Lian Chang received her PhD from the School of Architecture in 2010. Her thesis research was focused on the origins of the concept of proportion in archaic and classical Greece. Today, she is a brand data journalist, turning company data into stories for the media.
Q: My first question for you would be kind of broad. What made you interested in doing a PhD?
I’ve always been interested in schooling and learning and research, but I did not go to McGill with the intention of doing a PhD specifically. I had started to attend the undergraduate architecture program, but it didn’t feel like the right fit for me in the first year. At that time, I already had a couple of years of undergraduate school under my belt so I was able to transfer into the Master’s in History and Theory for the following year, which was a one year program.
I kind of fell into the PhD to be honest, because in the fall of that year, I had classmates who were there to do the PhD who were writing funding applications. So I did too, and I got funded! I ended up staying because—me being 20 at that time—the amount of money in the funding was more money than I’d had before so I thought “that sounds good.” I really enjoyed learning and doing research and the thought of having a few more years to do that and deepen my work was really appealing.
Q: What are some of the positive experiences that stand out to you from your PhD that you feel helped you afterwards?
My advisor was very good at helping us to learn how to think, learn how to ask questions and answer those questions thoroughly and critically, and learn how to communicate about what we’re doing whether in a written or verbal form. I think those are really transferable skills no matter where you go.
Q: PhDs in other engineering fields tend to be centered around a lab where you do experiments, analyze your data, develop protocols, etc. What does this process look like in architecture?
It varies a lot even within architecture. I was doing the most humanities-based thing possible, which was studying the history of ideas in ancient Greece and in prehistoric contexts. I was reading a lot of secondary sources and also primary sources in Greek. Because my focus was so early in history, there’s very, very little archival work. If you’re doing archival work on ancient Greece, it’s archeology, it’s a whole different field. For me, it was all about reading things, understanding them, comparing them to other things, making arguments based on that. It was very humanities-based work.
Q: Is there a remarkable moment of your PhD that stands out to you?
There was this professor named Dalibor Vesely, who was very old and very prominent in our field. It was ultimately his work that my project was aiming to build on and contribute to the most. My advisor and I knew him to be sharp-tongued at times and we shied away from suggesting him for my exam committee.
In the year after I defended my dissertation, I had a chance to meet with him and I sent him my dissertation. It was amazing. Not only did he read the whole dissertation, but he knew the whole thing. We had this hour-long meeting where he went through it in detail with me and was really enthusiastic about it and deeply engaging in it. He had notes everywhere, but really, he had the whole thing in his head. It was like having another dissertation defense in a certain way, but it was very positive and he was really supportive. It was such a privilege to have him engage with me so closely and so enthusiastically.
When you do a dissertation on something that’s such a specific topic, most people can’t really judge it, even your classmates. So to have someone who really knows look at it and really engage with me on it was really special for me. He passed away not too long after that meeting, so I was very lucky to have had that chance.
Q: Beyond academics, were there other types of communities that you were a part of as a PhD student?
I played a lot of tennis, so socially that was my big outlet. I actually didn’t play tennis before. This classmate of mine—who was a little bit older than me—told me “if you’re going to do a PhD you should take up tennis or some other sport because it is important to have that other outlet.” She and her husband were very avid tennis players so that’s literally how I got into it. And she was totally right! You spend your whole day at your desk, so it’s good to have this other thing that’s more than just a walk around the block. Having something else that you are invested in and that you care about and that you spend a lot of energy on is really nice.
It became this other group of friends who were mostly students, so we all understood each other in that sense. But we weren’t in the same program, so it wasn’t just a continuation of shoptalk. Everyone was different. It was fun.
Q: So what are you typically working on nowadays?
I’ve been working in the tech industry—I live in San Francisco where there’s a lot of that. I work with tech companies that typically gather a lot of data in the course of what they’re doing. One way these companies can get press coverage is to figure out what kinds of stories they can tell using the data that they have—that no one else has access to—and pitching those stories to reporters.
When you look at the newspaper and you see a reporter talking about a story that’s using data from a company, typically that comes from some kind of process like what I’m working on. There’s usually someone at that company looking at that data and asking “what kind of analysis can we do with this data to tell a story that reporters would be interested in telling?” This story is sometimes relevant to the company and to the product that the company is selling, but sometimes it’s totally not.
For example, I used to work at Earnest, which is a financial tech company offering consumer loans. Because of the nature of the data that we had, we understood the financial transactions that our clients would make at a very, very granular level. So we could tell stories about who was using Uber versus Lyft versus taxis and in what cities and whether it was men or women or younger or older people, etc. Things that had nothing to do with the business of the company, but reporters were interested in it, and we could get press coverage from it.
I eventually left Earnest and I’ve been working on a freelance basis, doing personal projects in a similar space, trying to use information and data in a way that’s useful to people. Meanwhile I also had a child, so I’ve been focusing a bit more on him and my family during the pandemic.
Q: If you were to go back and talk to your former self, before your PhD, is there anything you wish you could tell yourself?
Although I don’t regret where I’m at now, I probably would tell my former self to think about where you want to be in the future. Imagine some possible futures for yourself or what kinds of things you might want to be doing. Try to learn about those possible paths and what they entail, what credentials and experience you need to get there, and start working towards those things. I would tell myself to not just focus only on the task that was in front of me as a PhD student, but to be thinking about the future at the same time.
Many thanks to Lian for sharing her PhD narrative!
This interview took place in July 2020. Interviews are edited by the TRaCE McGill Editorial team for length and clarity before publication.