| August 13, 2019

Thomas Collombat, Associate Professor, Political Science, UQO

Thomas Collombat, Associate Professor, Political Science, UQO

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A photograph of Thomas Collombat

Thomas Collombat completed his PhD in political science at Carleton University, where he worked on the international labour movement in the Americas. He is currently an Associate Professor in Political Science at Université du Québec en Outaouais.


Q: Why did you pursue a PhD program? Why did you choose your current program?

It wasn’t a long-term goal. When I finished my masters in 2003, at the Université de Montréal, I took a year to think about what I would do. During that year, I taught so I was already a sessional lecturer. I also worked with a lot with trade unions (and still do). I took on research contracts with them and had the goal to eventually work for a union as a researcher. I think what made the difference is the recommendations from people around me (mostly academics, professors), who told me that since I had already published in my masters, they told me that I had an interesting resumé for a PhD—that I had something to say and that I would likely be able to get scholarships. I was interested in research and I thought, “Why not?” But it wasn’t my plan A, really, and I think if I had gotten an offer from a union to work for them during that ‘gap’ year I would probably have taken it and not done my PhD. And I actually got an offer by the CSN three weeks after I got accepted at Carleton, so it was really a question of circumstances.

Q: What was your funding like?

I had a fairly good financial package that included a TAship. It also included a specific scholarship that covered my tuition fees for five years. I also applied to SSHRC during the first year of my PhD, and I got what was then called the super-SSHRC. But both SSHRC and the tuition scholarship ended pretty much at the same time, which meant the last year was tough. Suddenly, I had to pay those massive tuition fees. I didn’t have the money, so I had to switch to part time, which is quite common for Carleton students; you avoid those tuition fees but get access to the library.

I officially started in 2004 and I defended in 2011. I submitted in October 2010. In total, I would say it took about six years.

Q: What was your work experience like during your PhD?

I taught the same class for about a decade; I started teaching in 2003 right after I finished my MA. It was a class called Unionism, and it was in the certificate of Industrial Relations of the Continuing Education Faculty at the Université de Montréal.

At Carleton, I never taught. I was a TA because it was included in the packet. I TA’d for Canadian Politics classes for two or three years. TAing at Carleton was much more demanding, as I was in charge of the second half of my class for the discussion groups etc.

But the teaching experience that brought me the most is the Unionism class at Université de Montréal because I was the teacher: I didn’t have any TAs so I had to do everything from A-Z, and I had about 50 to 70 students per class. Teaching Continuing Education also really taught me a lot in terms of heterogeneous classes. Very different backgrounds, very different perspectives, adult students. I was also giving a lot of training sessions for Unions where there is a similar kind of audience because they’re from very diverse backgrounds.

Q: Tell us about your personal experiences during the PhD.

I became a permanent resident just after my masters, in 2003, and Canadian in 2007.

I was very ambitious with my fieldwork. I spent six months in Latin America: three months in Mexico, and three months in Brazil. I paid double rents for the whole six months. I didn’t apply for that many external grants that would have allowed me to fund one. I applied for some stuff at Carleton that paid for a couple extra trips I did, the Graduate Students Fund, but mostly I relied on my SSHRC.

The last year was tougher. I had to take on more contracts. I wasn’t TAing at Carleton anymore. I probably could have applied, but my networks were more in Montreal, so I really focused on Montreal. My supervisor at Carleton, Laura Macdonald, put me in touch with a research centre in Montreal, the Research Centre on Integration and Globalization at UQAM. It turns out they were very interested in what I was doing. They gave me an office at UQAM, and they started giving me contracts. I was barely a research assistant at all at Carleton; even for my supervisor, I was mostly a research assistant at UQAM. My office was there, and I was living in Montreal.

 Q: What was your path like after your PhD?

I applied for postdoc scholarships without really hoping to get them, so I applied really early. But then I got the SSHRC postdoc so early that I had to give it up. After the one-year grace period, I wasn’t close enough to submit my dissertation. I switched to FRQ, and even then, I had to speed things up and negotiate with them.

I was extremely lucky. I finished my postdoc in 2012 and immediately after that, I got a visiting professor position in Quebec Studies at Western Washington University, located in Bellingham, Washington. It was a four-month appointment at the Center for Canadian American Studies and I was teaching one class on Quebec. That’s a position that’s funded by the government of Quebec through the delegation in Los Angeles. And it was a fantastic experience. I secured that a few months before the end of my postdoc, and I could pick the quarter I started. I applied because the program had been going on for seven or eight years at the time, and I had several colleagues that had gone; I had the connections and the competence to do it. I was about to leave mid-March when I got the call from UQO to go to the first job interview, and then the second one. I got confirmation that I had this job right before I left for Washington. I was able to really enjoy my visiting professorship there and use it to prepare. I officially started my job here the day after I finished the visiting professorship in June. I got on the tenure track, and I got tenured four years later.

