I’ve never seen so much deflation as I’ve seen when people ask me what I want to do when I graduate. It’s become predictable among certain groups of people who don’t know me very well but know something about my past work experience.
Some people have a pre-conceived notion that I’m in this graduate program to check a box on the list of prerequisites to moving further up in academic medicine administration ranks. I’m totally not in the program for that reason.
I’ve noticed that people expect me to want to lead, either an organization or a large team or project immediately upon graduation. I totally don’t want to do that, at least not right away. And it’s not because of the “Been there, done that” sentiment. I imagine someday in the future there is a chance I may find myself leading an organization, large team, or project. But here’s the thing people need to understand: I WANT TO BE A GLOBAL HEALTH SCIENTIST AND CURRENTLY I HAVE ZERO DAYS OF EXPERIENCE BEING ONE.
The all caps are what go through my head each time a brilliant PhD or MD acts so surprised when I answer their question of what type of job do I want when I graduate and I say, “I want to do field research.” Cue, the blank look on their face. “Right, but do you want to be a director at the Gates Foundation, WHO, or USAID or someplace like that? What about going on for a PhD?” or “I’m sure UCSF wants you to take up a new position in development or strategy.” I keep replying, “Yeah, I really just want to do research. Research is actually a productive use of time.” I try to get people to understand that I want to be a global health scientist first and foremost, what evolves from there is not my priority or concern right now.
No matter what I say to try to convince this group of people that doing research for a while is the right thing for me, I depart these conversations with a sense that there is some judgement happening and always confusion. I’ve even had a few MD/PhD’s try to convince me to change my mind. Perhaps they think my wanting to do research and only research for a while is underachieving? Maybe they think I’m withholding productive skill sets I could share with organizations who could benefit from them. Maybe they just can’t understand why a person who has the opportunity to sit at the table with leaders would want to sit in research group instead.
The role models I have in academic medicine or global health are women who lead or led large organizations or have held leadership positions within large organizations. They have changed the nature of the fields in which they’ve worked. And they have a ton of experience in the field. As I’ve worked side-by-side with these women over the years, me as the executive director of development and they as the Physician-In-Chief of a children’s hospital, a chair of a department, an advisor to the FDA, a director of a national center of excellence in women’s health, a Chancellor, or a CEO of the largest global health foundation in the world, I’ve learned a great deal about their strengths and mine. I’ve realized what I was contributing and what I wished I could contribute if my experiences and knowledge were enhanced. But perhaps the most important thing I realized after 22 years of working side-by-side with leaders in healthcare and science is that what I truly love to do most is ask huge research questions and plot the most efficient path towards the answer. This is why I belong in research.
Each of these women who I hold as role models are experts in their fields first and they are administrative leaders second. They are scientist or doctor first, CEO second. I think people get confused when they read titles. Maybe they are blinded by the CEO, or Physician-in-Chief words. You can’t be the CEO of the Gates’ Foundation without knowing a thing or two about global health. Also you can’t be the physician-in-chief of a children’s hospital without first having changed the nature of some aspect of children’s health. That’s the order I’m going for this time around.
When people share with me their enthusiasm for me jumping right back into the ranks of leadership it makes me feel like they don’t expect that I could be an excellent scientist. The people who knew me when I was beginning my scientific career as an embryologist and reproductive physiology researcher know otherwise. They expect great things from me as scientist, now in global health, and their confidence in me feels really good. Maybe I will also be able to influence others by holding a leadership position someday in my new field. I do know how all of that works, the building of consensus, influencing decision makers, implementing an idea to scale so that it can impact many.
So I hope people can be patient with me as I give my true area of research interest the time and attention it deserves. Because I have huge research questions I want to evaluate, questions I believe can change the nature of the world. And all of this might take a while. I’m only 45 so I have my whole life ahead of me.