| April 3, 2019

Allen Kwan, Policy Adviser, Master of Information

Allen Kwan, Policy Adviser, Master of Information

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Allen received his PhD from the University of Guelph in English and Theatre Studies, focusing on authored agency and the language and grammar of video games. He is currently completing a Master of Information degree at University of Toronto.

(March 2019)


Q: What was your initial reason for doing a PhD?

After my Master’s, I was still thinking about what I wanted to do. For me, a PhD was more about being able to study something I was interested in more than necessarily a step to take on a career path – perhaps an extremely idealistic or naive reason to do a PhD.

Q: Did you teach much during your PhD?

It was mostly teaching assistant work, and sometimes taking over a lecture when the professor was away. I had over 20 TAships during my PhD.

There’s a class on pedagogy at Guelph, but I didn’t know about it until I was a few years into the program and I had already TAed several courses. While it would have been nice to put some of the things I learned into practice in a course I designed from the ground up, I did get to use what I learned in my tutorials.

Q: What kind of funding did you have?

I was funded by the university for the first four years and had an external scholarship.. Part of it was just funding, and other parts were tied to TA positions. Later, my primary funding was TAing. Most people had to find extra part-time work; I did some freelance editing and some shifts at a retail store..

Q: What sort of mentorship did you receive for writing, research, teaching, and job acquisition?

My primary thesis advisor and my primary quals advisors were my major sources of support throughout the entire PhD process, and the instructors I worked with in the TA context were also helpful in preparing me for the teaching process, particularly before I took the pedagogy class offered to Doctoral students. There may have been other sources of support, but by the latter half of my degree I probably did not make as much an effort to try to reach out to other faculty as much as I may have. Part of that was the fact that I had developed the mindset where I was preparing to disengage from the academia process and move on to something else. My primary advisor did really push my across the finish line, and I credit him for helping me to successfully complete the program and defend my thesis.

Q: What obstacles stood in the way of finishing your dissertation?

There was a brief period where I did think about leaving the program and began considering other options. For me this anxiety about my future physically manifested in the form of panic attacks that forced me to pause and consider my mental health. Speaking to a mental health professional provided by the school to consider other potential career options and learning mindfulness techniques helped me address the stress that I suffered, particularly when I wasn’t sure what I could possibly do with an English MA and a half-completed PhD. That said, after learning how to manage the stress of an uncertain future, I did ultimately decide to stay in the program and take the time to finish my dissertation.

Q: What made you decide to finish?

Part of it was being so close. At that point, I had the skeleton of my dissertation complete, so I could see the light at the end of the tunnel. I also began applying to certain jobs outside of academia during this time, as part of my strategy to cope with the stress mentioned previously. While I was still in the dissertation writing process, I thought that if I did find a job during this time, I could just withdraw or complete my dissertation part-time. Developing a fallback, or at least visualizing an alternative, helped make the process a lot more tenable.

Q: You’ve mentioned that you decided, rather early, that you didn’t want to go into academia. Why?

Part of it was seeing what people have to go through. The writing and the conferencing, that’s fine; I accept the intellectual labour, often done for free or for exposure on your CV. But the thing that really turned me off was seeing people moving from sessional position to sessional position. You’re basically a contract worker for a considerable part of the future.

Maybe I could have found success if I looked at finding an academic position seriously, but is that sort of the path I want to take? Of all those factors, the job security made me realize it wasn’t something I wanted to do particularly when there was no guarantee of security.

Q: Did you feel like part of a community? Do you still feel part of one?

I think so, though there were several changes that occured in my department throughout my time there. I still email some of my old professors and keep in touch with some people I did my PhD with, but it’s not as tightly-knit as I would like.

Thinking back on my PhD, having connections to people doing programs elsewhere, or PhDs who have recently graduated, would have been helpful both during and after the PhD. Although I didn’t formally mentor anyone, I did speak to a lot of the new Master’s students and give them advice about going on to do a PhD and the commitment that they would be making.

I do recognize the importance of having a community of peers though, particularly in a context where you will end up working on your own for lengthy periods of time, and it is why I made an effort to try to develop connections in my current academic program.

Q: How long did it take you to finish your PhD? Was that the right amount of time?

Six and a half, seven years. Maybe I could have finished a bit more quickly, but that period of doubt delayed me considerably..

Q: What about factors that enabled you to complete?

In general, being honest with what you think the PhD will do for you, and recognizing whether or not academia is for you. Taking the time at each milestone to reflect on where you are in the PhD process and where you are in your own life will help you evaluate the next steps you might want to take. It’s perfectly fine if you see that you are on track and want to enter the academy professionally when you are finished your degree. But if there are circumstances that might affect your completion or your planned career path, it’s better to understand those circumstances as soon as you can.

