yourself to government?
I think I got hired at Health Canada because I had a PhD; the department that hired me wanted their scientific documents to have a name with a PhD, to have a bigger impact on the industry. I don’t know that I did anything right that first interview, other than having a PhD. Of course, it probably also helped to be generally scientifically knowledgeable and present myself well. My specific PhD field is not that relevant, but the skills that served me best are general scientific knowledge, general biology background, and all the critical thinking, leadership, organizational skills—that’s what I play up most in applications and interviews.
Q: What about the work-life balance? How does that compare to grad school?
Honestly, I’m going to say, I just could not believe it. Like, I didn’t have to work any harder than I wanted to. I have a strong work ethic, which I think most grad students do. But I was just like, so wait a second. You’re going to tell me what to do. You’re going to tell me how to do it. And then when I do it, you’re going to tell me I’m awesome. [laughs] It was so different! And so if you’re somebody who feeds off positive reinforcement, then you’re going to keep working hard and gaining a good reputation and building your good references and be able to move up.
So the stress level is much lower, and even when you take on more projects and responsibilities—which is more interesting!—things rarely get unbearably stressful. Nothing like grad school. And there are provisions for working part time, working from home, family time…it’s definitely one of the perks of working for the government.
Q: You touched on this before, but do you feel like your PhD prepared you well for the job you have now?
I don’t think I would’ve had the same answer a few years ago, but right now I would say yes. All of the things that made it hard and all of the things I had to overcome, those are all the skills that are moving me ahead now, like having to be a self-starter and having to demonstrate leadership skills. The biggest compliment that my bosses give me now is they can just hand me a project and I can just run with it. And that is a PhD. Being able to find solutions to problems, knowing the ways that I work best, when I can work independently and when I need to ask questions—all of those kinds of things.
Q: One last question: Is there something that you know now that you wish you knew coming in to your PhD? Any advice for incoming students, or somebody wondering whether they should start a PhD?
Something I already touched on: nobody is going to tell you what to do. You have to figure it out by yourself, and if you need help, you have to figure out how and who to ask for it.
Another thing is that you’re going to have to ask a lot of people for help, so it is good to be prepared when you ask them. Do as much background research as you can before you ask people questions: your questions will be better, and you’ll make better use of their time, which they’ll appreciate.
Many thanks to Jocelyn for sharing her narrative!
This interview took place in May 2020. Interviews are edited by the TRaCE McGill Editorial team for length and clarity before publication.