Josephine Nalbantoglu cares about graduate students! In an exclusive sit-down interview with GradLife McGill, the Dean of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies shares her passion for building a strong graduate community at McGill, where Masters, PhD students and PostDoctoral fellows feel supported throughout their degree as well as inspired to communicate the significance of their work with others.
GradLife McGill is about sharing the graduate student experience through social media by engaging and connecting with all graduate students. Do you have any memories of your time at McGill as a Master’s and Ph.D. student that you would like to share with us?
I have lots of fond memories. I think every graduate student has fond memories. The memories are always around social events, the community that is there. I fast-tracked to Ph.D. in Biochemistry, so I was in the McIntyre and it was a terrific department. All the students, we really felt that we belonged to it. We could pitch ideas, professors would listen to us. If we wanted to do a new course, they were willing. So, we started a new course! I think it’s still in the books!
We all had ups and downs, this is biomedical research right? It’s never linear, it’s never easy, but there was always a buddy who could understand you, you could always walk into a professor’s office and they would listen to you. Do we have a lot of that now left at McGill? I’m not sure. Everything has gotten so busy and there is so much pressure on everyone, including professors.
What do you think are the challenges facing McGill graduate students in 2018? Have they changed since your time as a Ph.D. student?
I think to a large extent, doing a Ph.D. is still a lonely business. Whether you have a community, whether you have a support system, it’s still you against your experiments, your ideas, whether you are right or wrong, whether you can prove what you’re doing. You really have to be very self-contained. You can’t really ask for a lot of help from others, because at the end, you are responsible for that project. It is your project, and you are the one leading it. So, for all students, I think there is a lot of loneliness. You have to try to learn how to balance it.
I think there is so much more pressure on students. Part of it can be from social media, because you are aware of supposedly how well everybody else is doing and how poorly you judge yourself to be doing. Most of the time, I think it’s just the perception, people don’t always post their worst times in life. There is a lot of pressure because you are always aware of what is happening, and you are constantly comparing yourself. You’ve got to understand, when I was a graduate student, we didn’t have the internet right?
There is a lot of pressure in trying to achieve what you want to achieve, as fast as you want to. (Laughs) I don’t want this to sound depressing because it’s not. I think there are ways of navigating it. I think students have to really know what they want. The worst thing is to stumble into something because you have no other options. I did research because I love doing research. I love working in a lab. I like asking the next question. I loved wondering whether this model made sense, and could I prove it? Or, if it gave me another idea. So, I really really loved it. Later on, when I became a post-doc, I loved managing projects and leading projects, I could hardly wait to get in to see my results.
That has to be balanced with the hundreds of experiments that don’t work. You’ve got to find a way to negotiate your feelings with that. I think that’s why support is important. It’s also important that you devote yourself to other things.” So, I think it’s really important to carve out time to disconnect, that’s the one thing we don’t get. We are constantly connected, always ruminating about the work, all the time. That is the nature of it. But, if you can find something that engages you or that you are really passionate about and allows you to disconnect, that is really good. I think we have a big enough university that you can find a place, somewhere, other than in your program, to be able to express yourself.
You’ve already started answering my next question. What is your advice to current graduate students? You’ve given one piece of advice, to disconnect sometimes. Do you have other advice as well?
Yeah. I think the other advice is to always think of what you are doing with a timeline in mind. I think the worst is when you get buried in something and then you don’t notice the time going. All of a sudden, six or seven years have passed, you don’t want to be in that situation. Having a timeline, you may feel more in control of the situation. You’ve got the steps and you know where you’re heading. It might not be that huge paper that you wanted, but you will graduate, you will get the degree, and maybe you can negotiate to stay on with the same group and continue the work as a post-doc. You’ll be earning more, you’ll be doing the same work and you’ll probably get that paper at the end of it. As opposed to letting your degree extend way beyond what it should really be. My advice for any student who is coming in, to just have a really good path for the first 4 years. Really control it. On the side work in parallel, so, if something doesn’t work, you have options, and have that timeline, “Yes, I am planning on getting out in 4-5 years, period”. Instead of “let’s see where this leads me. It’s not leading me anywhere. Okay, try again”. Really plan it yourself, with your supervisor. Because you have a timeline, you’ll probably ask for more feedback, more frequently and things will progress. So, don’t feel at the mercy of anyone, you should feel in control of what you’re doing. You’re in control.
In what ways does your office contribute to the graduate student experience? What do you want graduate students to know about you?
That I care about graduate students! (Laughs)
I am out there in the community, people can talk to me and pitch ideas. Some of the best things I did in my previous program or in my current job came from ideas that students gave. We’ve just run with those ideas because they have a direct impact on what students do. I am trying to give students a complete university experience; an exchange of ideas, discussions, and experiencing different contexts.
