Leah Moss graduated in 2007 with a PhD in Integrated Studies in Education. Her dissertation considered the recognition of prior learning (RPL) and globalization. She is now Senior Advisor to the Vice-Principal and Dean in the Faculty of Medicine at McGill University
Q: Why did you decide to do a PhD in the first place?
I was completing my Master’s and during my defence my committee looked at something and said that it would be a very good question to pursue in a PhD. It was the first time anyone had said I should consider a PhD. Before I could think about it too much, I went to the office and registered.
Q: You completed your PhD in the Faculty of Education, but you now work in the Faculty of Medicine—how do those two fields relate?
I have to say that my doctorate in Education and the subject matter that I studied has served me very well. It opened an innumerable number of doors for me professionally. So for that, I’m very grateful. The Faculty of Medicine is extremely diverse and its mandate is to train health professionals and to support world class scientists. At the base, there is pedagogy. It’s part of their continuing professional development as a health professional and in their continued lifelong learning as scientists. Education and pedagogy are very prevalent in the Faculty of Medicine, so a background in this area is very helpful to my current role.
Q: Would you say that your relationship with your supervisor when you were doing the PhD was a positive one?
I found it was a very positive working relationship in allowing me autonomy to do the work that I wanted to do. An example is his helping me navigate the program. There were many required courses I needed to take. I sat down and I said to him, “Imagine that tomorrow I’m about to graduate. What did I have to do to get there? What do I need to accomplish to get this degree?” He was very good at helping me navigate the system. I was a bit disappointed that when I was in the program, I was never offered a TAship, I was never approached to co-facilitate anything or to co-publish, nor was I introduced to anyone who could do that. I was a straight-A student. I always had my work in on-time and I worked at a pretty good pace for a doctoral student with original research and everything. But it was not an environment where the other stuff happened. It was very much if you wanted to do something, you had to do it on your own.
Q: How could you describe your career path after your PhD? Were you employed by McGill right after graduation?
No. I was working part-time and I was also the volunteer president of the Quebec Association for Adult Learning, which was a provincial organization that advocated for adult learners in English communities in Quebec. The government of Quebec was interested in the topic of my doctorate. They were about to launch the program and they had called our association to ask if we knew of anyone who knew about this topic. And the office manager said, “you’re not going to believe this, but our president just finished her doctorate in it. She’s the first in Canada. Do you want to speak to her?” I went to their first conference and at the end of the day, the organizers hired me. I did that for about five years before working at McGill in administration.
I think it’s important to note that I was able to apply what I had studied in my doctorate for five years at a provincial level and that was wonderful. But it wasn’t an academic position and I wasn’t associated with an institution. That was five years lost from academia and it was a conscious decision. I knew that I was going to be hard pressed to get back into the world of academia. Interestingly, I was able to teach as part-time faculty at Concordia for 16 years in their Department of Education. And I continued to publish in my field and was being asked to speak at conferences in France and across Canada. It still was not enough to be considered, or hired, as faculty. I made my peace with that and continued in the vein of administration, which I’ve been very happy with.
Q: What advice would you give to someone working on their PhD or who will be working on their PhD in the future?
The first piece of advice is to ensure that you have a good working relationship with your supervisor. That means that you must have very clear expectations on both sides. How often will you meet? What level of work is expected? If there are opportunities to co-publish or co-present, sharing those expectations is very important.
The second piece of advice is that you should initially come to the PhD with a well-thought out question that you would like to answer. It is very important to write that on a cue card, or put it in your phone. And then every time you have a brilliant idea that takes you on a tangent, look back at your question and ask, does this relate to the core question of my doctorate? If it does, terrific. If it doesn’t, write down your brilliant idea and it will be an article that you can write and publish when you’re finished. Stay on track.
The third piece of advice is to lean into your own opportunities, be they applying for funding or getting along with your graduate student society or whatever it is in your field. Lean into it as much as you can because it is really your last opportunity as a student unless you do a postdoc.
Q: If you got another chance to choose between academic work and administrative work, would you make a different decision?
I am inherently a competitive person, so I would want to be at the top of anything that I do. I see what it’s like in academia today and I don’t know if I would have had the ability to spend as much time with my children when they were little if I had tried for a tenure track position. I see the lack of support, especially for female academics, at conferences. And that’s really tough. I weigh that against the administrative work that I was able to do in my field that had a real impact, a positive impact in the education system of the province. I’m very proud of that. As much as I miss the classroom with students, I would stay with administrative work.
Many thanks to Leah for sharing her PhD narrative! You can find more about her on LinkedIn.
This interview took place in March 2020. Interviews are edited by the TRaCE McGill Editorial team for length and clarity before publication.