On Career Options

Today’s word-dump summary/subtitle: In Which I Reflect Loquaciously On What the Hell I’m Doing With My (School-Focused) Life

I have a year and three months left of my undergraduate education. In six months or so, I’ll be applying to graduate school, medical school, and who knows what else. The fact is, I don’t know exactly what I’ll be doing this time two years from now. This unknown is a lingering stress at the back of my mind – not enough to disrupt my life (after all, what can I do about it?), but its presence is noticeable. I have the impression that most (if not all) of my peers are in this situation as well. We look enviously on those who know exactly where they’re going/what they’re doing. We’re at once violently restless and seeking to settle.

I am an extremely goal-oriented person. Give me something to work towards, and you can be assured that I’ll pour myself heart and soul into it. Give me many things to work towards, and I’ll try to distribute myself among all these (which sometimes works out and sometimes does not). I also want to do just about everything. I have multiple ideas for careers, which all require slightly different paths – and I can see myself equally as happy in any of these.

For example, my primary objective over the past year and a half or so has been to set myself up for a career in clinical research. I would absolutely thrive in a setting like this, but (but, of course there are “buts”) I’ve also begun to consider the amount of life I’ll have to devote to it. At nineteen, it seems fully reasonable to remain in school until you’re forty – and while I’m absolutely still willing to commit to that, I do have to make sure I’ve thought long and hard about the sacrifices that will have to be made. Things like being salaried, buying a car, even getting married and starting a family. These things can still be done, absolutely- however, I wouldn’t be properly salaried until my mid-thirties, and the flexibility and freedom to do many things requiring time and money would be limited until my full matriculation.

The other side to this is “getting there” in the first place. I’ve taken multiple steps in gaining admission to a PhD/MD – from working in a lab (which has helped to garner publications) to taking my MCAT to keeping up my grades to shadowing a doctor to volunteering in various areas in the community (sitting on the board of directors for a youth choir, the Ontario Breast Cancer Association, coaching a soccer team) to maintaining my own extracurriculars (singing in a few choirs, playing in the university concert band, exercising).  That said, my grades aren’t at the “top” (I have a 3.9 on a 4.0 scale – woe is me, I know, I know); my specific clinical volunteerism is lacking.  Getting into any medical program is a lottery; for all that I have going for me, I also have fair bit “against”.

I intend to apply to Master’s degrees. In bio-molecular sciences (here), in physiology, in nutrition. I’m also considering applying to a university that has a B.Sc. program in nutrition and pursue dietetics; I could do a shorter second B.Sc. (two or three years instead of four) on account of the credits I’ve obtained through my kinesiology degree, and work as a kinesiologist/personal trainer on the side; this summer I plan to become a certified personal trainer and a certified exercise physiologist the next (after having obtained my degree), both through CSEP.

This last option is appealing to me on some days; doing a masters, more so on others. The issue is that I love both research and human interaction; I like the idea of both helping others with my current knowledge while searching for new things. I am passionate about physiology and metabolism (and the impact of nutrition and exercise on these); the only thing that I know for sure is that I’m headed somewhere in this direction. My interest in the MD/PhD degree is largely based on this duality of patient interaction and research.

That’s where I’m at, currently. Working towards a balance between my interests and hobbies; my work life; my student life; my relationships (SO, family, friends). Trying to take care of myself as best as I can. My mind is constantly busy; I’m paring back in other ways to try and compensate. I think that this is where the urge to settle comes from – busy-ness is a disease, and I want to slow down as much as my life is currently picking up pace. I’m just going to trust that as long as I continue to work, my career will sort itself out. Hopefully balance preceding this.

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Body Fat

I’m taking a course called “Fitness and prescription” [Conditionnement physique], which is (naturally) all about prescribing fitness interventions. Fair enough. We’ve just finished a unit on body composition, in which a short section at the end delineated “guidelines” to follow on how to address weight gain:

– Eat often; eat larger portions; snack; drink milk and juice with meals (fair enough)
– Eat high-calorie foods, but stick to low-fat options (uhhh)
Above all, do not gain too much fat. Aim only to gain lean body mass (wait, what?)

The prof went on to explain that while weight gain is necessary, fat gain shouldn’t be the goal. At this, I raised my hand. “What about women with amenorrhea? They’d definitely benefit from gaining some body fat.” Cue blathering about “critical fat mass” and women below 13% body fat and yes, amenorrheic women might benefit from gaining some fat, because sometimes women who drop too low in body fat percentage skip their menstrual cycle for a few months.

