Student to Worker, A Reflection

I wanted to take a moment to reflect on the advice I had given to the students at the Alumni Panel hosted by Pharmacology & Toxicology Second-Year Learning Community at University of Toronto yesterday. This is also an attempt to gather my thoughts and summarize my learnings from the past year.

The first piece of advice I had given was more of an understanding:

When you’re in school, you are mostly among peers with the same starting point, and were going through the same curriculum. But when you start working, you are thrown into a mixture of people with different backgrounds and experience.

It’s important not to lose yourself and start questioning yourself. I did, and it was a terrible feeling.

I have friends who are starting their own businesses, friends who are making double what I make, and also friends who are getting married and/or having kids. My world suddenly became so big that I did not know where I fit in anymore. And mostly important, I was not happy with myself. Because I wanted to be able to feel the same sense of achievement as all these friends. But how could I expect all that, when the friends who are starting their businesses had years of professional training and months of planning and I was just starting in a field I had no experience in? when the friends who are making double what I make is already 4 years into their career and I had barely passed my 1st work anniversary? and the friends who are getting married and having kids?... well I didn't even want to get married or have kids right at this point. So what was I unhappy about?

I realized that I was unhappy because I was comparing myself on various scales that I was not meant to be on.

As a student, it was easy. If I got A+ and the class average was C then I knew I was doing well. But now there's no universal quantifiable scales for everyone, and I was just blindly comparing, trying to seek some sense of security, and trying to feel good about myself.

Once I understood that, the next step was to feel sure of myself without making comparisons.

This led to my next piece of advice:

Define your own success.

I thought hard and long. At what point should I consider myself successful? How do I even approach this question? I have such a long life (hopefully) ahead of me, how would I know what I want 10 years from now? And that's when I realized that success is different at different stage of your life. It's a constant re-evaluation.

I decided to define my current success as doing something that I am good at and something I am passionate about.

And then I felt... easier and lighter. Because now all I had to do was to be good at my job, and maybe do something on the side, like this, writing an article that I don't even know if anyone will read. But it's something to start with.

And today I was rewarded with such positive feedback from a client (and my manager) on a project that I had the privilege of owning up to in the past month or so. I have learned so much, both technical and soft skills, in the course of this project, that now, I am left with feeling pure relief (weirdly) and satisfaction -- relief from having felt so terrible about myself in the past year, and satisfaction of being good at something.

The next piece of advice was:

Try not to see your career as linear.

During the panel discussion, I was asked:" do you think you've made the right choice with your career?" I was not surprised to hear this question, but I was surprised by my answer that followed:

I don't think I have made the right choice, because saying so would indicate that there is only one choice for my career. The notion of the right career, the one job that you find right after school and settle down into, has made so many people so unhappy, and so many others so boring.

If there's anything I learned in the past year (and I mean COVID), it's that you can't start out limiting yourself to so few choices of good outcomes, and expect life to turn out that way. Most often, life doesn't listen to your wishes, it just gives what it can give. It's up to you to be thankful of what's given, rather than being resentful of what's not.

I could offer another personal experience as example: I was doing an internship that to my great surprise, didn't turn into a full-time position. I was left without a job right in the middle of COVID. I remember crying and being miserable for a whole week. But two weeks later, I found my current job. I was resentful for a week, it didn't make my life any easier. What changed was that I decided to look for help, and I was lucky enough to have received help from various routes, among which a mentor who encouraged me and helped me with my resume, as well as a manager who saw my potential and wanted to show me what I could learn. I am so happy at my current job -- point proven with previous example!

Back to non-linear career: there is just so much in the world, so much available to you. The need to find the "right choice" is a need for permanent stability, something that, in my personal opinion, we no longer need in 2021 (assuming COVID gets resolved). Our previous generations (mostly the Chinese older generations because those are the only ones I do know) have suffered war and famine. They needed a stable source of income because without it, they quite literally could die. But we have so many options of survival, we have so much support that we have the privilege of experimenting with our career. And to me, that's the most exciting thing about career. Because today I am in pharmaceuticals/healthcare, tomorrow (not literal) I could be in the game industry (might not be easy of course), but point being: I have options and it's never the end of the world if the first career I choose does not end up well for any reason.

It felt exhilarating after the Alumni Panel. I have had these thoughts circling in my mind for a while now, but being able to articulate them helped me organize my thoughts, and really see things from a different perspective.

I have been out of school for more than a year now, and yesterday was the first time I felt like I was above heavy clouds on a gloomy day -- finally being able to see clearly of why I had been so miserable, and how I could start getting better.

I had a few purposes for writing this article: I wanted to summarize the advice I had given to an audience of 20 and jot them down here for people who are still struggling in the gloomy clouds trying to find a way out. I wanted to reflect and organize my thoughts further now that they've been articulated verbally. And most importantly, I wanted this article to be the first of many -- because now that I've defined my success to be doing something I am passionate about, I found that writing, sharing my experience, and discussing my thoughts are all my passion.

I am working on my way to my own success. I hope this article has inspired you to do the same!

Disclaimer: I have presented a lot of personal opinions here and in doing so, I do not intend to represent anyone else or any organizations that I am affiliated to. This is purely a personal article meant as a positive influence, in my best and sincerest hope.



Rozee Junhan Liu, U of T Pharmacology and Toxicology Alumni
Evidence Generation Analyst at Purple Squirrel Economics, A Cytel Company
Originally published on LinkedIn: