The Terry website and magazine devotes a lot of attention to faculty contributions that impact students, the field of research, and the reputation of the college. An essential part of the college experience is also a student’s personal path to acquire knowledge.

“In Their Own Words” is a series that examines some of the more personal paths of faculty at the Terry College. Answering a single question, the professors and lecturers share a breadth and depth of experiences that, while unique, are also universal of the journeys of prospective and current students and alumni.

How did your childhood love of playing in the sand contribute to your career?

I was born in Edinburgh, Scotland while my dad was earning his doctorate in veterinary medicine. My parents are Canadian. My mother grew up in Guelph, Ontario and my dad grew up on the Canadian prairies. He became a professor of veterinary pathology and we moved back to Guelph when I was eight months old.

I remember enjoying the outdoors a lot as a child. Looking back on my career, I see how one of my favorite things to do as a kid has a connection with my work: I liked playing in the sand.

I loved building imaginary airports. I created these elaborate structures of terminals, gates, and runways and I pretended that I was scheduling the arrivals and departures of flights. I’d spend hours pulling the planes from the gates, taxiing them down the runway, and planning the next set of flights.

I have always liked puzzles. It’s probably a reason why I majored in Chemistry as an undergrad. My favorite Chemistry courses were the Analytic ones, which involved looking at output graphs an trying to decode what elements were in the material being analyzed—think of the show CSI. It is like a professional puzzle.

It wasn’t enough to lead me to life in Chemistry. I hated the lab work, it was tedious, and looking ahead, I didn’t find the career options appealing. One thing Chemistry helped me realize as an undergraduate was how much I liked analytical subjects.

Economics was one of those courses that reminded me of solving puzzles. Economics also got me interested in pursuing an MBA.  I wasn’t aware of how I’d fit into business, but I saw potential for an academic career because of the Economics courses I took.

I did well in my MBA program and subsequently taught MBA courses for two years at Canada’s top business school. Although Marketing wasn’t my favorite MBA course, I liked the combination of skills required for the subject. I also liked the research questions in the field. It was a fun area to teach and discuss with others.

I’ve realized that my love of structure helps me as an academic—especially working with PhDs. Academic research has a broad range of possibilities and it’s a long-term work process that requires a period of wool-gathering to write papers. If not careful, a student can get lost in that process. Those who drop out of PhD programs often fall into the trap of believing that their dissertation has to be perfect.

The perfectionism behind the mindset, “What I’ve got right now isn’t good enough,” is really dangerous in a PhD candidate. They delve into academic literature on subjects outside their area of study—Rhetoric, Statistics, you name it—with the hope it will help them do a better job organizing their thinking and presenting their findings. Go too far down this road and it leads a PhD into several thousands of rat holes. Now that dissertation that they began at the end of their second year is eight years old and they have nothing of substance written.  

I help students set shorter-term goals to avoid this perfection trap. If they want to be in a marketing faculty position by the end of their fourth year, they need to have a published paper by the end of year three.  I help them understand that writing a research paper is a group enterprise—it’s not just the student working on it.  We’re all here to help make it a stronger paper.

It’s why I prefer them writing something down even if the idea feels half-baked to them. Then they can at least share it with faculty or  peers. Starting to work on something tangible and engaging others with it for feedback makes a person more productive than trying to crash the project all at once.

When I reflect on my career, I can see that something as simple as making airports in the sand revealed my enthusiasm for structures:  how they work, how to think about them, and how to apply them as a researcher, a writer, and a teacher. If you’re seeking a life’s work that you’re passionate about, looking at what you did for play as a child can be a good starting point.