Malvina Klag, Independent Consultant

Malvina Klag graduated with a PhD in Organizational Behaviour from the Desautels Faculty of Management in 2009. She is now an independent consultant. 

Q: What made you interested in pursuing getting a PhD?

It is a personal life dream that I had. I did an undergraduate degree in business at McGill, and then I had got an MBA at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in Chicago. I had certain career goals and certain life goals; interestingly, the PhD was a life goal, not a career goal. It was to pursue education for the sake of education. It’s likely related to the fact that I’m the child of two Holocaust survivors. My dad, if things had been different, would most definitely have pursued higher education, and probably would’ve become a professor. It was very important to him. It probably emerged somehow from that. I had no intention of becoming an academic at all. 

Q: What is your current job?

I’m an independent consultant and I work in various areas. One is strategic planning in very complex contexts. Two is systems change—how you can influence large, complex systems toward positive change—and my area is mostly health and social services. The third is social innovation, and the fourth is applied research. I ask, how does one evaluate in a way that is meaningful and that allows one to learn and integrate the learning into future activities? This is what I’ve been doing for the past year. But I’ve done a lot of other things before that. 

Q: Did you learn anything during your PhD that you use in your current job?

I have absolutely zero regrets about doing a PhD. I always use the analogy that going through the PhD was like being on a stretching rack for my brain. My mind was completely contorted and forced into making new connections to the point where I really think differently now. It has made me a better strategist. It has made me a better leader. It’s less about the content, and more about how I think and how I analyze and how I reflect—and the depth to which I do all of that. 

I was in the faculty of management at McGill, in the area of organizational behavior. I came in with a passion around the health system. I wondered why so many physicians were leaving the province of Quebec. I was very concerned about that. My PhD ended up being a study around the decisions that physicians in Quebec make around staying or leaving their places of work. It was embedded in the literature around turnover. It’s still a sector that I’m passionate about. 

Q: Did the PhD provide you with a platform to start your career?

I did not pursue my PhD at an age when most people do. I actually went back to school when I was in my late thirties to do my PhD. I had three young children and I had been working already for 18 years in my career when I decided to go back and do my PhD. This wasn’t about launching my career at all. I didn’t go in with any expectations or hopes for career enhancement. I was simply going to take a break, do this, and then go back to doing what I did before, which at that point was starting up non-profit organizations in the health sector. But I will say that in retrospect, doing my thesis triggered an intense and deep interest in very complex processes; that has stayed with me since then in both my work in practice and in my research. 

Q: What were the main challenges that you faced while you were completing your PhD?

It was the most difficult professional undertaking of my entire career. Much more difficult than I had ever anticipated. It became very emotional—and I’m not a highly emotional person—for a number of reasons. It took me eight and a half years to get through it, which was about the average at the time, but I was anticipating four years. The length of time that I had to be away from my career was more than I had ever expected. Financially, it was a crazy time. I had funding for four years from the Quebec government, thankfully, but some of my colleagues sometimes had to decide between paying rent and eating because there was no funding. Course-wise, I had to repeat statistics during my PhD and I actually failed; it was the first time I had ever failed a course in my life. It was devastating. I ended up retaking it in another faculty and got an A+, but having to go through that kind of thing was just horrible. It was just not what I had expected. There was a lot of bureaucracy involved and very little flexibility. Thankfully, I think it’s changed since then.  

Q: Can you say more about how you balanced family and the PhD? 

It was really difficult. I am grateful to have an amazing husband because without his support, I wouldn’t have been able to do it frankly. There were times I can still remember where I would have to be in my office at home all the time with the door closed. I would get these little notes through the door from my kids, saying, ‘Hope you’re okay, mommy.’ I thought when I started the PhD that it would be the perfect thing to do with small kids because I thought I would have total flexibility. But, in fact, it demanded so much of my time, that I really didn’t have a lot of time to spend with them. So, it’s not great when it comes to balancing work and family. It’s worse than having a job, I think.  

Q: Is there something you wish you knew before you started your PhD? 

I didn’t do a lot of homework to understand what it really meant to go through a PhD. I really had assumed, since I’d done my undergrad and my MBA, that this would just be a natural progression. But the PhD is a completely different program that has nothing in common with an MBA or a BComm. And so I wish I had done my homework before actually jumping on the bandwagon.

Q: Would you still recommend a PhD to someone who is not necessarily looking for a career in academia? 

Yes! We need more people with PhDs who are non-academics. I think it’s wonderful. But I want people to avoid going through the pain that I did. Find something that you think will work for you and speak to as many people as possible beforehand. Make sure you do your homework before you decide to embark on a PhD and before you decide where you’re going to do it, who your supervisor is going to be, and what your topic is. You have to have a lot of passion around what you’re studying. You have to have a lot of respect for the person who will be your supervisor; I was lucky with my supervisor. But please do consider it because we need you. We need more critical thinkers. 

Many thanks to Malvina 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.