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An Emeritus PhD student?: Petr Varmuza is U of T Fall Convocation’s oldest graduate

November 23, 2020

By Perry King

Petr Varmuza is U of T Fall Convocation's oldest graduate. Varmuza began his doctoral studies at OISE in 2010 after retiring from a long career working for Children’s Services at the City of Toronto. 

A few hours outside of Toronto, northeast of Cobourg, Petr Varmuza sits down in a Zoom call with a story to tell.

Reflective, happy and content, Varmuza, at 72, is U of T Fall Convocation’s oldest graduate and one of 48 OISE students receiving PhDs.

Varmuza and his wife may have moved out of the city where he once worked and studied — however, his heart is still bound to U of T. With the completion of his PhD in OISE’s department of Applied Psychology and Human Development, Varmuza closes a decade-long chapter of his life.

This moment is bittersweet.

“It’s more sweet than bitter,” he says, who started his OISE PhD journey in 2010 after retiring from a long career working for Metropolitan Toronto’s (and then the City of Toronto’s) Children’s Services.

The bitter part?  The pandemic took away opportunities to interact directly with his doctoral colleagues during the closing months of his studies. This was a big part of the upside for his choice to pursue post-retirement graduate work — to continue to have people with whom to bounce off ideas with some meaning. “But at the same time, it lets you step back and say, ‘What have I learned and how can I continue to contribute without facing government-driven deadlines?’” he said.

From the field to the classroom

What he had learned before had been vast — but he came to OISE already raring to do more and to learn more. His is the story of a genuine life-long learner.

Joining the municipal department in 1980, Varmuza was responsible for allocating funding and planning for child care services in Toronto, which was a leader in this regard at the time, he says. He got into this work because of a deep passion for social equity and he figured out early on that he loved social planning.

For him, working in municipal childcare services was more than a vocation. It was a passion doing “the most important sort of social planning,” he says.

The system, then and now, is challenging to navigate. He wanted to ensure families had genuine access to a childcare system. “Making it into a system is really the challenge,” he says. “It's not just about when the demand is high, but making sure that everybody who needs access has some kind of reasonable opportunity for that access.”

But working in early learning and care didn’t give him the chance to research and write about “what you think needs to be done,” he says. An OISE PhD was the perfect fit. It allowed Varmuza to widen and deepen his scope of interests.

When he arrived at OISE as a part-time student and part of the flex-time early learning cohort, several faculty members already knew what he was bringing to the table.

Professor Charles Pascal, from OISE’s department of Applied Psychology and Human Development, got to know Varmuza when he was still working for the city. Pascal consulted with him and others at the city as part of Pascal’s efforts to develop the report on full-day kindergarten for Ontario’s Premier in June 2009.

“Petr was nothing short of brilliant regarding how to add the quantitative aspect of policy development at the Children and Youth Services Department in the city of Toronto,” Pascal said. “He was, and continues to be, indispensable to those of us who work on early learning and childcare policy.”

Referring to his decision to pursue doctoral studies, Pascal says he thought Varmuza wanted to have the “intellectual stimulus” of being with peers. “Getting the PhD seemed secondary to being part of a process of peer engagement.”

Professor Michal Perlman, Varmuza’s doctoral supervisor, saw much of the same.

“At my research lab, we're all dealing with questions around how services are delivered to children. A lot of the questions we ask are quite applied,” said Perlman, a professor in OISE’s Applied Psychology and Human Development, whose lab focuses on social interaction and early childhood policy research. “Petr frames questions in a way that is different than how I might frame them because he knows what a person in his role in government would be asking.”

For example, he wrote a paper on the stability and quality of classrooms in early childhood education and care settings. “I looked at it from a more theoretical perspective,” said Perlman, “while Petr was looking at it from the perspective of frequency of assessment — like, how frequently does government need to evaluate quality for quality assurance program purposes. It’s the same topic, but the questions were framed differently.”

That reframing helped Perlman’s lab look at data in a different way. It was a crucial perspective that Varmuza constantly brought to the table.

“Petr has been pure gold regarding his contributions. He's brilliant and generous with his time,” Pascal added. “He was an evidence-based pitbull.”

Perlman wouldn’t call Varmuza a “pitbull,” but she thought he was very strong-minded and evidence-driven. “He got to know his data in a very deep way, and he did more exploration of the data than usual,” she said.

“He doesn't take anything for granted,” she added. “He brings his brilliant, analytic mind to every aspect of the work. He queried every decision about the data and data analysis in a way that I think is unusual and kept me on my toes.”

It was a perspective, that combination of field experience and inquisitiveness and his obvious commitment to social justice that other lab members appreciated. “The joke in the lab is that students are saying he's not allowed to leave,” says Perlman.

“Thankfully, he’s continuing to work on projects with us and attending our lab meetings. He recently promised one of the first-year PhD students that he’ll be around until she finishes. We’ve been joking that as he is an Emeritus PhD student.”

Professor Perlman added that “it really speaks to his commitment to keep learning and contributing, and his generosity of spirit.”

Professor Pascal still thinks that for Varmuza, the “process was more important than the product; although gaining a PhD provides the kind of positive recognition deserving of this special colleague.”

Looking back, words of advice

How long Varmuza stays in the lab is an open question, but he’s still working on a couple papers and conducting research. His timeline is not as intense, he says. “I don’t really see the need to stop as long as my brain doesn’t fall out,” he says with a chuckle.

Looking back, Varmuza has plenty of advice for his younger peers seeking professional growth. For one, you have to enjoy what you do. “More important than anything else,” he said, citing time management as crucial to being successful.

Of the advice he gave OISE News, his last bit of advice stood out the most: “It's hard, but do not neglect your family in the process,” he said.

Students today are so much more focused compared to when he was an undergrad 50 years ago. “But if you are too deep into it and too focused, there are things that slide away and you wonder how come they slide away,” he said.

“It's really important to have a balanced approach. Having that degree is not the be-all and end-all. Losing touch with people around you is a high price to pay, so make sure you don't pay it if you don't have to.”


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