Graduation and beyond: Perspectives from a UofT professor

Stories of WISE
May 6 · 10 min read

Dr. Suzanne Wood is a professor at the University of Toronto who didn’t always know that she would eventually enter academia. She spoke to us about how she makes sense of the various arcs in her story, and shared her opinions on how women can continue to establish themselves in the fields of science and engineering.

So I guess we can start with you just telling us what your role is at UofT right now.

Sure. I’m an Assistant Professor in the teaching stream in the Department of Psychology and I focus on teaching courses in the brain and behaviour area. So that services Psychology students as well as Neuroscience students, and some Cognitive Science students also.

Did you always know that this is what you wanted to do as a career?

No, it was a much more circuitous journey than I think a lot of other faculty, you’ll find. So I do get a lot of students who ask me for career advice and things along those lines, maybe because I’m one of the few faculty members with a kind of bizarre career path.

So my undergraduate degree is in Classical Languages; I studied Latin and Ancient Greek at UC Berkeley. I was also a Music minor, so Humanities through and through. I really did not identify as being a scientist. And there could be a number of reasons for that, and your organization might be helping women out there to realize they can be scientists too, earlier in their path. At the point of graduation, which was really stressful, I just wasn’t sure what to do. I was applying for teaching assistant positions at private schools in the US to help teachers who taught Latin, just trying to figure what I could do to most directly apply my degree.

Meanwhile at Berkeley I had been part of a Chinese martial arts group doing Wushu, which is a very niche martial art interest, and some members from our club had dropped out of UC Berkeley to do a start-up. They were looking to hire interns for the summer that could eventually become long-term employees, but all I knew was that they had filled all those positions. Then one day I went to see an opera by myself in San Francisco (because no one else would want to go with me!) and on the train ride back I ran into these people from the Wushu team who had their own company. One person had just dropped out of the internship program and there was this spot open and they recommended I apply. And if I hadn’t been on that train at that time I just never would have even known to apply!

So I did, and I got the position. That company was called Design Reactor to start with, and we were making websites. This was at the beginning of the internet so this was brand new. It was for companies like Warner Brothers, Disney, and other entertainment-type companies. We also did Jet Li’s website because we were fans! And then we brought in these three individuals who were doing Rotten Tomatoes in their spare time. So we brought them on and eventually we made the switch where we dropped all of our clients (who actually paid us money!) and went whole-hog, full-time into Rotten Tomatoes. And that’s where I worked for a couple of years. The reason why I was there was that I had taken some computer programming classes as an undergrad, so I was able to use those skills, as well as a bunch of other ones just to help out. If a company is super small everyone does everything, so I was doing some HR stuff, some purchasing, some of the finance stuff, and also some of the back-end computer-based data-programming stuff.

At some point I decided I was not that interested in movie reviews and I wanted to switch, so I started working a few odd jobs part-time and taking some classes locally at Berkeley, including some Psychology classes. There was a section on the brain in my Intro Psychology course, and my initial thought was “that sounds really interesting, but since I don’t have a science background there’s no way I can pursue that”. But I just kept on following that and taking more classes regarding the brain within the Psychology department. It was starting to formulate in my head that I would want to go to graduate school, perhaps in Behavioural Neuroscience, so I got some lab experience. I was thinking about Clinical Psychology as well so I worked in a homeless shelter for teenagers for a while. And through these different experiences I managed to narrow down what I could see myself doing, and a lab setting seemed to be the one that fit best.

So graduate school was Psychology and Cognitive Science, and the specialization was Neuroscience and Behaviour.

So it sounds like you had a lot of varied interests in undergrad and after that as well. And then you perhaps followed what interested you and what you thought you were good at. What would you recommend for people who are still in that exploring phase?

It’s hard. It’s much easier if you know what you want to do. Even if it’s a difficult path, the steps are laid out for you. Trying to navigate your own path is probably one of the most stressful things out there, because it’s not laid out in front of you and you have to pick and choose. If you’re at graduation and you can tell people “oh I’m accepted into a graduate program”, then the questions stop. If you say “I don’t know” you hear a “wait, what’s going to happen?” and then there are so many follow-up questions.

So I’m just acknowledging that it’s hard. But also I think it’s important to get actual experiences, because you won’t know if you actually like doing something unless you do it yourself, or at the very least shadow somebody who has a job you think you might want. There are some resources on campus that may be helpful. Organizations like WISE might be good for networking, and it helps to know people who go on in a career and see what it is they do. The career centre should be able to help with some resources of alum who are interested in being contacted to talk. I think there’s a page on the Psychology department website that can help with that as well. And that’s really just in gathering information. You can do it through experiences you go through by volunteering somewhere or by working with and talking to people who have jobs you’re interested in. It’s a lot of work but I don’t think there’s much way around it.