Alternatively, having someone tell you that a PhD and the skills you develop can be used in contexts other than academia can help with developing a clear goal that might find you in other non-academic professional contexts.. For me, during my moment of self-doubt there was a sense of failure: not wanting to be in academia made me feel like I wasted my time pursuing a degree I wouldn’t necessarily use. But having another goal, something else that your PhD will be good for, gives you something to strive for.

Q: What have you been doing since graduation?

In the period between my PhD and the new program I am currently enrolled in, I continued doing some freelance work, volunteer teaching, and some part-time service jobs that didn’t draw on my PhD.

I am now completing the Master of Information program at the University of Toronto, which is an American Library Association accredited program. My initial goal was to combine my PhD with my other interests, such as working with students, but in a different context as an academic librarian. The program is 18 months, and I will finish my course work in April.

As part of this program, I was a co-op student for the government of Ontario through the Archives of Ontario. Part of my job was doing a lot of research on metadata and turning it into what was essentially a research paper. The other part of the job is operational, including processing archival records and helping to set up a digital forensics computer. I am currently working at the Open Government Office at the Government of Ontario as a Policy Advisor.

Doing another Master’s program, I realized that some of the skills I developed as a Doctorate, like research, communication, and distillation of information, aren’t easy to articulate—you can take for granted that you have these skills that many people don’t, particularly when you spend the majority of your time communicating with other PhDs, professors, and other lifelong academics. It made me realize that whether you choose to continue in academia or follow a different professional path, there are skills that you develop as a doctoral student that you learn to articulate to others.

Q: Is there something that you wish you had known before starting your PhD?

Allen Kwan describes how even just knowing that there are alternatives to the tenure-track path can be a relief during graduate studies.

I wish I had known that there are options other than academia. Even if they’re nebulous, like academic librarianship, consultants, analysts, or whatever, if you’re dissatisfied with the current path of the PhD—postdoc, sessional, tenure-track, tenure—just knowing that there were alternatives would have assuaged a lot of my concerns.

And, there is also the option to leave the program if it isn’t right for you. It’s okay to leave: it’s not a failure. You take what you learned and use that as an experience for something else. I don’t think, ultimately, that I would have left the program, but knowing that if you consider that an option, you’re not a total failure—that would have been helpful as well.


Many thanks to Allen for sharing his PhD narrative! You can find more about him on LinkedIn.

Allen received his PhD from the University of Guelph in English and Theatre Studies, focusing on authored agency and the language and grammar of video games. He is currently completing a Master of Information degree at University of Toronto.

(March 2019)


Q: What was your initial reason for doing a PhD?

After my Master’s, I was still thinking about what I wanted to do. For me, a PhD was more about being able to study something I was interested in more than necessarily a step to take on a career path – perhaps an extremely idealistic or naive reason to do a PhD.

Q: Did you teach much during your PhD?

It was mostly teaching assistant work, and sometimes taking over a lecture when the professor was away. I had over 20 TAships during my PhD.

There’s a class on pedagogy at Guelph, but I didn’t know about it until I was a few years into the program and I had already TAed several courses. While it would have been nice to put some of the things I learned into practice in a course I designed from the ground up, I did get to use what I learned in my tutorials.

Q: What kind of funding did you have?

I was funded by the university for the first four years and had an external scholarship.. Part of it was just funding, and other parts were tied to TA positions. Later, my primary funding was TAing. Most people had to find extra part-time work; I did some freelance editing and some shifts at a retail store..

Q: What sort of mentorship did you receive for writing, research, teaching, and job acquisition?

My primary thesis advisor and my primary quals advisors were my major sources of support throughout the entire PhD process, and the instructors I worked with in the TA context were also helpful in preparing me for the teaching process, particularly before I took the pedagogy class offered to Doctoral students. There may have been other sources of support, but by the latter half of my degree I probably did not make as much an effort to try to reach out to other faculty as much as I may have. Part of that was the fact that I had developed the mindset where I was preparing to disengage from the academia process and move on to something else. My primary advisor did really push my across the finish line, and I credit him for helping me to successfully complete the program and defend my thesis.

Q: What obstacles stood in the way of finishing your dissertation?

There was a brief period where I did think about leaving the program and began considering other options. For me this anxiety about my future physically manifested in the form of panic attacks that forced me to pause and consider my mental health. Speaking to a mental health professional provided by the school to consider other potential career options and learning mindfulness techniques helped me address the stress that I suffered, particularly when I wasn’t sure what I could possibly do with an English MA and a half-completed PhD. That said, after learning how to manage the stress of an uncertain future, I did ultimately decide to stay in the program and take the time to finish my dissertation.