 Q: Looking back at your PhD experience, what are your main reflections?

You always wish that you would do it faster. I was the first of my cohort to finish and at the graduation ceremony there was only two of us. I was also the only one to get super-SSHRC. I felt privileged. I saw my colleagues working their asses off, people that were way more brilliant than I am, taking more time to finish; it had nothing to do with merit. It was tougher particularly for the non-Canadians. I remember one of us was an American who was one of the most brilliant minds I’ve ever seen. It took him forever to finish. He’s now a professor in the US, but because he couldn’t have access to any sort of Canadian funding, he had to work the whole way through. In most Quebec universities when you’re at the stage of writing your thesis, they reduce tuition, and at Carleton they don’t. I think it’s terrible when all of a sudden you have to pay 5k a term when you were funded before. And you’re only told eventually and very informally that you could switch to part time.

I wish the university would tell us about this in advance, and that you need to think about the end. That’s when people drop out. It’s usually mostly motivated by funding, because you have to work so much on the side that you necessarily put your thesis on the backburner. Be ready: you should save part of your funding just in case you take a bit more time. And departments should stop with the illusion that you can finish in four years. Just tell people, “Okay, that’s fine.” Maybe you’re gonna spend five, six, seven, years finishing, eight maybe. But it doesn’t mean you’re going to be a pariah. And you can suspend your program sometimes if it’s necessary. To come back to the beginning, it’s not a tragedy. We can destigmatize that experience.

My other advice is to be very open to the idea that you may not work in academia afterwards, and that it’s OK. If I hadn’t gotten this job, I think I was done with applying for academic jobs. I was ready to go back to unions.

Finally, do it for the sake of it, because you love what you do, because you really want to research your topic. . .but know that it’s normal to be tired and exhausted at some points. That probably means that you’ve done your job.


Many thanks to Thomas for sharing his PhD narrative! You can find more about him and his work at UQO

A photograph of Thomas Collombat

Thomas Collombat completed his PhD in political science at Carleton University, where he worked on the international labour movement in the Americas. He is currently an Associate Professor in Political Science at Université du Québec en Outaouais.


Q: Why did you pursue a PhD program? Why did you choose your current program?

It wasn’t a long-term goal. When I finished my masters in 2003, at the Université de Montréal, I took a year to think about what I would do. During that year, I taught so I was already a sessional lecturer. I also worked with a lot with trade unions (and still do). I took on research contracts with them and had the goal to eventually work for a union as a researcher. I think what made the difference is the recommendations from people around me (mostly academics, professors), who told me that since I had already published in my masters, they told me that I had an interesting resumé for a PhD—that I had something to say and that I would likely be able to get scholarships. I was interested in research and I thought, “Why not?” But it wasn’t my plan A, really, and I think if I had gotten an offer from a union to work for them during that ‘gap’ year I would probably have taken it and not done my PhD. And I actually got an offer by the CSN three weeks after I got accepted at Carleton, so it was really a question of circumstances.

Q: What was your funding like?

I had a fairly good financial package that included a TAship. It also included a specific scholarship that covered my tuition fees for five years. I also applied to SSHRC during the first year of my PhD, and I got what was then called the super-SSHRC. But both SSHRC and the tuition scholarship ended pretty much at the same time, which meant the last year was tough. Suddenly, I had to pay those massive tuition fees. I didn’t have the money, so I had to switch to part time, which is quite common for Carleton students; you avoid those tuition fees but get access to the library.

I officially started in 2004 and I defended in 2011. I submitted in October 2010. In total, I would say it took about six years.

Q: What was your work experience like during your PhD?

I taught the same class for about a decade; I started teaching in 2003 right after I finished my MA. It was a class called Unionism, and it was in the certificate of Industrial Relations of the Continuing Education Faculty at the Université de Montréal.

At Carleton, I never taught. I was a TA because it was included in the packet. I TA’d for Canadian Politics classes for two or three years. TAing at Carleton was much more demanding, as I was in charge of the second half of my class for the discussion groups etc.

