Susan King, Engineer, Writer, Educator, and Public Speaker

Susan King completed her PhD in bioresource engineering in 2010, focusing on treatment systems for swine manure. She has worked as an engineer, science and technical writer, academic lecturer, industrial trainer, and public speaker since graduating.

Q: What made you interested in a PhD in bioresource engineering?

There’s a few pieces to that. I did my undergrad in mechanical engineering at McGill and then I worked for a while in industry, and I did a Master’s in Building Engineering at Concordia and then I worked in construction. And then I had a family.

I was hired to teach at a Cégep because of some of my work experience, and I discovered that I really enjoyed teaching. And so, thinking about what I’d do when my children were a bit older, I thought I’d like to teach more, though at a higher level with more interesting subjects. And so that made me look at PhD programs.

To be honest, I chose the Macdonald campus because it was near where I lived. It was practical, and it had a small engineering department. It had been at least ten years since I had finished my Master’s, and it wasn’t my intention to go back and do a PhD, but I took some undergraduate courses to see what the department was like, and it was an interesting group of people. But my decision to do a PhD was really based on wanting to teach.

Q: Were you able to get financial support during your PhD?

I didn’t get anything at the beginning; it was all on my own resources, which I didn’t have a lot of because I had a young family. The professor I was working with applied for an NSERC grant, but it took two and a half years for the project to get approved.

I tried to apply for some other grants, but because I didn’t come directly from a research Master’s, I didn’t fit into their categories, and there was little department support, and even wrong information. It was quite discouraging, but I did eventually get the NSERC funding, which covered three years.

Q: What other support was there at the department or campus level?

To completely blunt, nothing whatsoever. Towards the end, there were some career workshops, but I was a mature student with work experience; the people running the workshops only had a standard procedure for a standard student, and while they were nice, they didn’t have any useful advice. 

For other services, well, there is the university health service, but there was nothing for my young children. I actually needed daycare to pursue my studies, and they were very clear that the campus daycare did not prioritize students. So none of the services had anything for someone like me, who was outside of the ‘normal’ student demographic. Nothing fit, and nobody seemed interested in trying to make it fit. I even remember calling the department downtown that handles graduate financial awards for advice, and they told me on the phone, “We don’t talk to students. Go look on our website.” I didn’t know what to say.

Q: That must have been really frustrating!

I was even more stunned, because I did my Master’s at Concordia and I had the completely opposite experience. I was expecting that McGill would have the same kind of support, but there was nothing.

Q: What about mentorship? Who were your most important mentors?

The bioresource engineering department is quite small, so it’s quite friendly. But for mentorship…you know, most professors have their team of graduate students who they’re good at mentoring, but nobody reached across to anybody else. And my supervisor did her best, but there was a lot of support that I didn’t get from anyone. Part of it was that my supervisor, who for many years was the only woman professor in the department, wasn’t well-regarded by her colleagues. And so, I think her graduate students were also kind of pushed off to the side by other members of the department. It was a bit of a strange dynamic, but of course, you don’t see that when you first arrive; you only see it later when you’re in it.

Q: Were there opportunities for you to mentor other people?

Yes, definitely; I had a number of TA positions, and because I was an older student, I often mentored undergraduates in the lab. And in the last year or so that I was there, my professor was gone overseas for a year, so I was hired as a sessional to teach all her classes, which I really enjoyed. That gave me the opportunity to mentor many students. My office felt like it was always full of girls. I think the female students really appreciated the opportunity to work with a female lecturer.

Q: Were there any activities or hobbies that benefited you during the PhD?

I had a lot going on, with a family and a house, so I didn’t get involved in any other university activities; I was at a different stage in my life. There’s lots to say about how my family situation influenced my PhD, but probably the biggest way was that it made me very organized and efficient, since I only had a very specific amount of time to devote to my work.

Q: What were the biggest challenges for finishing your PhD? What helped you overcome them?

I think getting started was the hardest part; I feel like it took probably two years before I really knew what I was doing. I feel like I had to learn or invent a lot of things on my own, in part because I had never been trained to do things like plan experiments, and in part because my supervisor worked in a very different way than me. I’m a very organized, structured person, while she was always in motion, and somehow everything would come together.

So, instead, I had to look for resources elsewhere. One of the best things I did was take a writing course at the McGill Redpath Museum downtown, about writing up and planning your research. Even since finishing my PhD, that course has been the most useful resource from my time at McGill. I don’t even remember how I found out about that course.

Q: Can you tell us about your current position, and how you got there?

Toward the end of my PhD, my supervisor had gone on sabbatical for a year, and then she only stayed in the department for about another half year after that. At that point, she left McGill. I had already submitted my thesis, and I was hired again for the next two semesters to teach some of her courses. At the same time, they opened a position to replace her. I applied for her position, and they didn’t even interview me. I was very disappointed.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but my supervisor’s departure was, I think, a difficult situation for her, so she really didn’t offer any support to me or her other graduate students who had just finished. While the rest of the department was nice, we were kind of lumped in with her; nobody stepped up to help us find positions.

I live halfway between Montreal and Ottawa, and I had thought that would provide access to enough universities that I could find something. I applied for many positions and did not get anything, not even an interview. During that time, to be able to make ends meet, I took a contract for work related to my Bachelor’s degree. I ended up working in the rail industry as a technical writer and trainer, and teaching people how to maintain trains.

All my background was really useful in that job, but none of my background was required for the job. I got the job through a friend who had a contract doing the same kind of work and we happened to be talking. She was describing what she was doing, I was saying, “I could do that!” And she said, “Well, they need people!” She connected me with the right people, I applied, and I ended up doing that type of work for seven years. My PhD background was useful for that job, but it wasn’t required; I basically used my Bachelor of Engineering skills.

Susan King reflects on her shift from academia to the rail industry.

And then, with that full-time job, my kids in high school, life just got full and I stopped applying for academic work. I finally left that job because it was time for a change, and I worked for a year through a friend with an IT startup. That contract finished in December, and right now [spring 2020] I’m not employed, and I’m not sure what I’m going to do next. I’m in a different stage of life now where I don’t need a big, full-time job. I planned to take a few months to pursue some contacts and see what I could find, but now we have this covid situation, so I’ll talk to people when things start to open up again. Ideally, I’d like to find contracts working with researchers on their projects, since I’ve spent so much time in writing, developing training materials, as well as serving on a committee with NSERC reviewing grant applications.

Q: A last, open-ended question: if you were able to go back in time and give yourself advice or comments at the start of the PhD, what would they be?

I would definitely do a PhD again, but I’d tell myself to do more research first and look at different options, instead of applying to just one program at one university.

I would also tell myself to not be so trusting, to look out for myself a little bit better.  I agreed to work with this professor, and we liked each other and had a lot of things in common. But then it took two and a half years for the funding to come through and I just quietly waited. It took me a long time to realize that I had to stand up for myself.

What’s really funny is that it happened because I ran into a neighbour at the grocery store. He was also a professor at McGill, and when he asked how my PhD was going, he listened to my frustrations and said: “One of the objectives of doing a PhD is learning to stand up for yourself.” I think that was probably the best piece of advice I got from anybody the whole time, and it was in the vegetable department in the grocery store!

Many thanks to Susan for sharing her narrative!

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