In conversation with Josephine Nalbantoglu, Dean of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies

Josephine Nalbantoglu talks about how graduate studies have changed since her days as a student at McGill
Dean of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies Josephine Nalbantoglu with McGill graduate students (left to right) Chrisanne Dsouza, Fannie Dionne and Saima Ahmed

“I think to a large extent, doing a PhD is still a lonely business,” says Josephine Nalbantoglu, Dean of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies, who did both her Master’s and PhD at McGill. Prof. Nalbantoglu earned her PhD in Biochemistry from McGill in 1984 and returned as a faculty member in 1990 after pursuing research in Montreal, London and Saitama, Japan. The major focus of her laboratory at the Neuro has been the study of normal and aberrant gene expression in the nervous system. Prof. Nalbantoglu’s team is working to understand the molecular basis of neuropathology as observed in neurodegenerative diseases, as well as to develop therapeutic approaches for muscular dystrophy and brain tumours.

Recently, the Dean spoke to GradLife McGill about the challenges graduate and postdoctoral students face and the support offered to them by her office.

What are your memories of your time at McGill as a Master’s and PhD student?

I have many fond memories around social events and the community that was there. I fast-tracked to a PhD in Biochemistry, so I was in the McIntyre building. Biochemistry was a terrific department! All the students really felt a sense of belonging. We could pitch ideas and the professors would listen to us. We wanted to start a new course and they were willing to do it. I think it still exists!

We all had ups and downs – as is in the case in biomedical research. It was never linear, it was 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 that now? I’m not sure. There is so much pressure on everyone now, including professors.

What are the challenges facing McGill graduate students in 2018? Have they changed since your time as a PhD student?

I think to a large extent, doing a PhD is still a lonely business. Whether you have a community, whether you have a support system, it is still you alone with your experiments and ideas. You really have to be very self-contained, so I think there is a lot of loneliness and learning how to balance it.

I think there is much more pressure on students today. Part of it comes from social media, because you are aware of how well everyone else is supposedly doing and how poorly you judge yourself to be doing. Most of the time people don’t post about the worst times on social media.

But there are ways of navigating it. Students have to really know what they want. The worst thing is stumbling into something because you have no other options. I did research because I love doing research. I love working in a lab. I love asking the next question. I love wondering whether this model can make sense, and can I prove it?

This is balanced with hundreds of experiments that don’t work. You have got to find a way to negotiate your feelings around that. That’s why support is so important.

It’s also important to devote yourself to other things and carve out time to disconnect. We are constantly connected, always ruminating about the work. Find something that engages you, that you are passionate about and allows you to disconnect. We have a big university, there is always a place, other than in your program, to express yourself and disconnect.

You’ve given one piece of advice to current graduate students, to disconnect sometimes. Do you have other advice as well?

Yes. You should always think of what you are doing with a timeline in mind. Do not get buried in something so intensely that you don’t notice time slipping away. All of a sudden, six or seven years will have passed.

My advice for any student is to set a plan for the first four years with your supervisor. If you set a timeline, you will have more control over the situation. You’ve got the steps and you know where you’re heading. It might not be that huge paper you wanted, but you will graduate and get your degree. Maybe you can 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.

You don’t want to extend your degree way beyond what it should really be. And you don’t want to feel at the mercy of anyone. You are in control of what you’re doing.

In what ways does your office contribute to the graduate student experience?

I have spent a lot of time trying to get funding, because students need funding to succeed, there is no question about that. I have worked very hard to establish the Graduate Mobility Award. Now we have a million dollars that we spend on these awards. This support allows people to go away for their research – it can be collaborative endeavours, it can be doing archival work, or going on field studies.

It is important for graduate students to get out of their own little milieu. Everything has an impact on the person you are going to be; your colleagues, your professors, even the environment.

Establishing the Doctoral Internship Program is another initiative. Doctoral internships are really important, but they can be very difficult for several reasons. Are you going to interrupt your studies to go away somewhere? Who’s paying? Is your supervisor on board?

Then a student at Senate said, “we need doctoral internships. 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.

Often, employers think students are narrowly focused on one project, but they actually have many other skills. I want students to realize how much they can learning during an internship. You learn project management. You learn how to crunch data and present it by synthesizing all the knowledge that you have into a couple of slides. It’s a very valuable experience.

Any new initiatives in the works?

The latest thing we are working on is myProgress [a program supported by a web-based tool that allows graduate students and their supervisors to track and monitor progress towards their degree].

This goes hand-in-hand with establishing a timeline that makes it easier to set what you want to do. And you are not the only person seeing it; your supervisor can see it too. This makes everything much more obvious. All students who have started from Fall 2017 onwards know when their final thesis has to be submitted, the date is right there.

As well, we’ve just launched the Individual Development Plan. That is a way for people to reflect on what they want in their career and to set their own goals. I think the most important thing is for people to feel like they have some control over what they are doing. 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 (3MT) competition. Why do you think it’s become such an important event?

Because it’s fun! It’s fun because it goes back to what people think of as graduate students. When you graduate and people ask “what have you done?” we are all very proud of the fact that we are an expert in something. To prove it, we give the details of our work, but sometimes too many details. We sometimes lose our audience. 3MT helps people with this.

We offer a rudimentary training and coaching on basic presentation principles. How is your voice? How is your body language? How is your wording? Do people understand you? Communication is the foundation for everything and some people are born communicators, but it is also something that you can learn. I think 3MT is the first step.

If you had to do a 3MT, what would your topic be?

I worked for quite a while in gene therapy for some cancers. I would probably do my 3MT on that. But when I see how great the student presentations are at 3MT, I don’t think I would make it very far [laughs] because I have a tendency to wing it and not practice. I am, however, constantly listening to pitches to try to get ideas on ways to present. From different 3MTs to the 6-Minute Talk for the Tomlinson Talks to the Dobson Cup, I always get ideas from people to try to improve myself.

What do you want graduate students to know about you?

That I care about graduate students! [Laughs] I am out there in the community. You can talk to me and pitch ideas. Some of the best initiatives I’ve worked on began with ideas that came from students. 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.

Lastly, how can graduate students connect with you?

They can email me. But people can always talk to me, as well– I am always out there. I do a lot of events at orientation. We made a video during my first year and it is now part of the orientation videos. A lot of people smile at me on campus so I figure they must have seen it [laughs]. This year, I went to the international students’ tent for an event, someone came, shook my hand and said “you said to come and talk to you!”

My office tries to make sure that we have a lot of events and we all try to attend them. This way, students see a face. A lot of people in this office work very hard for the students so I want them to know who they are.

But, I want students to remember that, they can always come talk to me. I will pick their brains for ideas of what we can do.