Mary Cullinan, Teacher

Mary Cullinan completed her PhD in the Department of Integrated Studies in Education in 2016. She gave voice to the experiences of 39 women who entered doctoral programs later in life. Mary retired from her job as an elementary school resource teacher in 2018. She is now a part-time Student Teacher Field Supervisor at McGill.

Q: Why did you decide to do a PhD?

In 2010, I was hungering for something more. I had completed my Master’s part time when I was a stay-at-home mother in the nineties. By 2010 I had been working full time for many years at a job I loved, but I needed something more. I had always thrived in an academic setting and I missed that environment. My husband was actually the person who encouraged me to go back to school. We had four children between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five who all were either just finishing or just beginning their university studies and they were also very supportive. Initially I thought I would go back to school and study in the area of public education. I was fascinated by how much children’s and parents’ lives and school life are intertwined. At the time I was teaching children with learning problems. I could see that a lack of support or strong parental support was often reflected in children’s ability to cope and learn. I wanted to gain a better understanding about how the home lives of children can and do contribute to their school successes.

Q: You changed your PhD project partway through. Why?

In my first year, I was frequently asked, “Why are you going back to school at your age?” At the time I was fifty-three. I found that question quite insensitive. It was dismissive, as though a person couldn’t possibly have anything more to offer at a certain age. As that first year went on, this question, or variations of it, really bothered me. I was already unsure of myself. By the end of the first year I realized that this was an issue that I needed to investigate. Were there other women who were feeling marginalized because of their age on their PhD journey? If so, I wanted to bring forth their voices. I also wanted to know where other women found inspiration and support along the doctoral journey. 

Q: How did you recruit participants to be part of your new study?

It was important for me to talk to women from all over Canada. I started on the east coast with the University of Prince Edward Island. I wrote to someone in strategic research initiatives, explaining that I was interested in talking to women who went back to school later in life to pursue doctoral studies. Luckily, (for me, I think!) she was an older woman who had also completed graduate studies later in life. She wrote back immediately and said, “I’d be happy to help you find participants.” I was off. Then I tried the west coast. Again, I found so many willing participants. Women wanted to tell the stories of their doctoral journey. I finally stopped after interviewing 39 women from all over Canada.  I wove together their stories and in doing so I was able to shed light on this group of sometimes invisible women. I was interested in sharing how women found inspiration and support in a world that was not always supportive of the mature students’ doctoral journey.

Among the many touching comments was one from a woman who had also studied adult learners. When I got in touch with her, she was seventy-seven and she said to me in a reflective tone, “All my life I had listened to my husband say how smart he was, and one day I said, I’m smart too. I went back to school and completed my doctorate in my sixties.” 

Q: How was your relationship with your supervisor?  

It was very positive and I continue to be grateful for her ongoing support. In the summer of 2015, as I was finishing the writing, my advisor was on holiday. There were days when we had at least 15 emails back and forth about checking a source or organizing my thesis. It was quite overwhelming. I don’t think I could have completed the dissertation without her steadfast support. We have remained friends. She’s amazing. I also had good support from my committee members. They encouraged me to write in my own voice and be true to myself and my beliefs.

Q: What was the biggest challenge you had during your PhD?

As I was working full-time as a teacher, I would say my biggest challenge was time management. Reducing my pay for four years and taking a year off was helpful. I also had a lot of support in my personal life from my husband and children. I would work every night from seven till nine, as well as a full day on the weekends. In the last summer before my defense in the fall of 2015, I was writing up to twelve hours a day. The ending was gruelling. 

Q: What was your journey after graduation? 

I have contributed to a couple of chapters in a book about teacher professional learning. I also have a poem about my research in a book about the impact of the work of Laurel Richardson, a qualitative researcher. Last fall I started doing student teacher supervision at McGill. I’m a part time Field Supervisor for the education students. I continue to be fascinated by people’s stories! While I enjoy accompanying these students on their journey to become teachers, I also want to know what makes a good teacher and why people choose that profession. I am forever investigating!

Q: What advice would you give to someone currently doing their PhD? 

Seek out people who are positive and who are encouraging. Try and create a support group with other students who are also working towards their PhD. You can help each other along the way. Talking with people who have recently completed their doctorate is also helpful. The pitfalls and uncertainties are fresh in their minds! Financial support is also very important. Many of the women I spoke with had difficulty getting funding because they were older and were not eligible for grant money. Older students must be aware of this reality. Choose your advisor carefully. Wait to choose this person so that you feel as certain about your choice as you possibly can. Finally, be prepared for inevitable delays; you must be flexible. Be patient with yourself and others.

Many thanks to Mary for sharing her PhD narrative! You can find more about Mary’s research on this site. It was created for the women who took part in her study. She would be happy to answer any questions you might have.

This interview took place in March 2020. Interviews are edited by the TRaCE McGill Editorial team for length and clarity before publication.