But the teaching experience that brought me the most is the Unionism class at Université de Montréal because I was the teacher: I didn’t have any TAs so I had to do everything from A-Z, and I had about 50 to 70 students per class. Teaching Continuing Education also really taught me a lot in terms of heterogeneous classes. Very different backgrounds, very different perspectives, adult students. I was also giving a lot of training sessions for Unions where there is a similar kind of audience because they’re from very diverse backgrounds.

Q: Tell us about your personal experiences during the PhD.

I became a permanent resident just after my masters, in 2003, and Canadian in 2007.

I was very ambitious with my fieldwork. I spent six months in Latin America: three months in Mexico, and three months in Brazil. I paid double rents for the whole six months. I didn’t apply for that many external grants that would have allowed me to fund one. I applied for some stuff at Carleton that paid for a couple extra trips I did, the Graduate Students Fund, but mostly I relied on my SSHRC.

The last year was tougher. I had to take on more contracts. I wasn’t TAing at Carleton anymore. I probably could have applied, but my networks were more in Montreal, so I really focused on Montreal. My supervisor at Carleton, Laura Macdonald, put me in touch with a research centre in Montreal, the Research Centre on Integration and Globalization at UQAM. It turns out they were very interested in what I was doing. They gave me an office at UQAM, and they started giving me contracts. I was barely a research assistant at all at Carleton; even for my supervisor, I was mostly a research assistant at UQAM. My office was there, and I was living in Montreal.

 Q: What was your path like after your PhD?

I applied for postdoc scholarships without really hoping to get them, so I applied really early. But then I got the SSHRC postdoc so early that I had to give it up. After the one-year grace period, I wasn’t close enough to submit my dissertation. I switched to FRQ, and even then, I had to speed things up and negotiate with them.

I was extremely lucky. I finished my postdoc in 2012 and immediately after that, I got a visiting professor position in Quebec Studies at Western Washington University, located in Bellingham, Washington. It was a four-month appointment at the Center for Canadian American Studies and I was teaching one class on Quebec. That’s a position that’s funded by the government of Quebec through the delegation in Los Angeles. And it was a fantastic experience. I secured that a few months before the end of my postdoc, and I could pick the quarter I started. I applied because the program had been going on for seven or eight years at the time, and I had several colleagues that had gone; I had the connections and the competence to do it. I was about to leave mid-March when I got the call from UQO to go to the first job interview, and then the second one. I got confirmation that I had this job right before I left for Washington. I was able to really enjoy my visiting professorship there and use it to prepare. I officially started my job here the day after I finished the visiting professorship in June. I got on the tenure track, and I got tenured four years later.

 Q: Looking back at your PhD experience, what are your main reflections?

You always wish that you would do it faster. I was the first of my cohort to finish and at the graduation ceremony there was only two of us. I was also the only one to get super-SSHRC. I felt privileged. I saw my colleagues working their asses off, people that were way more brilliant than I am, taking more time to finish; it had nothing to do with merit. It was tougher particularly for the non-Canadians. I remember one of us was an American who was one of the most brilliant minds I’ve ever seen. It took him forever to finish. He’s now a professor in the US, but because he couldn’t have access to any sort of Canadian funding, he had to work the whole way through. In most Quebec universities when you’re at the stage of writing your thesis, they reduce tuition, and at Carleton they don’t. I think it’s terrible when all of a sudden you have to pay 5k a term when you were funded before. And you’re only told eventually and very informally that you could switch to part time.

I wish the university would tell us about this in advance, and that you need to think about the end. That’s when people drop out. It’s usually mostly motivated by funding, because you have to work so much on the side that you necessarily put your thesis on the backburner. Be ready: you should save part of your funding just in case you take a bit more time. And departments should stop with the illusion that you can finish in four years. Just tell people, “Okay, that’s fine.” Maybe you’re gonna spend five, six, seven, years finishing, eight maybe. But it doesn’t mean you’re going to be a pariah. And you can suspend your program sometimes if it’s necessary. To come back to the beginning, it’s not a tragedy. We can destigmatize that experience.

My other advice is to be very open to the idea that you may not work in academia afterwards, and that it’s OK. If I hadn’t gotten this job, I think I was done with applying for academic jobs. I was ready to go back to unions.

Finally, do it for the sake of it, because you love what you do, because you really want to research your topic. . .but know that it’s normal to be tired and exhausted at some points. That probably means that you’ve done your job.


Many thanks to Thomas for sharing his PhD narrative! You can find more about him and his work at UQO

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