Dear visitors to chrisdieni.com,
It is with great pride that I share with you a story in the current (May 2013) issue of Carleton Now. As you may be aware, I was recently informed that I am the inaugural winner of the Carleton University Alumni Association Young Alumni Achievement Award, which will be presented to me at the 2nd Annual Alumni Leadership Gala on June 1st, 2013. The May 2013 issue of Carleton Now contains a wonderfully-written story by Ms. Kristy Strauss about the four awardees who will be honoured at this Gala, including myself, Mr. Eric Sprott, Ms. Maude Barlow, and Ms. Linda Gunning. I would like to commend Ms. Strauss and the staff of Carleton Now for their efforts on this article. The story can be read here: http://carletonnow.carleton.ca/may-2013/carleton-alumni-honoured-at-special-gala-june-1/
I would also like to take a moment to personally elaborate upon something that was written in this story. In this story, it is indicated that I advise students to get “real-world” experience as soon as possible. While the spirit of this statement is certainly true, there is a small yet extremely-important detail that I would like to further clarify. I honestly cannot remember my exact choice of words during the interview (it was the better part of 2 weeks ago, already!), but by the term “real-world” I mean to say that students should seek practical, hands-on, or applied experience beyond what they already obtain in their standard undergraduate curriculum.
Why do I go through the effort of making this distinction? In doing so, I fully realize and admit that it may seem like a very trivial distinction to many. Nonetheless, there is a fairly widespread (mis)conception that anything in the “real-world” must, by definition, be outside of academia. In other words, if a student were to be playing a role in a research project within a professor’s lab at a university, versus another student playing the exact same role in the exact same research project at a biotechnology company, popular opinion (at least in my personal experience) suggests that the student at the biotechnology company would be (mis)perceived as having more “real-world” experience than the student operating in an on-campus lab. Why that perception may (or may not) be such as it is, I honestly remain unsure-of, even after all these years of working in both academia and industry.
Is this splitting hairs? Yes and no. I am passionate about my assertion and my careful use of terminology because, over the course of 8 years, I worked in a number of academic laboratories, including: 1) setting up Dr. Vladmir Titorenko’s lab and initial research experiments as his first-ever student, and then again as a senior undergraduate project student, 2) interning as a summer student at the Centre for Structural and Functional Genomics, 3) working intensely towards a fully-publishable (in the peer-reviewed scientific literature) doctoral thesis with Dr. Kenneth Storey, and finally 4) conducting cancer-centric research as a postdoctoral researcher with Dr. Stephen Benkovic. Yet very often, I had to carefully and methodically explain to many friends, friends-of-friends, and family members that these positions, and the work I was doing in them, was no less “real” simply because it was in an academic lab rather than an industrial or government lab. Indeed, if that were truly the case, then one could argue (incorrectly, in my humble opinion) that I myself did not even obtain any “real-world” experience until I was 28 years old and 2 years out of my doctoral studies, when I was hired in the biotechnology industry at Micropharma Ltd.
Thus, I now reiterate my advice to young students, particularly those in the sciences, in my own personal wording. Whether through a co-op program or simply on your own initiative during your already-scheduled summers, try to find a position (paid or even unpaid, if necessary) in the field in which you are studying and/or hoping to ultimately pursue a career in. For students in the biochemical, biological, and chemical sciences (those fields with which I am most familiar) this could mean finding a position in a laboratory at a university, an industry, a clinical testing facility, a government institute, and so forth- all of which are 100% perfectly valid, and all of which would certainly constitute “real-world” experience! Get your (gloved) hands wet at the laboratory bench. See if this is something you want to pursue, or, conversely, something you want to run away from at full speed. Find out what interests you, whether that might be researching the science, teaching it, marketing it, selling it, or setting the public policy for it. The overall point is, get some practical experience in your field as early as you can, wherever you can and in whatever capacity that might be, to find out where you’d like to direct yourself next.
On that note, I’d also like to indicate for those who may not be aware, or those who have forgotten, that I am a volunteer mentor with the Carleton Alumni Connections program and am happy to discuss my experiences and thoughts with any students or alumni. Typically, I can admittedly better relate to those in scientific fields, but I am always delighted to talk to anyone from any walk of life.
Thank you to all readers for bearing through this- it is simply a matter of great importance to me to ensure that my advice to young students is accurately conveyed. Once again, I’d like to thank Ms. Strauss and the staff of Carleton Now for a truly excellent story!