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Unearthing your potential: What getting my PhD taught me

No matter the subject, learning and teaching can reap on-the-job rewards

Submitted by Sean P. Connaughton, Ph.D (Burnaby, BC)

At first glance, obtaining my Ph.D. didn’t have a strong link to my work at Stantec. At work, my focus is archaeology and Aboriginal relations. My studies, however, focused on the origins of Polynesian culture using a holistic approach and archaeology to trace the ancestral birthplace of Polynesian culture.

I am proud to have contributed to the study of Pacific archaeology, but this specific research isn’t exactly applicable to my day job. But refining my archaeological skills in the field during my research helped uncover a suite of skills I wouldn’t have obtained anywhere else.

Completing my Ph.D wasn’t easy. I worked long days in the field and then came home to my dissertation that took me late into the night. Fortunately, Stantec gave me flexibility in my work schedule; I could still take on field projects and meet my obligations to my job and our clients.

I lived and worked in indigenous communities – Fiji, Tonga, Sāmoa, and Papua New Guinea – while conducting my research. I needed to speak the local language, understand cultural norms and taboos (which is a Polynesian word, by the way) during field research. This taught me about the pleasures and frustrations of working within a different worldview.

My work with indigenous communities heavily influenced my perspective on archaeology and I have applied that knowledge to both the archaeology and Aboriginal relations teams at Stantec. Fresh views sparked new and innovative ways in which we conduct ourselves on the job, thinking through problems and developing creative solutions for our clients.

I am able to convey complex ideas and communicate clearly and honestly on the job, drawing on techniques gained from a variety of different contexts during my Ph.D field research. These experiences taught me the value of deep listening, respect, and humility, serving as a foundation for my approach toward working with local First Nation communities in British Columbia.

I have gained opportunities I didn’t think were possible. Clients have hired me for projects taking place in the South Pacific as a senior technical reviewer with the potential for future field work overseas. It’s been a good way to showcase that the skill sets at a diverse company like ours can transfer internationally.

I’ve been with Stantec for over three years and have found opportunities to incorporate my research passions into current projects. I (along with my colleague James Herbert) even received internal funding to carry out an ethnographic program on First Nations engagement. We are on the cusp of insight and change, and some of our findings have been published in Canada’s flagship journal for archaeology. After work, I teach nights at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in the Department of Anthropology. This opportunity allows me to share experiences, solve problems, and provide guidance to eager young minds.

Having employees that teach is a great way for a company to have a presence in local communities, underscoring a commitment to public outreach. I’m fortunate that Stantec encourages employees to teach, conduct research and give back, highlighting the top minds we recruit and our commitment to community.

Both at Stantec and as I obtained my Ph.D, I’ve been pushed to think through deeper issues and put them into practice. I believe my experiences give me, my team, and my firm a competitive edge in the changing world in which we live.

Sean Connaughton is an anthropological archaeologist in Stantec’s Environmental Services team.

Sean (right) with Ratu Jone Balenaivalu (left) and Sepeti Matararaba of the Fiji Museum at Sigatoka Sand Dunes National Park. Photo by Sean P. Connaughton©

These experiences taught me the value of deep listening, respect, and humility.

Sean (left) with Ratu Emosi (right)

Photo by Sean P. Connaughton©

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