Leaving My Dream Career – Reflecting on My Decision 10 Years Later
June 18, 2015 2 Comments
I just couldn’t pretend any longer.
It was near the end of my second year at Simon Fraser University. My GPA was pretty high, and I had just won a competitive NSERC Undergraduate Student Research Award to work with an accomplished cardiac physiologist. I attended all of the relevant seminars to get the “inside scoop” on how to successfully apply to medical school, and I volunteered in numerous organizations to demonstrate my non-academic credentials. I had already developed good relationships with several professors who would have gladly written strong recommendations for my application. All of the stars were aligning for my path to medical school.
I was also miserable, angry and devoid of any further motivation to stay on that path.
Becoming a doctor seemed like the perfect – and sometimes only – career choice for me when I finished high school. I liked biology, was good at it, and liked helping people directly on a personal level. My communication skills and passion for health were emerging as strengths that complemented my goal. (Even today, those qualities still ring true.) I entered SFU with so much promise and drive, and I could not imagine pursuing anything else.
However, those first 2 years in my Bachelor’s degree robbed every ounce of that desire. My biology courses – previously taught with much curiosity and deep insight in high school – felt more like a long series of memorization marathons, and at least 6 more years of those marathons awaited me. I did not find any outlet for my creativity or problem-solving skills in those classes, and I felt like I was wasting my efforts and intellect. (Predictably, those mountains of names and facts eroded quickly from my memory after my final exams.) Furthermore, I dreaded the long periods of sleepless nights, rushed meals, and no exercise during medical internships and residencies. This dissonance is obvious in hindsight – I should have realized this awful aspect of medical training right from the start – but I refused to ruin my fantasy of a balanced lifestyle as a medical student with the grim realities of what I learned in pre-medicine seminars. Perhaps the irony of health advocates leading unhealthy lifestyles was too depressing to accept for my idealistic self during my late teenage years.
Worst of all, I wasn’t having any fun in school – a strange and new feeling that felt like a passive (albeit unintentional) act of intellectual heresy against me. Abandoning my long-held dream of becoming a medical doctor was a scary prospect. To combat my seemingly negative attitude, I tried to think of myself as an underdog in a long, difficult game, and I tried to muster as much energy as I could to “stay in the game” and “beat the system”. Eventually, that pretense – however noble in a plot for a David-vs.-Goliath novel – crumbled with my increasing intellectual lethargy. If my education had to become so bitter and adversarial as a pre-requisite for success, then I was pursuing the wrong goal. I wanted to be happy and nourished again – intellectually, physically and emotionally. I wasn’t looking for an easy exit – i just wanted to have fun in school again.
That was the start of my journey to examine 7 more career paths before settling on my current career in statistics. (Who knows – maybe another career will arise in the distant horizon, but I’m pretty happy with my choice right now.) I eventually studied chemistry, math and statistics – subjects that I now consider to be even more difficult than biology, but also more in tune with my goals and interests. I ultimately spent 8 years in my undergraduate education; I devoted 3 of those years to 9 different full-time jobs to explore various career paths, weighing the pros and cons from experience instead of hypothetical abstraction. Looking back, I’m very glad that I exercised that patience. (I spent another 8 months to complete my Master’s degree in statistics at the University of Toronto, using the Christmas holiday and a lot of networking to successfully get a great job right after graduation.)
A decade ago, I realized that my long-held dream was not the best fit for me, and that changing paths does not signify any failure or defeat on my part. In fact, because I assessed myself rigorously and found a more suitable path, I became happier and more successful in the end. This process took a while, and that “dream” career did not reveal itself after the first 7 exploratory attempts, but I am glad that I became a statistician – my skills are in high demand, I can work in a variety of industries, I have good earning potential over the long term, and I constantly get to learn new things. I also could not have envisioned becoming a blogger, a video blogger, and an active participant in social media in my fields of interest – developing The Chemical Statistician as a parallel professional endeavour has been a delightful surprise.
For many students, summer marks the transition from one academic year to another, and this may be the time to reflect on your career goals. If you are feeling stuck or hitting a dead end in your career search, discovering this now may very well be a blessing in disguise – in fact, it may be very good timing, as your Bachelor’s degree is a good time to explore different paths. Through constant reflection, thoughtful exploration, and carefully assessed changes in your direction, you may find the dream career that fits you the best.