In my past blogs, I had lamented on the lack
of career planning as I was going through my education. At this stage in life,
I recognized the deficiency and immediately proceeded to over-compensate on the
solution. I made a significant decision during my apprenticeship at UC
Irvine. I had decided that I wanted to proceed to graduate school. Not only
that … I had planned out the duration of my stay (yeah… as if!)… how long to do
a postdoc and where I wanted to do academic research… and oh yeah, not to mention
marriage and the 2.5 kids somewhere in there. Yeah. I had planned to be more
prolific in my future life. In looking back, I don’t think I hit any one of
those milestones. Go figure.
Anyways, while working, I began to look into
schools, prepare for the GRE, apply to graduate programs and interview. Being a
Canadian, growing up I really didn’t have a concept of good universities or bad
universities. Most of our institutions are very comparable. I’m from Vancouver, and 98% of us
from high school who attended university stayed local, either at UBC or SFU.
I’ve heard of Harvard, Yale and Princeton, but
for me, they were as realistic as Hogwarts. So, you can understand my dilemma
in choosing the right graduate program in the US. Not only were there good schools
or better schools to choose from, but I had to consider the program and the
individual investigators. I also didn’t know how well my Canadian education
stacked against the Americans. I wasn’t sure how competitive I would be in
applying to these institutions.
To hedge my bets, I applied to 3 top-20, 3
middle-tier, and 3 … umm … not-so–middle-tier schools. I got responses from a
couple of the top-tier and some middle-tier schools. It’s funny though; I was
blown off by all the lower-tier schools. I couldn’t understand why, so much for
hedging my bets.
But, I now had choices and decisions. Not
knowing the schools and what to look for, the choice would not be easy.
Fortuitously, during one of my interviews at UCI, an interviewer asked me
directly, which schools had I been accepted to (…is this a normal discussion
during an interview?). I proceeded to rant off my list and when I got to
“Vanderbilt”, she chimed in and said “Good School! You should go there.”
What?!! … is this a normal thing to say during an interview?!!
She followed up by saying that UCI would be
very competitive and would prepare me extremely well. But… if I could get into
one of the best pharmacology programs in the US, I should go. Personally, I was
leaning towards staying in the west coast, mostly due to comfort and
convenience. But, her recommendation lingered in my mind. What is this
Vanderbilt anyways? Never heard of it! I only applied because I have a friend
In the ensuing weeks, I spoke to the
department head of Vanderbilt (yeah… can you believe that? Called me up
personally. Not some secretary! Way cool.), who informed me that my application
was late and they had given out all the available stipends for that year.
However, if I wanted to wait, they would guarantee a spot for me in the
following year. Eventually I took this offer and the department chair was kind
enough to set me up with a research associate position with a world-renowned
neuroscientist in the department, not to mention the nicest boss ever! Who, in
the end, became my mentor throughout my graduate career, but that’s another
Looking back now, you
can see I had a firm grasp of my future and direction (that’s sarcasm… for all
of you that fell asleep reading).