Jan. 26, 2018

Exploration of Career Options for Graduate Students

A New “Situation Room” Will Help Graduate Students Explore Careers

This semester I had the opportunity to take Dr. Rancourt’s Professional Development course offered to Biomedical Engineering students. I am a Neuroscience MSc student, yet Dr. Rancourt allowed me to audit his course because I expressed interest in my professional development. This winter, Dr. Rancourt is opening his course to all UCalgary graduate students as an independent study.

Throughout my undergraduate degree, I was certain I was headed to medical school. I spent thousands of dollars on MCAT prep, talked about diagnoses, and kept up with literature. But after 3 years of medical school rejections, I felt hopeless. Unfortunately, getting rejected from medical school is a common situation for many pre-meds in Canada. With approximately 1500 applicants vying for around 150 seats at the University of Calgary alone, I realized I needed to open myself up to other career options. This professional development course has not only shown me many tangible outlets for my training, but also introduced me to many tools that I can use to optimize my effort.

The course used a distributed teaching and learning model where students were assigned non-academic careers to research and present to the rest of the class. My assigned career was Medical Science Liaison, which was perfect for me. However, there was a catch. I was expected to pursue an informational interview, a meeting with a professional in an area that you are interested in pursuing or learning more about. For many students, including myself, this was a nerve-wracking experience. Once I did it, I learned that working professionals are freely giving of their time and want to help students. I also learned that informational interviews are a form of career prototyping, that helps you to refine your direction based upon the insights you reiteratively receive from working professionals.  

This course taught me many new things. Dr. Rancourt kept reminding us that, because of the emergence of robots and artificial intelligence, many future careers will be interpersonal and not technical. It is important for students to get outside the university and to learn how to interact with people. Throughout the course, he brought in guest speakers from inside and outside the university to talk about networking, professional skills, interests, values, mentors, internships, entrepreneurship, and business development.

Another inspiring assignment was focused on entrepreneurship. Dr. Rancourt introduced the class to the new approach of storyboarding your own personal business ideaHe asked us to consider what we might do if we had difficulty with finding a job after graduating. Although he recognized that something might come from our research, Dr. Rancourt challenged us to focus on our acumen: Is there anything special in our unique skillset or interests that we could pull together into an enterprise?

One of my side hustles is that I have been an autism caregiver for the past 3 years. In seeing the difficulty that parents have with coordinating caregivers, my business idea was to develop a not-for-profit company that would help Calgarians to better coordinate their caregiving. When I shared my social entrepreneurship idea, Dr. Rancourt suggested that it had parallels to another UCalgary spin-off Enable, a social enterprise that helps to coordinate caregiving for handicapped Calgarians. Dr. Rancourt put me in touch with the one of the co-founders of Enable, who I plan to share my new business model prototype with. Using my new-found informational interview skills, I can hash my idea further, get some pointers about the viability of my idea and what future opportunities I might be able to pursue. By taking this course, I feel confident to continue to try for medicine and have now also opened myself up to creating a business.

This semester Dr. Rancourt is establishing a Professional Development “War Room” (Thursdays, 2-4pm) where students will have a chance to share their professional development stories. Contact Dr. Rancourt (rancourt@ucalgary.ca) if interested.

Jessica Krahn is an MSc. student working with Dr. Thomas Raedler at the University of Calgary. Her thesis is focused on lipids that may associate with cognitive impairment in schizophrenia. She is passionate about medicine and research, particularly mental health, and wants to help others who are struggling with mental health conditions. While in school, Jessica also works as a self-employed developmental aide for teens and young adults with severe autism. She teaches these individuals to master life skills such as personal care and work skills.