Mark Pitcher graduated with a PhD from the Integrated Program in Neuroscience in 2010. His research has focused on understanding and treating chronic pain. He is currently the Director of Health Sciences Inter-professional Research at the University of Bridgeport.
Q: What made you interested in doing a PhD?
I had always been fascinated with the brain and the mind, so I started my undergrad in philosophy and then moved to psychology. After my undergraduate in psychology, I wanted to know more about the brain – the ‘hardware’ that the ‘software’ of psychology runs on. Where better to study neuroscience than at McGill University! We are fortunate in Canada that we can follow our academic interests so easily and with so little cost – in some countries, higher education can put you in debt for many years, so students have to be a lot more pragmatic about their academic direction.
Q: What do you value the most about your time in graduate school?
One of the main things would be access to world class researchers with broad experience and resources. What you can be exposed to as a grad student at McGill is outstanding. That was very important. We had our weekly journal clubs, and around the table would be ten or twelve world class experts. I could sit there and just ask questions and listen to their comments. It was so motivating to be exposed to the very top people in the field.
Having these amazing top researchers also meant I could walk down the hall to another lab and visit a collaborator and learn about what they’re doing. I was able to learn firsthand why and how these different approaches are done, which allowed me to move in new directions and use new technologies without too much of a problem. The days of being a “one-trick pony” in research are gone—you can no longer just do all the experiments in your own lab using one approach; you need to diversify and collaborate.
Q: What were the biggest challenges for you during your PhD?
My undergraduate background was in experimental psychology, so I was well-versed in experimental methods and statistics. What I didn’t have was the neuroscience or physiology background. So when I came to McGill to start my Master’s degree in neuroscience, I wasn’t as fluent with a lot of these areas compared to people coming out of physiology or anatomy. So I had to work hard and think about my thesis from a different perspective. That was a challenge for me. But that challenge forced me to adapt and think things through in new ways.
Q: So what do you do right now?
I’m the Director of Health Sciences Inter-professional Research at the University of Bridgeport, Connecticut. I lead the university’s research programs through mentorship, training, and collaboration. I am responsible for the development and implementation of strategic goals and policies to increase the university’s research capacity and infrastructure. This is actually a very interesting and dynamic job because of all of the strategic planning that is required. Each researcher has different skill sets, needs, and challenges, and each research project has different equipment needs, regulatory requirements, and so on. There are a lot of moving parts that need to be monitored and maintained. I help orient researchers within their own scope and help them refine their approach and make it more efficient. So it’s a very broad job that still allows me to work on very specific projects—and I like that because at smaller universities, you have to wear a lot of different hats. I’ve got a broad skill set and so for me, this job is both a challenge and fun. I love it.
Q: How did you end up in your current position?
When I finished my PhD, my son was born so I wanted to sit tight for a while. I wasn’t really sure where we were going to go, so I did a short postdoc in my PhD lab working on collaborations. I remember hearing about a prominent researcher from the university that had moved to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health at the National Institutes of Health in the United States—and I thought to myself how great it would be to work with her there. My PhD focused on chronic pain and at the time, the opioid crisis was starting to gain attention, so there was concern about opioids, the addictiveness of them, the damage that they could do, and how broadly they were being prescribed for pain. The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health had recently implemented a new intramural research branch focused on pain and on non-pharmacological approaches. I literally got an email one day from this prominent researcher asking if I was interested in working with her! I jumped at the chance. I was brought in as a postdoc in this new intramural branch, which for me was fantastic because we had the resources and the freedom to define what we wanted to do.
While I was at NIH, I did a detail with the Pain Policy Office. They weren’t looking for new people, I just really wanted to learn from that team, so I met with the Director, described my experience, and asked if I could help. She agreed and let me help with a number of exciting projects. It was a really interesting time when a lot of things were happening. We were developing the National Pain Strategy and briefing members of Congress about pain and opioids and what’s going on in the field. I got to be on the back end of a lot of policy briefs, writing talking points and thinking about how we can describe the opioid crisis to policymakers. It was a really exciting place to work.
When I was getting towards the end of my time at NIH, I got recruited by the University of Bridgeport. They were looking for a research director with a strong research background that had a substantial amount of organizational experience and who understood and appreciated complementary health approaches. I’m not faculty but I do get to do research, which is great. It’s really been an exciting experience and there are not too many opportunities like that. My skill set, broad experience and ability to communicate effectively were really crucial in finding an opportunity like this.
Q: Is there something you wish you knew before starting your PhD?
I wish I would have known just how competitive the field is. I think it’s important that students realize that it’s not getting any easier. Funding rates are going down, it’s harder to do research and it’s harder to get funded. If you’re going to do science, you’ve got to be the best. You’ve got to publish a lot and your CV has to be beautiful.
Q: Lastly, what advice would you give to students who are doing their PhD now?
Definitely work hard and publish a lot, but also gain other experiences. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to get tenure-track positions. Tenure is disappearing and ‘soft-money’ contract jobs are on the rise. All the other skills, like communicating effectively, leading initiatives and organizing events are transferable to industry, government or science writing jobs—there are all kinds of areas. If you want to move up in any company, you need to demonstrate your organizational skills, communication skills, and your leadership skills. Can you function in a team? Can you negotiate with people? Can you strategize and lead initiatives? When you’re in grad school, you think, “I’ve got to publish this paper, I’ve got no time for that”, but you’d be surprised how useful these skills are. Being in a committee is fine, but leading an initiative and starting something new that requires you to go talk to the university leadership or work with leaders in the field —those are really good experiences and will definitely help you down the road. So it’s good to get experiences under your belt early.
Many thanks to Mark for sharing his PhD narrative! You can find him on LinkedIn.
This interview took place in August 2020. Interviews are edited by the TRaCE McGill Editorial team for length and clarity before publication.