José Carlos Marques graduated from Desautels Faculty of Management in 2017. He is currently an Assistant Professor (Strategy & Sustainability) at the Telfer School of Management, University of Ottawa.
Q: What made you interested in pursuing a PhD?
Before embarking on a PhD, I worked for about 10 years in various management positions in a number of industries and countries. But I always had an academic bent—I was reading a great deal and asking what I now realize were perceived to be rather “esoteric” questions. At one point, my employer offered to pay for an MBA as part of a leadership advancement program. I was keen on going to INSEAD, the world-renowned business school (the fact it was in France may have had something to do with it!). But I soon realized an MBA wasn’t for me.
Instead, I quit my job and pursued a research-based Masters of Science in development economics. That led me to explore the world of research and policy, as well as to explore some of the questions that I’d been thinking about that were related to business in developing countries—particularly Brazil, where I had lived for some time. At that point, I wasn’t ready to commit to a PhD so I ended up working at a research institute—the UN Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD). My hesitation was based on the fact that I wasn’t sure I wanted to be in academia. Working at a research institute allowed me to explore other possibilities while not closing any doors. Soon after, I decided I wanted to pursue doctoral studies so I could return to a more senior position at the UN or in the policy world. But once I was in the PhD program, I quickly became convinced that academia was the path I wanted to follow. A rather long-winded route to doing a PhD!
Q: Why did you choose McGill to do your PhD?
I was living in Europe and spent a lot of time looking at programs there. I also became very familiar with other programs across Canada and the US which are structured very differently. What struck me about Desautels was its unique mix of both of these worlds. I was particularly struck by its reputation, flexibility, support, and location. Also, the fact that it’s part of Montreal’s joint PhD program, which provides access to the resources and people across four universities—that was a big plus. All these elements make the program truly unique. I also got to work with Henry Mintzberg—no other school offers that!
Q: How long did it take for you to finish?
One of the things I realized was that they tell you that you’ll be done in five years—pretty much all schools do. But that was completely unreasonable and impossible to do. At least at the time it was. The time it takes to complete the course varies by the program that you’re in and the type of research that you’re doing. But I only realized this after I had already kind of set everything in motion and had moved back here. I further complicated my life because during the first two years of the program I was still working for UNRISD, editing some books and wrapping up some research for them while I was doing the coursework for my PhD. I also took some time off for paternity leave and then a sick leave at the very end. Altogether, it was close to eight years.
Did the PhD take too long? Yes. In the end, was it worth it? Yes. The long timeframe was in many ways due to lots of other things I was doing along the way, but many of my colleagues also took as long. It’s a mixed bag. Although very long, the time invested allowed me to really go deep and broaden into my area of research and allowed me to get some publications under my belt. I think it allowed me to mature as a scholar and it’s greatly benefiting me now. That said, it’s not feasible nor desirable for everyone to invest that much time. If we can cut back on the amount of time that the PhD takes and still maintain the quality and uniqueness—particularly the flexibility to explore areas outside of your main area of research—it would be great.
Overall, my experience was a very positive one. I know not everyone’s experience was similar to mine and some people really struggled. But that’s true of many programs. And yes I’m biased, but I do think there’s something about Desautels that’s quite special. Part of it has to do with being embedded in McGill and in Montreal. But a big part of it is the quality of the professors—in my case, Henry Mintzberg and Paola Perez-Aleman, my co-supervisors, were excellent.
Q: Was it hard to maintain that balance between family and PhD work?
So that’s actually one of the things that appealed to me about the program—a lot of people in the program were married and raising families. I don’t know if that’s the case anymore. But at the time, we were a bit older than the average in most programs I would say. Many of the programs I was applying to had a very strong focus on recruiting people that were very early in their career, in their mid to late 20’s, and had no work experience. At Desautels, there were people in their 30’s and 40’s, and even in their 50’s, who had considerable work and life experience—I believe it greatly enriched the program. My supervisors and my committee were very understanding and extremely flexible when it came to family and accommodating my schedule and time frame.
Q: What kind of mentorship or support did you receive during your PhD program?
My committee was really great—as I mentioned, I was co-supervised by Paola Perez-Aleman and Henry Mintzberg. I also worked for both of them as an RA which gave me some insight into how great scholars go about doing what they do. Also, because we were in a joint program, we were exposed to many professors, students’ perspectives, and all manners of thinking and research. There were a number of different professors, including those at HEC, ESG, and the John Molson School, who were instrumental in helping me understand where I wanted to focus my research. But in general, I would say it was the access to a diversity of ideas, interests, and courses that was instrumental in advancing my thinking. At Desautels, we also had to have a support area, which was usually sociology or economics. In my case, due to my research focus, it was political science, and I got to interact with a lot of people in that department. The diversity of ideas and exposure to different faculties and more diverse ways of looking at the phenomena that I was analyzing was invaluable.
Q: How did you end up at your current job?
I was planning on moving back to Europe—in fact I began doing interviews at European schools while I was on the job market. And then my wife and I realized that for all sorts of personal and family reasons it made more sense to stay in Montreal a while longer. So the idea was that we stay in Montreal, or I commute somewhere nearby. The timing was great—I interviewed at the University of Ottawa and it was a perfect fit. I’m teaching strategy, sustainability, and development management, which is a perfect mix of what I did before the PhD. But I was hired very early in my thesis while I was still writing, with a year and a half to go. I must admit it was painful to start as an assistant professor while completing the thesis but it was really worthwhile.
Ottawa is a great place for me because a lot of what I do revolves around business-government interactions and the strategy-policy nexus. Being in Ottawa also allowed my family to continue living in Montreal… and I get to spend time in two great cities. I think the Telfer School of Management is really taking off—it has grown by leaps and bounds since I joined and they’re investing a lot into the faculty and programs. It’s been a wonderful experience and I’m very grateful. A lot of colleagues have really struggled to find tenure-track positions. I realize I was very fortunate.
Q: Do you ever regret not going back to industry?
There are trade-offs in everything. There are certainly some important tradeoffs to entering academia – for example, you could earn more money in industry. So if you’re driven by money, you might want to consider looking elsewhere. And sure, sometimes I do look back and think about how good I had it when I was working in industry before doing a Master’s.
I often wonder whether I am having as much of an impact in addressing social and environmental issues as I hoped to have— the reason I pursued this path in the first place. I think a lot of people have similar doubts about their choice to enter academia. In general there’s a tension between having publications in excellent journals (that few people read because it’s not accessible to a general audience) and having broader impact. Sometimes I wonder if I had stayed at the United Nations or gone into policy work, as originally intended, if I’d be able to contribute more than I am now. Publishing research findings in top journals is not incompatible with having impact in the broader sense. But it can sometimes take time and focus away from some of the things that you might want to be doing. It’s a juggling act and it takes time to figure out how to do it well. I’ve tried to balance those two—publications and broader outreach—as much as possible. I would like to think that the best is yet to come…
But all things considered, and in comparison to the many things I did before entering academia, I find the life of a professor to be tremendously fulfilling. Pursuing answers to the questions that you find intriguing and sharing that with colleagues, students, managers, policymakers, and the public is a true privilege. The hope that my work helps to make the world a better place—as idealistic as that may sound—is a strong motivator for me. Before I entered academia, I sometimes felt like I was wasting my time doing things that I felt were pointless or misaligned with my values. I have never felt that way since I decided to pursue a PhD.
Many thanks to José Carlos for sharing his PhD narrative! You can reach him at jc.marques[at]telfer.uottawa.ca or connect with him on LinkedIn.
This interview took place in April 2020. Interviews are edited by the TRaCE McGill Editorial team for length and clarity before publication.