He studied at the University of Toronto and the University of Calgary, receiving a Doctor of Philosophy in 1968.
McGhee worked in the Middle East as a student. He went on to study the remains of Martin Frobisher"s expedition searching for the Northwest Passage, a 2000-year-old village in the Siberian peninsula and an Inuit village at Resolute, Nunavut. He was awarded the Massey Medal of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society in 2000.
McGhee is a former president of the Canadian Archaeological Association and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.