I was recently asked why I did a PhD if I didn’t now want to be a professor. The question was posed by a friendly acquaintance and was meant genuinely, out of curiosity. The assumption he made—that a doctorate is a prelude to a professorship—is common inside and outside the academy. I’m not surprised by the question, nor offended by it. But I am struck by it, in part because I did not begin my PhD aiming at an academic career.
In my family, education is a value in and of itself. My parents met while they were young students at Carleton University in Ottawa; decades later I happily did my first two degrees at the school. My dad spent the majority of his working life as a grade 7 teacher. My mom returned to Carleton later in life to complete her BA and then earned an MA after retiring from the civil service. My sister has a university degree and a college diploma.
I started my master’s degree in the fall of 2002. From September to April I took research- and reading-intensive seminar classes. On my first day, Carter Elwood handed me a stack of materials to get me started on my thesis. In the winter I used some of these to write a long paper for a class on Canadian foreign policy with Norman Hillmer. I shared an office with the other MA students, had good relationships with the instructors I worked with, and learned a huge amount about all sorts of things. I spent lots of time at the library, the national archives, and the Canadian Red Cross national office. What fun. Doing my master’s thesis over the course of 2003-04 was both the hardest and most rewarding thing I’d ever done. I was incredibly proud of the finished product. I still am! Carleton was a great place for me.
It’s no wonder that I began a PhD in history right after. I had funding, the enthusiastic support of my family, and what felt like the entirety of Carleton’s history and Russian studies departments cheering me on. How exciting to be moving to Toronto to keep working on a topic I loved and with a new supervisor who was warm, friendly, and—bonus!—an internationally-best-selling author. Not beginning a PhD would have struck me as madness. And so off I went, a young 24-year-old thrilled to keep learning, researching, and writing.