Rhizomes: An Interview with Jonathan McQuarrie

Juniper, Maple, and the view of Vancouver from Jonathan’s workplace. Photo: Jonathan McQuarrie.

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Editor’s note: This is the thirteenth post in an occasional series entitled “Rhizomes,” which highlights the experiences of environmental historians working beyond the professoriate. In this interview, series editor Tina Adcock speaks with Jonathan McQuarrie, who is Manager, Academic Programs Analysis at Higher Education Strategy Associates.


Tell us about your path from graduate school to your current position/career. What key choices, encounters, or moments brought you to where you are today?

I was drawn to history because it allows you to investigate so many different questions. My undergraduate and Master’s degrees were not limited to any particular theoretical approach or even temporal boundaries—I studied early modern and modern history with equal relish. I became interested in Canadian history after taking compelling graduate courses with Steve Penfold and Ian Radforth, and I cast my mind into areas that were under-explored in the field. Eventually I focused on Canadian tobacco farming because it satisfied several points of interest: my growing curiosity around rural history (as someone who grew up in 100 Mile House, there was some personal resonance here), my attraction to labour history, and my desire to explore a small, grounded dimension of the history of capitalism.

A tobacco field in Norfolk county, Ontario, 2014. Photo: Jonathan McQuarrie.

By about the midpoint of my time as a doctoral student at the University of Toronto, I began to realize that my interest in becoming a professor was not strong enough to endure the intensive process of finding a tenure-track position. The fact that my mind tended to bounce from interest to interest began to become a challenge—the idea of converting my dissertation into a book and then spinning off into a new postdoctoral project held diminishing appeal. I began to refine different sets of skills and identify new interests accordingly. I took on a research assistantship at the Rotman School of Management, which exposed me to some business tools and language. I also worked as a union steward for CUPE 3902, completed a short research contract with the Conference Board of Canada on health care, and wrote some freelance articles for Historica Canada. I primarily did these things in lieu of writing and publishing more peer-reviewed articles during my time as a PhD student. It might have been possible to do all these things, but I value leisure and spending time with friends very highly.

Still, the transition from preparing for a conventional academic career to considering careers beyond the academy was tough to make. I made an unsuccessful effort to get a postdoctoral fellowship and briefly did some sessional instruction at the U of T’s Scarborough campus, as I very much enjoyed teaching. Eventually, and in large part thanks to the fact that I lived with a partner who was employed, I underwent a full-time job search. During this time, I did a bit of freelance work and completed information interviews with people working in the government and marketing sectors, as well as groups committed to environmental sustainability. I tried to keep an open mind for the sorts of positions I might take or sectors I might enter, particularly as the job search dragged on and my morale flagged.

In 2016, after about six months of searching for a job, I started my current position at Higher Education Strategy Associates (HESA), a consulting firm. I had responded to a tweet from our company president, who was looking for some short-term help on a project. (Ironically, I have largely stopped using Twitter.) The project had me analyzing interview transcripts, under the guidance of another researcher, with prospective high school students entering into universities and colleges across Canada. I was fortunate in being able to draw on my experience working with transcripts and conducting interviews with farmers while researching my dissertation. Gradually, my role expanded into working on things like responding to RFPs, contributing to survey design, and generally pitching in on a range of projects we were working on with institutions across Canada. At first, my contract was for three months, but then I was invited to stay for another six before finally being offered a permanent position. I have continued working for HESA and have expanded into writing reports on a variety of topics, including analyzing academic programs for university clients.

What do you like most about your current position/career? What things would you change about it, if you could?

I enjoy how my work keeps me partially in the world of universities and colleges—I get to work on issues around skills training and pedagogy that feel substantive and meaningful. I still read a reasonable number of academic publications: just in different fields! And I learn a lot on the job; every project has its own unique elements that I need to get up to speed on and be able to understand. For instance, I’ve completed some work evaluating policies around how the federal student loan program assesses learning disabilities and ADHD with assistance from a professor at Queen’s. I also work on projects evaluating work-based learning and blended learning, so I learn a lot from education departments. In the course of various projects I get to talk to a lot of different people, including students, administrators, faculty, and employers, and I’ve come to understand more holistically how higher education functions. I often grapple—as many in higher education do—with the challenge of wanting to ensure that students and faculty are able to pursue their passions and be driven by intellectual curiosity while also promoting a pedagogical approach that leads more smoothly to careers.

Consulting work can be quite fleeting, however, and it can be difficult to know if a report or analysis that I produced will make a substantive difference. This can be frustrating at times and can lead me to question the value of my work.

