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From PhD to Life

Transition Q & A: Mike Commito, director of applied research and innovation

“Throughout grad school, I always thought about how I could leverage my research, writing, analytical, and communication skills if an academic job never panned out.”


Mike Commito earned his PhD in history from McMaster University. He’s now the director of applied research and innovation at Cambrian College in Sudbury, Ontario. Mike is also the author of Hockey 365: Daily Stories from the Ice and a writer for the LA Kings. Follow him on Twitter @mikecommito.

What did you hope for in terms of employment as you completed your PhD?

When I first started my PhD, my hope was that I would wind up in academia. Although I knew my chances of landing a full-time job were slim, my passions for research and teaching is what drew me into completing a PhD. As I progressed through my dissertation, I realized I would have to be pragmatic when it came to my career opportunities.

What was your first post-PhD job?

My first job was a policy analyst position for Northern Policy Institute, a think tank focused on providing evidence-based solutions for northern Ontario. I started that job less than a week after my defense.

What do you do now?

I am now the director of applied research and innovation at Cambrian College.

How did you get this job?

I started working at Cambrian College three years ago as an applied research developer. In that role, I worked with local companies that wanted to engage with the college on applied research projects. After discovering their challenge, I would connect them with appropriate faculty at Cambrian who could carry out the work with their students. Once we collectively developed a scope of work, I applied for grants from industry-academic funders. After doing this for a couple of years, I had landed some pretty significant grants for the college and helped grow our research capacity. When the job for director became available, I threw my hat into the ring. I am grateful for the opportunity I now have to lead the college’s applied research portfolio.

What kind of tasks do you do on a daily and weekly basis?

Every day, my job is to think strategically about Cambrian’s applied research goals and how we can execute on them. I am focused on understanding what companies we are working with and how we can expand the college’s research portfolio. Currently, we are primarily focused on mining innovation research, but it’s my responsibility to branch out into other areas such as health sciences and social innovation research. While a significant part of my job includes that type of strategic planning, I am also a manager. On a day-to-day basis, I am responsible for leading and working with a vibrant team of administrators, faculty members, researchers, and students.

What most surprises you about your job?

I think what surprises me most about this job is how much I continue to learn on a daily basis. I went to school to become a Canadian historian, but at work I find myself talking about the capabilities of a 5-axis CNC milling machine or how bacteria can help break down mine waste.

What are your favourite parts of your job?

Every morning I wake up eager to go to work, and that’s because of the people I work with. I am part of an amazing team at Cambrian College and that’s truly my favourite part of my job. Each member of my team brings something to the table in their own way and I am fortunate that I get to lead them. I think we all work well together and we know how to have fun in the office while ensuring we meet our collective and individual goals.

What would you change about it if you could?

My job is full of challenges that range from financial to human resources questions, but I don’t think I would change anything about it. Being able to tackle new challenges daily and weekly is what makes my job interesting. Although it is often stressful navigating some of these challenges, I relish the opportunity to solve them, and there’s no greater feeling than using your grey matter to successfully overcome a problem. Moreover, I find it allows me to push myself and leads to unforeseen personal and professional growth that I can build on in the office.

What’s next for you, career-wise?

To borrow a line of thinking from my president, Bill Best, Cambrian College began as a college in a mining town. Today we are a mining research college. Our future, however, is simply to become known as a research college. In the coming years, my goal is to diversify Cambrian’s research portfolio, so that we are recognized for our research efforts regardless of the sector.

Beyond my work at Cambrian, I am an author and writer. I would like to write another book, although I am not sure what it will be about just yet. As for my writing, I hope to continue writing for the LA Kings. I don’t have any career aspirations for my hockey writing, but right now it’s pretty cool that a guy in Sudbury, Ontario is a regular contributor for an NHL team in Los Angeles. During winter I think I’d rather be a guy from Los Angeles writing about Sudbury hockey, but for now I am loving the adventure and thankful for the opportunity.

What advice or thoughts do you have for PhDs in career transition now?

They say greatness borrows, but genius steals. On that note, I am going to steal some advice that my former supervisor and friend, Mark Kuhlberg, gave to me when I was first starting out in grad school. Mark told me to market myself as broadly as I could. He understood firsthand how difficult it was to get a job in the academy but keenly recognized that his students had other marketable skills that would be valued in industry. As a result, throughout grad school, I always thought about how I could leverage my research, writing, analytical, and communication skills if an academic job never panned out. It was the best advice I ever received and it’s why I have the job I have at Cambrian and why I was able to take the skills I developed as an historian and become a hockey writer. Although I didn’t end up where I thought I would when I started my PhD, I wouldn’t change anything about the journey. The destination has changed but everything I have learned along the way is what makes me the person and professional I am today.

Jennifer Polk
Jennifer Polk is a career coach and entrepreneur. She earned her PhD in history from the University of Toronto in 2012. For more information and resources, check out her website:
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