Navigating Graduate School

Navigating life is challenging, whether you’re a student, performing an entry-level position, or are well established in your career. As the environment around us is constantly changing and roles are ever-evolving, there may never be a “catch-all” solution to navigating these challenges.

For the longest time, my goal was to become a physician. When I was in high school, I applied for a direct-entry medical program in Europe but ultimately declined because I wanted to explore potential opportunities in Canada first.

I entered my undergraduate degree as a pre-medical student in global health. I positioned myself to ensure that I would be a competitive candidate for medical school; I did research, played a varsity sport, I was involved with on-campus activities, and achieved good grades.

Nearing the end of my third year, I realized that perhaps a medical school and being a physician wasn’t entirely what I really wanted to do. It was more like a life-long goal that was comfortable; the path toward medical school, while it was competitive and presented its own challenges, was relatively clear-cut. However, upon self-reflection and complete honesty with myself, it wasn’t something that I thought I was truly passionate about and could dedicate myself to entirely.

At the time, I was a research assistant at a mood disorders psychopharmacology lab and had spoken about these challenges with my supervisor. From there, I decided that I would pursue a master of science (with a concentration in medical sciences) and explore other career opportunities for life sciences graduates, which brings us to this current moment.

Navigating graduate school — and more specifically, my career journey — has been difficult. It was especially difficult because it was a major pivot in thinking and my formal training hadn’t necessarily directly set me up for a non-medical student-type role.

Before, it was simple: I would go to class, then training, hop on a plane and go to a fencing competition, take the red-eye flight back, and go to the lab the same morning — with the knowledge that I would apply to medical school. Now, it’s not so clear.

Identifying the degree requirements, having them on time, and knowing what boxes need to be checked off for my master’s degree is clear. For example, I need to complete a certain number of course credits, work on my clinical trial, meet with my committee to demonstrate my knowledge and progress, and so on and so forth, which is relatively simple to grasp. I think the real challenge of graduate school is understanding yourself and carving out a niche for yourself — creating a “legacy.”

I experienced an intense burnout period after my first semester where I took all my courses, worked on the clinical trial, managed students, and trained for a varsity sport. It was also a period when I was trying to navigate life after graduate school. I was, and continued to be, interested in career paths which didn’t necessarily have a straightforward direction or where I would be considered a nontraditional applicant (eg, data science, management consulting).

However, after taking a professional development course, reaching out to people who went down a similar path, and informational interviews as well as reaching out to my mentors, it has become less daunting. I’ve found that the worst thing I can do is be passive about my concerns. Instead, taking action and making any sort of progress helps conquer these fears. There is still so much to learn going forward, but one thing that I will keep close to me is that you have the power to create opportunities for yourself.

In the end, good things don’t come easy.

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About Leanna Lui

Leanna MW Lui, HBSc, completed an HBSc global health specialist degree at the University of Toronto, where she is now an MSc candidate. Her interests include mood disorders, health economics, public health, and applications of artificial intelligence. In her spare time, she is a fencer with the University of Toronto Varsity Fencing team and the Canadian Fencing Federation.

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