As I work from a home office (I am in Vancouver, and my colleagues are all in Toronto), I often miss being around people. I try to engage with my colleagues on Slack, and I spend more time talking to my cats than might be socially recommended. One of my favourite points of my time as a graduate student was frequently working closely with a cohort, many of whom remain good friends.

Jonathan’s “coworkers,” Juniper (top) and Maple (bottom). Photo: Jonathan McQuarrie.

Which aspects of your graduate training in environmental history have helped you most in your current position/career?

Most directly, my training has mattered to a project I led that analyzed the composition of an Environmental Studies and Environmental Science program at a Canadian university. My background helped me to understand what those programs wanted to achieve and why the field of environmental studies matters, both in terms of career outcomes and social benefits. Having studied environmental history, I knew that environmental studies draws on a range of perspectives and can help train people who are methodologically flexible and socially engaged. I applied that knowledge and appreciation to my work on this project while also recommending how this particular program might change some of their approaches to teaching.

More broadly, environmental history has the great benefit of being one of the most interdisciplinary branches of history. This is important because there is a growing emphasis in the twenty-first century on collaborating well with others, developing a shared vocabulary, and coming to grips with unfamiliar ideas and concepts. This extends beyond academia; employers in any number of sectors are clamoring for people with strong communication and teamwork skills, and for people who can understand the broad thrusts of technical information and be able to discuss it with general audiences and large groups. I believe the versatility fostered by my training in environmental history has benefited me directly and will benefit others in ways that may surprise them.

While in graduate school, I was also the coordinator of the Toronto Environmental History Group for about a year. This provided me with some experience in planning casual gatherings and encouraging participation in events. These sorts of social skills are vital, but easy to overlook, both personally and professionally. My current role requires that I coordinate calls, meetings, and discussions relatively frequently, and having the ability to arrange these sorts of things is an undervalued but highly useful skill. I miss that group in Toronto and hope they’re all doing great!

Juniper, Maple, and the view of Vancouver from Jonathan’s workplace. Photo: Jonathan McQuarrie.

What kinds of skills or training do you wish you could have acquired in graduate school, in light of your current work?

My largest skill gap is quantitative analysis. While I know my way around a pivot table and understand some fundamental statistical principles, it would have been useful to have worked a bit more directly with common statistical analysis tools such as SPSS or R. Since I often work with census data, survey results, and institutional data, there are times where I wish I could better create confidence intervals or create queries for databases that can manage spreadsheets with thousands of entries.

I also briefly tried to do some GIS analysis during my doctoral studies but never got too far. Many academic environmental history projects use this skillset, and it is transferrable to other workplaces, where it’s often in high demand.

What advice, thoughts, or reflections arising from your experiences would you offer to graduate students studying environmental history?

Flexibility is key. It’s very difficult to consider all the different possible career paths that might be viable for you while you’re in graduate school. It’s also unreasonable to expect that you’ll be able to figure out an alternate career path while you’re working full-time at your graduate degree: writing a dissertation, going to conferences, teaching, and publishing. Keeping tabs on some things you are generally interested in throughout your time in graduate school will help you to identify future prospects once you near the end of that road.

The good news is that the “alt-ac” paths are getting a bit more trodden, and there is growing acceptance among academics that a PhD need not lead to a career in a university department. One way to think of transitioning beyond the academy is to consider it a change in career: lots of people change jobs after five or eight years (or so), and moving from a PhD to another career should not be seen any differently.

But be realistic. For a lot of people (myself included), the transition can be really tough. Many employers are still a bit slow to recognize all the skills a PhD brings, or worried that PhD holders will demand too much from them. And the search can take a while. Based on people I know who moved out of academia, expecting a job search to take six months (or more!) is not unrealistic. Have an eye on what sorts of freelance work you can do in the meantime and consider your financial options as best you can. Not everyone can be so lucky as to have a partner with full-time employment, as I did, so readers should take my transition period with a grain of salt. It can be a difficult, and frankly depressing, period, but coming out of the other end leads to some unexpected and fulfilling life changes—like guilt-free weekends, and the time to investigate other intellectual interests without the pressure of needing to produce a paper at the end of it.

For graduate students in environmental history, specifically, I would consider taking a look at the sorts of career and learning outcomes highlighted by environmental studies programs. There is usually a lot of overlap with environmental history, and you may come across some ideas about where you might take your degree next.

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Jonathan McQuarrie

Jonathan holds a PhD in History from the University of Toronto. His dissertation examined the evolution of Canadian tobacco farming from 1860 to 1950. He now works at Higher Education Strategy Associates as a consultant and researcher.

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