This is just an opinion, but I think one of the worst things you can do is select a path because there’s a prestige to it or you think there’s just a direct connection from your undergraduate degree to your next step and that’s the only way. For example, thinking that since you have a degree in psychology or in engineering the only thing you can do is psychology or engineering. Yes, if you figure what major you want and you’re passionate about it and you want to continue in that career, fabulous, go with it. But if by the time you’re graduating you’re not sure this is for you and there’s a lot of red flags about this not being what you want to spend your life doing, take the time to pursue other options. Don’t go to graduate school or med school or law school because it seems like the right thing to do without actually feeling and knowing it’s the right thing for you.

Let’s say your job description involves ten personality traits that would be useful to have and you have maybe seven of them. If you find the remaining three challenging, how do you mould yourself into them, and is there any point at which you should say “this is too many things I can’t fit into” and think about switching jobs?

I would think of this in terms of whether the things you’re missing (either interests or personality traits) are things that you want to achieve. So say you go into a position and you have a bunch of skills but you need to become a bit more outgoing. You might need to talk to clients, and maybe that’s daunting for you. But you regard it as a skill that you want to work on. If it’s something you want to do, then do it. If it’s the worst thing for you and you never want to do it, for example if being able to interact very well with clients is not a goal of yours and feels like torture, that’s when you need to leave. You could even find that in the teaching stream. I had some teaching experiences from being a grad student, and also taught Latin once a week at an elementary school while I was an undergrad student, but standing up in front of about 200 students and talking is not natural for me. But I see it as a skill that I’m happy to work on. So I’ll take the stress and anxiety that comes with that and try to work with it and work on it.

I think that the points at which I made career transitions, usually there was just a point where I couldn’t justify the time I was spending in that job with my ambitions or what I hoped to achieve in life. Rotten Tomatoes was a wonderful place to work and I’m still friends on Facebook with a bunch of the folks from there and have visited them too. I didn’t have any bad experiences there, but there was a realization that I was spending my days working towards an end goal that I didn’t find that inspiring anymore. Having a fun work environment and learning new things was good but it just wasn’t enough at some point. I needed to switch. And that is a totally personal decision. What do you want to work on? Are those things you want to change and develop? And if not, it might not be for you.

Like you said, sometimes women don’t know that science is an option for them. Do you think that sometimes our ambitions and aspirations are also a little underdeveloped?

I would say there might just be differences in expectations. I think it’s a bit more smiled upon by our society for males to be more ambitious. And initiatives like WISE are there, I’m assuming, to try to raise the profile of “it’s okay, you can be ambitious in your career and still be a human that has life outside of your career”. As with all societal trends, this transition does seem to be happening and on the rise, but I think it’s also going to take a lot of time, and those sorts of ingrained values might bubble up to the surface without people being totally consciously aware of them. I think there’s research that will show this as well. So I think it’s important to overtly have female figures in the realm of science and engineering just to be there and show that women can have these positions and be normal human beings that have rich fulfilling lives at the same time.

That said, I think my feeling not quite like a scientist early on did in part have to do with gender norms and expectations, but I wouldn’t have said that at the time. I definitely wouldn’t have identified it as being an issue that was due to me being female. I think that’s just not how it works. So these sorts of initiatives I think are the things that will help gradually make that shift.

Do you think women can have it all if they want to?

Yes! And the reason why I say that is what I’ve heard and what you may have heard by this point is that if you choose to have a family you can either be a really excellent mom, or an excellent, say, scientist in this example. But you can’t be excellent at both. And the sort of artificial setup there is that you’re the sole provider for your family, which might be the case for some individuals, but male or female that’s a tough spot to be in. But dads have never been asked that question. So it’s this expectation that women are doing everything at home and having a full career and that it sounds incredibly difficult to manage both. Well yes, if that were the case and they had absolutely no help, that would be an almost impossible task, 100%. But if you have a partner that’s helping you raise your children and if they take some of that load off, then there’s no reason why you can’t do both.

And I would say the Psychology Department here is actually a really good example of that; we have many female faculty members here and we have lots of parents here, both male and female. There are just little things you can do to make your work environment more family-friendly. We never have a faculty meeting that starts at 5 PM for example, and we get a lot of notice ahead of time if there’s any event that would go after hours, although that almost never happens. And that’s just an acknowledgement of the fact that people have children to go home to and have to leave at a certain time. In Canada vs. the US having a maternity leave policy is enormously helpful. You guys might take it for granted here but it is actually incredibly helpful. These are just examples; you can make it work. But I think it also just depends on the levels of expectations for yourself. If you want to be able to work all weekend, then those are hours you’re not spending with your family at that point, so it is a give and take, but this is something that people have balanced for forever. It’s just that more recently women are being asked to balance this too. And I think it’s possible!

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