I worked very hard to get the graduate mobility awards. Before I came on, there were none. Now we have a million dollars that we spend on the graduate mobility awards. This is for people to be able to go away, it can be collaborative endeavours, it can be doing archival work, or going on field studies. It is just to get out of their own little milieu and experience something else. I think that is what is happening as a graduate student. You don’t come here fully formed, everything has an impact on the person you’re going to be; your colleagues, your professors, even just the environment, everything you are exposed to. I would like students to take advantage of what we’re offering.
Another thing that we’ve done that has come from a student, a student at senate I believe, said “we need doctoral internships”. Doctoral internships are very difficult because you are not going to interrupt your studies to go away somewhere. Who’s paying? Is the supervisor on board? This is the platitude we always say but the student came up to us and said “well, we have the period between handing in our thesis and the defense. Why can’t we have it then?”, I hadn’t thought about it! So that’s what we did. To me, I think doctoral internships are really important. I want students to realize how much they are learning, just by doing their project, just by being here. It’s not the techniques, the narrow focus that you’ve got. You learn project management, you learn how to crunch data, how to present it, how to synthesize all this knowledge that you have and put it on a couple of slides. You need all of that. For some reason, employers out there don’t think of students as knowing this, they think of them as narrowly focussed on their project.
Those are the 2 big things that I think have had an impact on graduate student life. I have spent a lot of time trying to get funding, in terms of making sure that there is level funding for students because students need funding to succeed, there is no question about that.
The latest thing we’re doing is MyProgress, so you can track wherever you are. That goes hand-in-hand with the timeline, you come in to a program and you say, “this is what I want to achieve, and this is the time course of when I will”. We’ve got that on the dash board. You’re not the only person seeing it, your supervisor is seeing it too. You’re no longer working in the dark thinking “maybe 5 years, maybe 7 years, there are all these things I have to do and I’m not sure”, well it’s obvious now and all students who have started from Fall 2017 onwards, knows when their final thesis has to be submitted, the date is right there. The date is there for everything. It makes it easier to navigate and set what you want to do.
And the last thing we’re going to be launching this January, is the individual development plan. That is a way for people to reflect on what they like and set their own goals. Because I think the most important thing is for people to feel like they have some control over what they are doing. If we can just give them that sense through what we do, I think that will be a great accomplishment. People in control can then self-organize to achieve their goals.
One of the flagship events of McGill’s graduate community is the 3 Minute Thesis competition, why do you think it’s become such an important event?
Cause I think it’s fun! It’s fun because it goes back to what people think of graduate studies, even within our own environment. We are very proud of the fact that we are an expert in something, and to prove that we’re an expert, we have to give all the details. In doing that, we lose our audience. It’s the same thing when you graduate and people ask “what have you done?”, well you kind of fumble, ‘I don’t want to be too narrow in what I’m describing, but they’ve got to know that I do know my material”, right? This is what the 3MT has helped with, because we are also giving a lot of training around the 3MT.
The first year I came, people would apply and go through the stages and then be selected to go to the final. I thought “this is a great opportunity for training that we’re losing”, because not everyone can do this naturally. Most people can’t. We decided to put in a rudimentary training program so that at least people are aware and get some feedback. How is voice? How is body? How is your wording? Are people understanding it? The students get training out of it, which I think is really good, and then they get to distill their knowledge. People still respect you for what you’re doing, but they respect you even more because they can understand what you’re doing. Communication is really the most important thing for everything we want to do. Communication is the foundation for everything, for all of us really. Some people are born communicators, others aren’t, but it’s something that you can learn. I think 3MT is the first step towards it
If you had to do a 3MT, what would your topic be? Do you have a few options or does one really stand out?
I worked for quite a while in gene therapy and gene therapy for some cancers. We’re getting somewhere on some of them. I would probably do my 3MT on that. I’m also extremely humbled by how well I see the students doing it because I have a tendency to wing it and not practice, so I would probably flame out of the 3MT (laughs).
I am very impressed by students who take the time to hone their skills and seeing the results of that is so impressive. I usually am doing too many things so I do it off the cuff, which is not good, which is frustrating. I don’t think I would get that far in the 3MT but I’m constantly listening to pitches to try to get ideas on ways to present. From different 3MTs to the 6 minute talk for the Tomlinson to the Dobson Cup, I always get ideas from people to try to improve my own life.
Lastly, how can graduate students connect with you?
They can email me. I’m always out there. I do a lot of events at orientation. We made a video my first year and it’s part of the orientation videos. Lots of people smile at me on campus so I figure they see me somewhere (laughs). This year, I went to the international students’ tent when they had a get-together and someone came and shook my hand and said “you said to come and talk to you!”.
We try to make sure that we have a lot of events and bring people to them, like the funding people, the programs people. This way students see a face, because I know we have all gone to these resource accounts that are faceless. Lots of people in this office work very hard for the students so I want them to see the faces and know who they are. So, people can email me. If they see me, they can come talk to me and I’ll pick their brains for ideas of what we can do.
Interview by: Saima Ahmed
Header photo: McGill Reporter – https://reporter.mcgill.ca/three-minute-thesis-competition-proves-less-is-sometimes-more/