Well. As someone who skipped 30 months of her menstrual cycle, fat gain was definitely in my interest. So I gained weight. On larger, more frequent meals, full-fat dairy products, additional carbohydrates. Lots of vegetables and fruit throughout. This was by no means unhealthy. I am now the proprietor of a body with more lean mass, and (yes) more body fat. I had to go above and beyond my previous “high” weight to restore my menstrual function, and I’m maintaining here without exactly trying. I exercise regularly. I eat when I’m hungry and as my schedule allows. I eat a lot of vegetables. I don’t usually get enough sunlight or enough sleep.

I’m not entirely comfortable at this weight, but this is where my body wants to be right now. This is where I can drop and do sprint workouts whenever, make the half hour trip to school in the morning and back again in the afternoon (weather permitting). This is where I can lift heavy (for me) weights, or skate or ski, or attend random classes, or train for a 10k race. I can spontaneously go to yoga (as is the plan tonight) with a friend and stretch beyond what I believe I can do.

I have health-related goals, like working out more regularly or attending yoga classes at least once a week because they relax me or going to bed earlier to ensure I sleep enough or walking in the sunlight to maximize my vitamin D even in these frigid winter months, but weight loss or anything related to food-restriction can’t be a part of those.

Just a friendly reminder that body fat is an endocrine organ. Hunger/satiety hormones such as leptin, grehlin, and neuropeptide y are directly related to body fat levels; these communicate with the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus then uses this hormonal information to regulate a huge number of physiological processes, such as appetite and temperature and yes, fertility (generally via pro-hormones). This is a gross over-simplification, but all that to say that we actually do need body fat, and sometimes fat gain can be the primary goal. This culture of fat-fearing needs to stop.

Women need enough body fat to be fertile. End of story. While I have no intention of having children any time soon, I value the proper functioning of my body and see my menstrual cycle as a sign that I’m on the right track, health-wise. Enough body fat also regulates appetite, and I’m not chronically hungry any more (meaning I can think of things beyond my next meal). These are well worth the “extra” (required) weight.

Last Day

Today, I write my final exam of the semester.

That doesn’t quite have the impact I’d like it to have. Let me try again.

This evening, after 50 weeks straight of intellectual work, marks the beginning of my “Christmas holidays”. In quotations, because I’ll still be working and visiting people and cleaning my room (the struggle is real) and performing in a couple of concerts and that review paper will likely require at least another revision or two, but there’s nothing that will require CONSTANT VIGILANCE and LAB REPORT WRITE-UPS and IMMEDIATE STUDY FOLLOWING YET ANOTHER MIDTERM.

I’m dying for a break. I fear that my exam-writing stamina will fail me this afternoon, but I can hardly bring myself to care (don’t worry, the adrenaline should kick in as soon as I’m poised to begin writing).

To say I feel burnt out is an understatement.

I already have a mental (and physical, thanks to iCal) agenda for this week – it looks as busy as ever. Next week?

Bare, save Christmas. And though I know that this week will be taken up with friends and family and work, I. Can’t. Wait.

For now, my calendar looks bare. I can’t bring myself to pencil anything in right now. Just the aesthetic of a clean slate is so appealing. But tomorrow, or perhaps this evening, I’ll pencil in one two thing(s):

A day to myself. (And a day to clean my room).

I write my exam from 2 to 5 tonight, then rush off to play in a charitable Christmas concert. Following this, I’m going to pass out in my bed with a book in hand and sleep in until 8 (or, more realistically, until 7 or so) and get to work tomorrow around 9:00. It’s nice to be working just down the street again. After work, I may head over to the lab, or I may head home and begin to purge my closet again. And do all the laundry. Two loads – one for bedding, and one for all the clothes I currently own (I don’t have many any more, which is insanely liberating). In the evening, I’m celebrating the end of exams with the boy (who finishes tomorrow afternoon).

I have nothing specific planned for Wednesday. A dress rehearsal in the evening, and work (perhaps). More cleaning. I’d like to be done that by Friday. I also need to go do some Christmas shopping.

My mind is a mess of scattered thoughts.

Holiday Madness

Snow has been falling and melting since Halloween, taunting us with the promise of a white Christmas, only to be snatched away again as another warm spell hits. As of this morning, we have two – maybe three – inches of slightly crusty snow on the ground. The southern part of the province was blasted yesterday, but by some miracle of the multiple lakes governing our weather systems, we were missed.

