This is the second post in my Great Minds series, a set of interviews with writers and thinkers who have inspired me. My academic work has introduced me to numerous professors doing fascinating work on literature, cognition, and social action. Lara Varpio is my second great mind.
Assistant Professor in a Faculty of Medicine is not the first place one would expect to find an English PhD graduate, but that is just where University of Waterloo Department of English Language and Literature PhD alumnus Dr. Lara Varpio finds herself at the University of Ottawa. Lara is a recent PhD graduate with a job, and that should be an inspiration for current and potential PhD students alike. I hope this interview with Lara provides as many valuable insights for my peers as it did for me.
A: How did you end up in the English PhD program at UW?
L: I should start by saying that the work I do now is fairly removed from standard department of English training. I am originally from Sudbury. I did my BA in English at MacMaster. I soon realized that I wouldn’t get too far with a Bachelor of Arts. The Master of Arts professional writing stream at UW interested me. But my work was not related to medicine at all.
A: Could you discuss your experiences as a grad student?
L: After completing my MA, I moved to Sweden for 3 years. I was a professor and I taught Business Communication. After one year, I was bored intellectually. So I contacted Catherine Schryer to find out about doing my PHD from abroad. I talked to the department chair at the time, Neil Randall, and, despite the fact that nobody had ever done a PhD from abroad, the department let me in. So I started my PhD while living in Sweden . . . I remember for a course with Professor Michael MacDonald, I submitted my class presentation on a CD-ROM. I found a video camera and one of my students in Sweden videotape my presentation. I completed two terms of coursework abroad. For the third term I came back to Canada for the residency requirement and then I realized how homesick I was. I completed my work in Canada.
I didn’t want to waste time on a dissertation that didn’t engage me. I approached Catherine Schryer and told her that I probably would not complete a PhD if I didn’t find something intellectually engaging. She introduced me to Lorelei Lingard, who introduced me to the medical education community at the Wilson Centre [for Research in Education] at the University of Toronto. We joke that I went there for a 3 day visit and stayed for 3 years. I brought my experience with Actor Network Theory and Rhetoric to the table, and I was the first PhD student that the Wilson Centre co-sponsored.
A: What advice do you have for current graduate students?
L: It’s so important to find a project that engages you. Aside from that, think outside the box when it comes to funding. So often English graduate students think about OGS and SSHRC. I was the first Arts student at Waterloo to get CIHR funding. So I got medicine to fund me and OGS as well. But I couldn’t get my SSHRC application past the department . . . Also, your supervisors are key. The importance of your supervisor to your later success cannot be underestimated. I am also a big believer in mentorship. You need people to offer guidance. I was lucky to find mentors in Catherine Schryer, Lorelei Lingard, and at the Wilson Centre. Academia is changing and you need mentors and you need people to help you walk down the new academic corridors. Also, complete your PhD studies with the end in mind. Decide on your dream job. It doesn’t have to be tenure-track in a department of English. There are different kinds of PhDs, some are theoretical, some are practical. You can make your PhD the tool you want it to be for where you want to go. You can teach or you can be a researcher.
There will be a dark night of the soul. If you’re doing graduate work, there will be a night where you feel like you can’t do it anymore. It’s important to take those experiences seriously, but it’s also important to look at those moments in the overall picture. Think of those moments in context. Sometimes you will want to give up, and maybe you should; but don’t be too hasty.
A: Do you have any career advice for current PhD candidates?
L: I have found my dream job. I can take all the theories and skills from my graduate work and apply them in a different context. Medical Education is my sandbox and my training in the Humanities is my shovel and pail. Every day I am excited to go to work. I have total control over what I do and how I do it . . . When it comes to finding a job, I can’t stress the importance of networking enough. A lot of jobs will never get posted, and you will never find them if you’re waiting for postings to appear online. I recommend PhD students go to conferences, especially if there is someone giving a talk who they admire. Prepare for the talk by thinking of one good question. One intelligent question—and you can underline intelligent. If you can ask that question, you can start a conversation. If you do it right, you should end up with their business card in you hand. I always did that and I still do. I find the people by attending their presentation, I ask an intelligent question, I ask about a recent article. Build connections with people you want to work with.
I can’t emphasize enough the importance of networking and the importance of being a good networker. You don’t want to be sucking up; you have to look like someone who is interesting and who is doing exciting work.