Dr. Brenan Smith (PhD) has returned to pursue another research-focused undergraduate degree after earning a PhD in History. (Photo: Submitted)

USask PhD graduate returns to academia to pursue a research-focused undergraduate degree

“Every step of the research process is another opportunity to gain new or refine old perspectives on the topic, your team, and of course, yourself.”

Dr. Brenan Smith (PhD) is a USask PhD graduate in History. He is now pursuing an Honours degree in psychology in the USask College of Arts and Science under the supervision of Dr. Jan Gelech (PhD) and Dr. Kathrina Mazurik (PhD)Brenan serves as the senior editor of the social sciences section of the University of Saskatchewan Undergraduate Research Journal (USURJ), helping undergraduates to experience the publication process and celebrate their research work. 


Down the road and back again

Recall the age-old question: what do you want to be when you grow up? 

For University of Saskatchewan (USask) PhD graduate, Brenan Smith, the answer is: everything. 

Smith completed his undergraduate degrees and his PhD in History previously at USask, with a doctoral focus on American history and involvement in the Cold War.  

“What drove my interest in conducting research was primarily that there was just so much I didn’t – and don’t – know,” said Smith. 

“Discovering, exploring, and learning are exhilarating to me; every step of the research process is another opportunity to gain new or refine old perspectives on the topic, your team, and of course yourself.” 

After graduating, he accepted a position working for a non-profit organization.  

“For a while after I earned my PhD, I was a bit overwhelmed,” said Smith. “I felt sort of resentful and ‘abandoned’ – I’d spent years learning and honing skills that I thought and still think were incredibly useful, but finding fulfilling employment or a career was challenging.”  

“I received some of the most blunt but useful input during the interview that ended with me working in the non-profit sector, ‘No one cares what your title is or what you know; they care about what you do with what you know and how you do it.’ That stung, but it also was exactly what I needed to hear.” 

After working in a professional capacity for a few years, Smith made the decision to return to the USask College of Arts and Science to pursue an undergraduate Honours degree in psychology. 

Integrating the personal with the professional

Although adding another undergraduate degree onto a resume that already contains a doctorate may seem like an unconventional path, Smith recommends trying it if the decision meets three criteria for a student: if the degree will be useful in meeting their goals, if the timing is right, and if they can afford it – both financially and emotionally. 

“I think the most significant thing I’ve learned in progressing through all these degrees and starting a new one is that you need to spend time thinking and feeling about how you’re developing as you’re learning and experiencing things,” he said. 

“That’s a real challenge. It’s stressful enough studying for a midterm or final, getting an essay or report or research in on time, working, and all the other responsibilities that go into succeeding in any university program without adding in ‘think about how all of this and more has changed me and how I’ve changed myself as a person’. But it’s truly important.” 

Smith emphasizes the many resources available to current and former undergraduate students to engage them in research activities while staying true to their goals.  

Suggestions include researching professors and their past publications to determine a good fit before joining a research team, and participating in research-specific training through the USask Student Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE) co-curricular credit program, supported by the Undergraduate Research Initiative in the Office of the Vice-President Research. 

“The SURE program provides such a well-rounded and thoughtful set of tools – many that you often don’t think about until the last minute – that taking part in it can only help with finding opportunities, both in academia and elsewhere,” said Smith of his experience with SURE. 

“Getting this experience is important for you, so actively pursuing it is really a matter of taking care of yourself – future you will thank you.” 

Finding fulfillment

Smith has gained a wealth of knowledge while researching in his chosen disciplines, and while academia remains important, he stresses the necessity of students maintaining their well-being and self-care habits while paving the way to new knowledge. 

“I just kind of decided I would get a fulfilling career because I had a PhD, but didn’t actually put much time, thought, or effort considering, let alone preparing for, what a fulfilling career meant to me,” said Smith. 

In choosing psychology as his next path for discovery, Smith aims to capitalize on his existing knowledge to have an even stronger impact in society through his research. 

“I’ve found conducting research to be an amazingly supportive, nurturing, and dynamic experience in a way quite different from coursework,” said Smith. 

“Research in psychology and research in history are very different animals in a lot of ways, but they’re also incredibly complementary as far as skillsets are concerned. Now, I’m working on research projects where I’m helping provide greater context for understanding cyberbullying, building insights into supporting seniors, and even more.” 

As Smith continually demonstrates in working towards an undergraduate degree in psychology, and serving as a mentor for other undergraduate students through the publication process at USURJ, it is just as important to focus on the personal benefits as the professional benefits of pursuing research. 

“Because I learned to spend some time thinking about how this is contributing to my development, I know that not only am I loving the learning and research experiences, but the prospect that some or all of this research will also support people and their success gives me senses of sincere fulfilment and gratitude.” 


Sign up for the USask Student Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE) co-curricular credit program for Fall 2021 here: https://surveymonkey.ca/r/SUREFall2021 

Read more about the program here. 

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