Around me people are shopping and decorating; others are giving somewhat depressing lectures as to why they don’t buy into the holiday season, muttering things that half-resonate with me like “Consumerism and materialism”. To a friend, I casually comment that I kind of agree with the sentiment. They nod, only half paying attention, eyes shadowed with that familiar anxiety I know all too well.

The pile-up of exams and end-of-term assignments leaves little room to focus on other things, which I why I dub the Christmas lead-up weeks my “least favourite time of the year”. Not because I hate Christmas – quite the opposite in fact – but because I tend to feel absolutely burnt out and “done”. Between exams and abstracts and band and choir concerts and simple menial things I should do like clean my room and laundry (hah), I go to bed exhausted but unable to sleep, planning my agenda for the next day.

The new year presents “fresh starts” that I seize with gusto, adding more and more things to my plate until I’m just trying to keep afloat again, promising emptily that this time – this time – I’ll do less. Eleven months later, December rolls around once more, and the phrase that most often escapes my lips is “I’m so tired”, or it’s slight variation, “I’m effing exhausted”. There is no sympathy – my peers are in the same boat as me, and the older adults sit by knowingly and promise, “It gets worse.”

“I just want a day to myself,” I lament to the boy, typing up an essay with frantic fingers, a third cup of coffee close to hand. He gives me the cynical look of someone who’s spent two and a half years with my madness, and says, “Stephie, there’s no way you’ll take a day to yourself. You’d find something to do.”

“Would not,” I argue. “I might go to the gym, since that happens about once a month anyways, and maybe I’d clean my room, since that happens about never, but the rest of the day I’d just relax.” He rolls his eyes at me. “I know you.” He says simply, which I don’t deny. I’ve recently found a new job, and will likely be spending the holiday weeks training and working.

I point this out, half in desperation, half excited, worrying that I’ll watch my free time go in a blur of coffee cups. “You’ll love it,” He says with a smile, and pulls me close. “And you’ll have lots of time to spend with yourself, and with me, and with your family.” Which is exactly what matters anyways.

* * *

I love to keep busy. In part, I think it’s some kind of anxiety coping mechanism. If you move fast enough, it can’t catch you. If you’re contributing, you’re not wasting space. This seems to be a common theme among my peers.

The media proclaims that, according to research, we early twenty-somethings belong to an entitled generation, expecting gold stars on everything we do. While I’m sure that holds true for some, I don’t really see it in the majority of my consorts. Rather, some of us work ourselves raw, fearing that in a world where “everyone succeeds”, we’ll be the ones that fail. Others quit “while they’re ahead” – why even try to keep up? In all cases, I think we’re terrified we’re not living up to our full potential. I’d go so far as to call this a cultural disorder.

Busy and productive are the principle measurements of success; we get off on comparing ourselves to what everyone else is doing. “Oh, you think YOU’RE busy? Well, let me tell you what I’ve done this month/week/today.” We pass this off as commiserating during our half-hour meetings for coffee with friends, sandwiched between two commitments off our ever growing lists of “things to do today”.

Sometimes we’re just venting, but I also think that often we’re seeking validation and approval. There’s nothing wrong with this in itself – it’s the fact that the fact that we’re putting aside self-care in the name of attaining some sort of arbitrary height of productivity that gets to me. I can definitely see something wrong here. I’m not saying we shouldn’t strive to be productive, but when did neglecting our wellbeing become so socially acceptable?

The other side to my personal “busy-ness” is that I love to do so many different things. I love to create music and play sports and go to the gym and bake things and curl up with a cup of tea and a book and attend school and learn as much as I can and help others out and play video games and travel the world and go hiking and skiing and swimming and skating and read articles and write. I just want to be so engaged in everything all at once, and I try to split myself up in as many directions as possible in order to do everything I want to do.

Coming to terms with the fact that I can’t actually do everything is proving to be a challenge.

* * *

In the next seven days, I have two exams left to write and a paper to review; one rehearsal and one band concert; another rehearsal and two choir concerts; a lab lunch, and work training. That’s essentially it. My plans for the three or so weeks off I have include working, yes, and cleaning my room and sorting out more of my clothes, because this is absolutely something that needs doing. But I also plan on taking at least a few days all to myself, and many days to spend with the boy and my family, and at least a few days to spend with my friends returning from out of town for the holidays.

I don’t love the weeks leading up to the holidays, but once I get past these we enter my favourite time of year, so I can’t really complain. I love the Christmas season because it’s time of rest and recharge following a year of growth. Maybe in the upcoming year I’ll focus more on my well-being, on not overwhelming myself. On seeing what I can cut out as opposed to what I can add in. I feel it’s time for a season of a different sort of growth.