I have always been interested in pursuing a career in the health sciences. However, living through the COVID-19 pandemic and watching multiple health and societal issues come to the forefront has triggered a huge perspective change in my life. During the initial months of the pandemic, I completed my undergraduate degree in Molecular Genetics & Microbiology and Health & Disease at the University of Toronto where I have studied topics such as functional genomics, cell development and genetic diseases. Upon deeper reflection of my own interests and challenges/global issues over the past year, I realised that I wanted to pursue a career that would more directly impact population health. Changing the trajectory of one’s academic journey can be daunting especially during this unpredictable time. In this blog post, I will share some of my own advice with those who are navigating a career change during this time.
Invest time in reading: In this age of a 24-hour news cycle, and thousands of news sources, deciphering the truth and importance of information has become increasingly difficult. I recommend joining mailing lists of organizations that release credible news and academic journal articles on a weekly basis. My subscriptions to both Nature and Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ) newsletters have allowed me to access science news and the latest academic research findings in public health. While keeping up with current affairs in our society via the news is important, I would also recommend taking a step back from social media platforms and news channels to invest some time into reading books. There are tons of amazing books out there, so a good place to start is to create topic-specific reading lists of books that you are interested in and set reading goals (time to spend reading per day, date of completion etc.). For example, I was interested in learning about public health and ethics, so I read ‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks’ written by science writer Rebecca Skloot. Additionally, reading outside your field of work is especially important because it shapes your thinking and allows you to take a more holistic view of the world around you. I recently read two non-traditional self-help books authored by Mark Manson in which he discussed the inevitability of pain and the value obtained in facing pain in trade for the search of short-lived happiness. The insight that I gained through reading these books have caused me to reflect deeply on my daily habits improvising where necessary.
Invest time in learning: There are endless options of massive open online courses (MOOCs) on Coursera, EDx, and other online websites, that you can take to continue your professional and personal development journey. Over the past few months, I have been taking an introductory statistics course which has brought me up to speed with basic statistical analysis tools used in the field of public health. One thing to note is that some of these courses award you with certificates of completion which can be added to your LinkedIn profile notifying your network that you have expanded your skillset.
Invest in community: You may have been advised to use LinkedIn to your advantage, but some of you may not know where to start. Everybody has their own unique way of navigating the LinkedIn world, but I started simply by connecting with speakers and panelists I met at seminars and workshops hosted by my university. An important piece of advice I received was to always send an introductory message to individuals with whom I wished to connect. Not only is it polite, but it allows them to get to know who you are and why you would like to connect with them. Instagram is also a great way of connecting with people of similar career interests. To my pleasant surprise, there are lots of science communicators with public health backgrounds who are dedicated to fighting the spread of misinformation about vaccines and the COVID-19 virus by posting credible news articles and links to journal articles on Instagram posts. Engagement with these individuals on Instagram is easy because of the ability to share, comment on and like their content.
Seek volunteer opportunities that take you outside your comfort zone: Volunteer opportunities are a great way to improve your soft skills. Communication is a valuable skill for any role, especially one in public health which thrives on the engagement with the populace. I have been involved in a few mentorship roles over the past few years, each of which aided in the development of my leadership skills, interpersonal communication, teamwork, and decision-making. Being a part of a community, whether on social media or in-person puts you in a great position to learn about places or groups of people that may need help.
The main takeaway here is to keep learning and treat failure as an opportunity to grow since it is only when you seek out new opportunities you would find your true passions. In the words of well-known American psychologist Carl Rogers, “The good life is a process, not a state of being. It is a direction not a destination.” These powerful words have stuck with me throughout my journey to date.