Q: What made you decide to finish?

Part of it was being so close. At that point, I had the skeleton of my dissertation complete, so I could see the light at the end of the tunnel. I also began applying to certain jobs outside of academia during this time, as part of my strategy to cope with the stress mentioned previously. While I was still in the dissertation writing process, I thought that if I did find a job during this time, I could just withdraw or complete my dissertation part-time. Developing a fallback, or at least visualizing an alternative, helped make the process a lot more tenable.

Q: You’ve mentioned that you decided, rather early, that you didn’t want to go into academia. Why?

Part of it was seeing what people have to go through. The writing and the conferencing, that’s fine; I accept the intellectual labour, often done for free or for exposure on your CV. But the thing that really turned me off was seeing people moving from sessional position to sessional position. You’re basically a contract worker for a considerable part of the future.

Maybe I could have found success if I looked at finding an academic position seriously, but is that sort of the path I want to take? Of all those factors, the job security made me realize it wasn’t something I wanted to do particularly when there was no guarantee of security.

Q: Did you feel like part of a community? Do you still feel part of one?

I think so, though there were several changes that occured in my department throughout my time there. I still email some of my old professors and keep in touch with some people I did my PhD with, but it’s not as tightly-knit as I would like.

Thinking back on my PhD, having connections to people doing programs elsewhere, or PhDs who have recently graduated, would have been helpful both during and after the PhD. Although I didn’t formally mentor anyone, I did speak to a lot of the new Master’s students and give them advice about going on to do a PhD and the commitment that they would be making.

I do recognize the importance of having a community of peers though, particularly in a context where you will end up working on your own for lengthy periods of time, and it is why I made an effort to try to develop connections in my current academic program.

Q: How long did it take you to finish your PhD? Was that the right amount of time?

Six and a half, seven years. Maybe I could have finished a bit more quickly, but that period of doubt delayed me considerably..

Q: What about factors that enabled you to complete?

In general, being honest with what you think the PhD will do for you, and recognizing whether or not academia is for you. Taking the time at each milestone to reflect on where you are in the PhD process and where you are in your own life will help you evaluate the next steps you might want to take. It’s perfectly fine if you see that you are on track and want to enter the academy professionally when you are finished your degree. But if there are circumstances that might affect your completion or your planned career path, it’s better to understand those circumstances as soon as you can.

Alternatively, having someone tell you that a PhD and the skills you develop can be used in contexts other than academia can help with developing a clear goal that might find you in other non-academic professional contexts.. For me, during my moment of self-doubt there was a sense of failure: not wanting to be in academia made me feel like I wasted my time pursuing a degree I wouldn’t necessarily use. But having another goal, something else that your PhD will be good for, gives you something to strive for.

Q: What have you been doing since graduation?

In the period between my PhD and the new program I am currently enrolled in, I continued doing some freelance work, volunteer teaching, and some part-time service jobs that didn’t draw on my PhD.

I am now completing the Master of Information program at the University of Toronto, which is an American Library Association accredited program. My initial goal was to combine my PhD with my other interests, such as working with students, but in a different context as an academic librarian. The program is 18 months, and I will finish my course work in April.

As part of this program, I was a co-op student for the government of Ontario through the Archives of Ontario. Part of my job was doing a lot of research on metadata and turning it into what was essentially a research paper. The other part of the job is operational, including processing archival records and helping to set up a digital forensics computer. I am currently working at the Open Government Office at the Government of Ontario as a Policy Advisor.

Doing another Master’s program, I realized that some of the skills I developed as a Doctorate, like research, communication, and distillation of information, aren’t easy to articulate—you can take for granted that you have these skills that many people don’t, particularly when you spend the majority of your time communicating with other PhDs, professors, and other lifelong academics. It made me realize that whether you choose to continue in academia or follow a different professional path, there are skills that you develop as a doctoral student that you learn to articulate to others.

Q: Is there something that you wish you had known before starting your PhD?

Allen Kwan describes how even just knowing that there are alternatives to the tenure-track path can be a relief during graduate studies.

I wish I had known that there are options other than academia. Even if they’re nebulous, like academic librarianship, consultants, analysts, or whatever, if you’re dissatisfied with the current path of the PhD—postdoc, sessional, tenure-track, tenure—just knowing that there were alternatives would have assuaged a lot of my concerns.

And, there is also the option to leave the program if it isn’t right for you. It’s okay to leave: it’s not a failure. You take what you learned and use that as an experience for something else. I don’t think, ultimately, that I would have left the program, but knowing that if you consider that an option, you’re not a total failure—that would have been helpful as well.


Many thanks to Allen for sharing his PhD narrative! You can find more about him on LinkedIn.

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