By Deborah Melman-Clement
When Susan Cahill graduates from Queen's in 2011, she won't just leave with a PhD in Art History, she'll also leave with a strong, vibrant network to help her launch her career.
Cahill began her education in her native Newfoundland, studying English and theatre at Memorial University. She didn't discover art history until a few years later, while she was working in Montreal. She decided to fuel her newfound passion by taking a few courses at Concordia University. She then applied to- and was accepted in - four graduate programs. "I had several choices," she says, "but I chose Queen's because I'd heard such good things about it." One of her Concordia professors had gone to Queen's and so had a close friend. Both had nothing but good things to say.
After completing her M.A. and most of her doctoral work, Cahill agrees with them wholeheartedly. "In my experience, it's an extremely supportive environment," she says, adding that she felt that support right from the start. "And I don't just mean when I arrived here," she says. "I mean even before that - during the application process. The first professor I spoke with was incredibly supportive. She made helpful suggestions and put me in touch with other students. It was a very warm, welcoming environment to walk into."
That warmth has remained throughout Cahill's time here. "For me, the strongest thing Queen's has to offer is a community of grad students and faculty," she says. "It's not a competitive environment at all. It's not about succeeding above others - it's about everyone succeeding together."
It's a philosophy that Cahill thoroughly embraces. "This is a great place to build personal and professional relationships," she says, adding that relationship building is especially important for people like her, who aspire to a career in academia. "The students I'm meeting now will be my professional colleagues later," she explains. "I'm building a network for the future so that when conferences and books and projects come up, I'll have a whole list of collaborators. It expands the scope of what I'll be able to do."
With that in mind, Cahill and colleague Sarah E.K. Smith embarked on an experiment in 2007. "We were curious about the process of getting published," she recalls. "Publishing is a great way to get established, but we didn't know much about how to do it." Cahill and Smith found out the hard way, by launching their own publication, Shift, the Queen's Journal of Visual and Material Culture (www.shiftjournal.org), an interdisciplinary journal just for graduate students. Their first issue launched online in the fall of 2008.
Conceived in part as another avenue for grad students to get published, Shift has succeeded beyond Cahill's wildest dreams, attracting submissions from across the campus and around the world and exponentially increasing the size of her network and the possibilities for future collaborations.
As Cahill heads into the final years of her doctoral work, she's preparing to hand Shift off to a new editor. "When we took on the project, we said we'd do it for three years," she says. She's already put the call out for a new Co-editor and is planning to step aside after the next issue. "The plan is for it to continue once we leave," she says. "Queen's has given me so much and this is something I can give back."