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Looking back on my PhD journey: what helped me thrive in it?

December 20, 2021
By Geneviève Grégoire-Labrecque

Looking back. Photo by Taras Zaluzhnyi on Unsplash.

For many, the end of the year sparks reflection. As I conclude my 4th PhD year, which coincides with the end of my fieldwork, I decided to use this opportunity to reflect on my PhD.

What helped me thrive in it so far?

Asking people about their PhD journey is subjective. Below are the themes that I found relevant to address. Understanding other people’s reasoning behind their choices and explanations of their trajectory has always generated useful questions to reflect on to guide my own path. I hope this is helpful to others.

Decisive questions 

Asking questions. Photo by imone Secci on Unsplash.

Before I started my PhD, I wondered: why do I want to undertake such an adventure? My answer back then still guides me today: for the love of social science, to develop more tools to better work with children and young people, to contribute to the community locally and beyond.

Another question is definitely: what will I do after? Will I seek a career in academia or outside academia or both? 

While I do not have a clear-cut answer, I believe that the answers to these questions, even if they are bound to change over the course of one’s studies, have played a determining role in designing a PhD journey tailored to my needs and wishes. They have influenced all subsequent decisions I have made, such as the way I do research (ethics, methods), volunteering in a consultation on the right of children to a healthy environment, working as a research assistant alongside children in the Growing with the city research project, and applying to be a Public Scholar.

Getting informed and connecting with the field

Seeking information. Photo by Waldemar Brandt on Unsplash.

Later in the process, I started contacting professors and subscribed to mailing lists on themes and from groups of interest to get to know the field, universities, scholars, programs and PhD opportunities locally and abroad.

To this day, I continue receiving important news, such as recent publications, timely calls for papers and presentations through these mailing lists. It is a way to connect and engage with a wider network and expand one’s horizons while sparking reflection and feeding discussions. In that sense, I have discovered forward-thinking networks, such as the Child Rights International Network (CRIN), insightful podcasts like the Critical Childhoods and Youth Studies Collective (CCYSC)’s Awaaz, and artistic, yet critical initiatives, such as the Rights Studio’s Blog.

Anchoring the "what, where, how, when, with whom"

Making a list of the important criteria. Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash.

I didn't choose Concordia University as my "home" right away. Rather, I looked at different options thoroughly and it ended up being a good fit for my research and personal life.

First, I felt that being attached to a single field of study would be restrictive in terms of analyzing the complexity of childhood and children’s rights. That’s when I found Concordia's Individualized Program. Over the years, the program would encourage my creative inclinations, support my need for flexibility in terms of program structure and respect my intellectual autonomy, thus allowing me to lead the kind of research I am passionate about. In my opinion, four years (and counting!) can be a long time if there’s no pleasure involved.

I also surrounded myself with a supervisor (and a supervisory committee) that I have regular contact with, and who is stimulating and has a good ear. Early on, we addressed the basis of our professional relationship with transparency: do they supervise other students (read here: do they have time for me)? Are they interested in collaborating in research projects and articles? Do they have funding for hiring assistants? How do I/they like to work? How often should we communicate? Do they feel comfortable working with other professors for co-supervision and/or in the supervisory committee?

Every now and then, we still come back to make sure we are on the same page. I also feel that my program is human enough to support me if something goes wrong and needs to be addressed.

As an institution, I also value the kind of questions Concordia is raising and initiatives it supports to innovate, but also to be more critical, reflexive, inclusive and socially/racially just. Is it perfect? No, but I guess that finding the best fit for oneself, I.e., anchoring the "what, where, how, when, with whom", is about making the most of different factors deemed important for oneself: passion, stimulation, expertise, flexibility, timeline and goals, values, and funding, without it being completely flawless.

Securing funding

Counting money. Photo by Josh Appel on Unsplash.

Unsurprisingly, funding is a key factor to help me through my PhD journey. Although "we should not have to win our salaries" as expressed by a fellow Public Scholar, there are several resources like GradProSkills Scholarship workshops (from which I benefited) to better understand the current funding system, to know the funding opportunities per areas of study, and to make the best possible applications.

Other possibilities within academia range from being funded by a supervisor, working on side research projects that are in line with one's own doctoral research, and teaching. I would recommend not being shy to ask professors, departments, faculties, institutions what is available and what can be done.

A reminder though that decent work conditions, including decent wages, are not the only things that matter when it comes to graduate students' mental health or the quality of their research. The overworking culture in academia and the structural inequalities embedded in higher education are unhealthy and things do need to change.

Moving forward

Looking back, I feel more confident that I made thoughtful and coherent decisions for myself and my career along the way. I have put in place safety nets in case I fall, but I can also see that I benefited (and continue to benefit) from privileges that make my path easier compared to others.

Moving forward, I will continue to set boundaries for myself, be critical, reflective and reflexive, listen to others and speak up against injustices within and outside academia; take one step at a time and... dream.

About the author

Photo of Geneviève Grégoire-Labrecque

Geneviève Grégoire-Labrecque is a PhD candidate in the Individualized Program (INDI). Her research examines the ways youth participation is understood, practiced, and experienced by youth and school staff in a youth-led and an adult-led school initiative on environment and climate change in two high schools in Montreal.

Recipient of a Nelson Mandela Award, her research is also supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) and Concordia University. Prior to her PhD, she has worked on diversity, inclusion and on knowledge mobilization in education and in health care and social services and holds both a BSc (2010) and a MSc (2013) in Anthropology from Université de Montréal.

Geneviève is a member of the Child Rights Academic Network, the Canadian Coalition for the Rights of Children, a student member of the Centre de recherche en éducation et formation relatives à l’environnement et à l’écocitoyenneté, and an academic member for the North American Regional Children’s Environmental Rights Consultations for the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment

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