Tanya Chichekian graduated with a PhD in Learning Sciences from the Department of Educational & Counselling Psychology in 2014. She is currently an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Education at Université de Sherbrooke.
What made you interested in doing a PhD in the first place?
There was a ten-year gap between my bachelor’s and my master’s. I went to do a two-year master’s with the initial intention of going back to work. My supervisor convinced me that I should stay and try to do a PhD.
It was difficult at first because I also had a young family to take care of, so I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to do a PhD. I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to take that professional or personal leave that I was entitled to from my work. So there were lots of factors that came into play. I decided to stay because I had come up with a research idea that was personally tied to my own interests. And I decided why not? I can pursue this idea. I had a super good relationship with my supervisor and he agreed to continue supervising me for the entire duration of the program.
What is your current position?
Assistant professor at Université de Sherbrooke. Other than their main campus in Sherbrooke, they have another one on the south shore, in Longueuil, which is where I work from.
What was your path after graduation?
Once I graduated from the PhD in 2014, I did go back to work as I had initially planned on. I was the academic advisor for the health sciences program at Dawson College.
I had initially wanted to do the master’s degree so that I can start taking on more of a leadership role within institutional research. That was my initial game plan. So I thought, okay, I’ll do a master’s degree, and then I can go back and get involved. And then I thought maybe with a PhD, I’ll be better at it. I went back to work for two years, until 2016. But I had deviated from my initial path when I first left to go do a master’s degree back in 2009, and it just was not aligned anymore with my own personal interests, goals, and ambitions. So I went to do a postdoc at UQÀM with Prof. Vallerand from 2016 to 2018. And during my last semester, I applied and interviewed at Sherbrooke and I started work the first week of January 2019.
How have you found moving into your role as an assistant professor?
It’s been superb. It really has. I had a lot of practical experience coming in. I had dealt a lot with juggling and multitasking; my job was extremely demanding at Dawson College. I know sometimes when we hear academic advising, depending on the context and institutional regulations in which you work, that can take on different roles. We used to wear multiple hats at the college. I was always somebody who did multiple things and was efficient at doing these multiple things, both at the personal and professional level.
Is there any type of mentorship that you wish you would have had before you started graduate school?
The first year I went to McGill as a master’s student, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Absolutely zero idea. What is expected of me as a graduate student? Zero clue. I was a licensed math high school teacher at the beginning. That was my background. In 1999, I graduated from McGill with a bachelor’s in secondary education to teach math. I did that for two years, and then I moved on to Dawson as an academic advisor. I had been totally out of it.
I went into my master’s hoping to learn how to conduct good and efficient research. Then, I was thrown into all these different courses that I had no background in. I was very stressed in that first year. Maybe there is an assumption that students know what they’re getting into when they apply to a program? That assumption could probably hold for students who are continuing directly from a bachelor’s to a master’s. But as someone who’s been out of it for a while, I was thrown off. I was debating whether I had made a good decision or not. It was not what I had expected. I wanted more of a research component, and I didn’t have a supervisor the first year. I would have liked to know more about what I was applying in to.
What do you value most about your time in the PhD?
It’s tied to my supervisor, Prof. Bruce Shore—it’s his belief in me. If he did not believe in me, I was never going to make it through those three years. It’s his constant reassurance, and his constant boost in my confidence. He was able to see down the road what could be a potential. And he made me believe in that potential, which was a long-term goal. It’s difficult to see a long-term goal when your short term goals are difficult to achieve.
Did you have any experiences in the program or outside of the program that you found to be particularly helpful to you post-graduation?
There were two things. My supervisor brought all of his students to conferences with him. I learned how to network during these conferences and I did go to some pre-conference workshops. I got to learn a bit more over there in terms of what’s expected to publish and how we know how to conduct specific types of analysis in different types of research that you want to undertake. That helped me a lot in conducting the type of study that I had designed. The design was intense in the sense that I had to apply for ethics for six different school boards, I had to travel for one year, from one school, to another school, to another school to observe, and do that. What I gained in terms of expertise in conducting good research in education was through the professional development of those workshops at the conference.
What advice would you give to someone who’s working on their PhD?
Persist with a smile? If you truly value it and want to do it, keep persisting, despite the challenges or despite what might be seen as unachievable in the current moment, and try not to think too far ahead. It’s incremental steps, and you need to pat yourself on the back during the PhD. If you look too far, you can easily get disappointed. Every small success, every small step should be celebrated. Seriously.
A lot of people around me and in my extended family were not very supportive because I have a young family and I “left” them to go back to school. I had to deal with not only the difficulties that came with everything related to the PhD itself, but I had all that baggage to deal with as well. So being able to find those small successes and highlighting them for yourself was important. And don’t wait for somebody else to tell you “congrats” or “good job”. Say it to yourself.
Is there anything else you would like to share?
I think you should have an open mind in every sense of the way. I came in there as a mature student. I had done zero research in my bachelor’s degree. But I had 10 years of work experience in the field. In the first year, when I used to hear my peers talk, I was like “well, what are they saying? They’re like talking libraries, talking encyclopedias, they cite when they speak! What is this? I don’t understand this culture.” I used to hear people talk about things that were completely meaningless to me, because of my practical experience. And those people became shining stars now. I used to tell my husband coming home back then that I don’t think I’m on the same wavelength.
You’ll encounter so many people during your PhD. The more people you get involved with – either through publications, conversations, team members, friends – the more different opinions you are going to get. So if there’s one piece of advice I would give, it’s stay on your path. What was your inner motivation that got you into this path? Be true to yourself. There’s so much pressure on some students to follow a certain path that is not necessarily carved for them or by them. Stay true to you.
I think there are lots of assumptions that are accepted without question that are not necessarily true. I think students who don’t want an academic career should not be devalued at all. Most of my students now do not want to be profs in the beginning. And I’m totally fine with that. I want to be able to show my students that there are different paths, especially if they’re not gung ho on becoming a prof—I’ll show you all the different possibilities, and then when the time comes, we decide.
I always have an interview with them in the beginning when they’re thinking about working with me to tell them there are at least two different paths that you need to think about from the beginning – academic and non-academic – because our working relationship will be different. But I have to say, when the working relationship is great, when the research team is working, and it’s productive, well, I see some students starting to shift, and that’s fine too. At least when it happens, it’s because they want to go into academia, from an inner, intrinsic motivation, then, I need to worry a bit less about disappointments and discouragements because they want it for themselves and they’ll be more ready to take on those challenges.
Many thanks to Tanya for sharing her narrative! You can find her on LinkedIn and ResearchGate.
This interview took place in July 2020. Interviews are edited by the TRaCE McGill Editorial team for length and clarity before publication.