We got in touch with a few of the recent (or soon to be) graduates of our department to see what they are up to now, and to get some feedback on their graduate experience. All of them have some interesting stores to tell and important life lessons to share. Their responses are compiled here.

Gladys Wong, PhD. (Dr. Juan Carlos Zuniga Pflucker lab, 2006-2012)
Gladys Wong, PhD. (Dr. Juan Carlos Zuniga Pflucker lab, 2006-2012)

What are you doing now? Or what do you plan on doing career wise?

(G.W.) Currently, I am working as a research scientist at a contract research organization. I develop assays to test the immunogenicity and efficacy of therapeutic biologics such as humanized monoclonal antibodies.

(P.C.) I am currently finishing up a manuscript delineating the work I did in the bone marrow transplantation results chapter of my thesis.

(E.P.) I am putting the finishing touches on my thesis and wrapping up the revisions for my paper. For my post-PhD career, I have recently joined Bloom Burton & Co. as a Scientific Diligence Analyst. Bloom Burton is a boutique investment banking firm that specializes in healthcare, pharmaceuticals, and biotechnology. My role is to support the investment banking team in understanding the clinical and business value of healthcare companies.

Peter Chen, PhD (Dr. James Carlyle lab, 2007-2012)
Peter Chen, PhD (Dr. James Carlyle lab, 2007-2012)

What was the most transforming experience of your degree?

(G.W.) Writing my thesis. For me, having my graduate committee approve my intention to graduate was pretty anti-climactic since I knew it was coming for at least a year. Thesis writing, however, was a cathartic experience that I wasn’t expecting. I and others have joked that producing a thesis is akin to giving birth, but in fact the experience is not painful. Thesis writing is a release from having to perform experiments which are inevitably associated with stress and anxiety. It’s a time of peaceful reflection, a chance look back on the accomplishments that you worked so hard to achieve. My completed thesis certainly instilled a sense of pride in me.

(P.C.) The most illuminating experiences of my degree are composed by two major elements: the academic arm, and the social arm. Academically, the reclassification exam transformed me from a naïve science student into an independent thinker; which importantly, allowed me to appreciate and understand the value of my work. Socially, being the IGSA social representative gave me the opportunity to talk to students, faculty members, and ultimately, to anyone that I meet in social settings including national conferences and international meetings. The interpersonal skills are vital to my graduate career since I have learned different routes for reaching out and seeking assistance and resources when I am stuck with my work.

(E.P.) Going to Rio de Janeiro for the Congress of Immunology Conference in my first year. It was overwhelming but exciting and was also a great way to get a vacation. The trip was a balance between “work” and play.

Your worst day, week, or year

(G.W.) Any day that required murdering innocent mice. RIP to the hundreds of mice who died for my research.

(P.C.) I had to sacrifice THE knockout mouse that I made (took a year or two), because the mother (which was the knockout mouse) was having trouble giving birth to the litter. I terminated a year’s worth of work with my own hands. It was a tough night to bear.

(E.P.) I respectfully decline to answer the question 🙂

The most useful or beneficial things you gained from your experience

Evelyn Pau (defending PhD in 2013). (Dr. Joan Wither lab, 2006-2013)
Evelyn Pau (defending PhD in 2013). (Dr. Joan Wither lab, 2006-2013)

 

(G.W.) I certainly learned how to persevere despite all the odds being stacked against me, but this might be a sign of insanity rather than progress.

(P.C.) See my response to transforming experience.

(E.P.) Graduate school helped me to develop a transferrable skill set that can go beyond the academic setting. I learned to problem solve, think critically and independently, and develop my natural curiosity. These skill sets are what employers are looking for in any industry, not just in academia.

If you could do it again, would you have done anything differently?

(G.W.) It sounds cliché to say this, but I don’t think I would change a thing. Life lessons were certainly embedded in every single one of the many mistakes I made, and I really can’t pinpoint a time or experience that, if altered, would have made my path significantly better or shorter.

(P.C.) I wouldn’t have done anything different. I was in a lab where all the members became family. I tried extending this mentality outside the lab and to the department, and I think in general it works! We do like each other, right?

(E.P.) I wish someone had told me earlier that I could run my flow samples the next day instead of staying late until 3 a.m. running my samples. I also wish I had just used more colors in my flow stains so that I didn’t have to stay until 3 a.m. in the first place.

If you could change anything about the graduate program, what would it be?

(G.W.) Easy. Increase stipend. We have highly educated students who need to budget and re-budget every month in order to afford nutritious food to feed their brilliant minds. Graduate students certainly do not receive compensation commensurate with their abilities.

(E.P.) It would have been nice if the department provided more support and resources for career development in areas outside of academia.

What kept you sane?

(G.W.) My fabulous lab mates (although some, who shall remain nameless, drove me insane) and the shenanigans of Sunnybrook A320.

(P.C.) The words that kept me going for the last 5 years: When you start to hate your life (workwise), take a deep breath, step back, and look at it again from a different angle. Love and hate really is a matter of perception. Listen to your heart, know what you want, and do what you have to get to that finishing line; and don’t let anything or (anyone) get in your way.

(E.P.) My labmates! We are family! (Cue music)

Words of wisdom for those in the program, or for those considering graduate school?

(G.W.) Long, laboursome experiments rarely result in publication quality results. Graduate students have to cope with constant failure, so it really helps if they like what they do. I can’t imagine someone who doesn’t like research being able to get out of bed and to the lab every morning, let alone stay sane in graduate school.

Also, pick a good supervisor. This can be the most important decision you make in your graduate career. I was lucky enough to have a supervisor who I respect and get along with, but many others have not been so lucky.

(E.P.) Five things. 1) For those going into a PhD, do the rotations. It’s good to know how all the labs work beyond the interviews. You can learn a lot more about the lab as a lab tourist. 2) Choose the right lab for you. I would prioritize on the people. Your project may evolve over time, but your supervisor and lab mates will always be there for you. 3) For those in a PhD program, use your first two years to focus on research. After reclassifying, I would suggest to start exploring what you like to do after your PhD. You can be part of a group, become a leader, network, take a course, or do an internship. This will definitely help you find what you want to do when you’re done your PhD. 4) Start job hunting at least one year before you defend. 5) Always keep learning.

Any other general comments about your graduate school experience?

(G.W.) Aside from the research, really take advantage of the social experience we call graduate school. Think about it, you have the freedom to set your own work hours! In the real world, most jobs are not so flexible. Have fun, because you’re locked in to your degree for at least 2-6 years so you might as well enjoy yourself.

(E.P.) The key to finding work outside of academia (in my case in business) is to have work experience during grad school. I have done volunteer work and internships while I was doing my PhD. This allowed me to show my future employers that I have experience in the real world beyond my time at the lab bench. Having work experience definitely helped to differentiate my application from other graduate students.

Star Trek or Star Wars?

(G.W.) No contest. Star Trek (DS9!!!). I mean, Lucas sold Star Wars to Disney in order to “rescue” the franchise. That, in and of itself, speaks volumes.

(P.C.) I prefer StarCraft. (I actually don’t play this)

(E.P.) Star Wars, I guess?

 

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Charles Tran

Founding Editor
Charles obtained his BSc in Biochemistry from the University of Alberta and is a PhD student in the Department of Immunology at the University of Toronto. In his spare time, he likes to run, play the guitar, and experiment with recipes from his Gordon Ramsay cookbook.
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