Life after McGill: big pharma, and the abyss

Eric graduated from McGill last spring with a B.Sc. in Physics and Physiology, and a very good GPA. He’s now an editorial assistant at a multimedia company that makes educational material for pharmaceutical companies. MSURJ editor (and friend of Eric) Shannon Palus talked to him about the uncertainties in doing research, and picking a career.

Shannon: You did research in your undergrad at McGill. Why didn’t you want to rush off to grad school right away?

Eric: The short answer is that I had some bad experiences in research which made me question whether a career in academia would be right for me. I did summer research projects during all four years of my undergrad, as well as an “independent research course” (a 396 course at McGill) and an honours thesis. The first project was eye-opening in the sense that I got an idea of how difficult it was to truly discover something new in experimental science and be certain that it’s real – and also the depth of my ignorance, of human ignorance in general, it was majorly humbling. It definitely takes mental fortitude to stand on that raggedy edge of human understanding, look into the abyss and say, “I’m going down there.” Our education system is set up to give immediate feedback, right? We’re also primed for it from an evolutionary point of view.  A gold star on perfect homework makes you feel good. The sad thing is there isn’t anyone to give you gold stars in science.Life after mcgill

Shannon: I think it’s ironic. You’re the sort of person who has a lot of gold stars — and, without knowing everything about your resume, I would think you’d be an ideal grad school candidate. Do you plan on ever going?

Eric: Yeah, I am applying to grad school, but for engineering (biomedical).

Shannon: I see. So what’s different about biomedical engineering — or have you decided to just leap into the abyss anyway?

Eric: I think to make something tangible at the end of the day would keep me sane. The question is no longer “is this true,” but rather “does this work,” which is much easier to answer.

Shannon: What about your job now? Is that any more sanity-providing than doing research was?

Eric: It’s sanity-providing in the sense that you get feedback from your boss or your client when you’ve done a good job. And also in the sense that the end goals are clearly defined. Being paid is also nice.

Shannon: How did you find the job?

Eric: I found it through McGill’s CAPS! My company posts openings on the CAPS website frequently.

Shannon: Can you tell me a little bit about what you do on a day-to-day basis there?

Eric: Day-to-day work consists of copyediting written learning modules (like textbook chapters, or maybe a review paper), copyediting PowerPoint presentations, looking for bugs in multimedia programs (Flash-based learning software). I want to say that I don’t want to get into the minutiae of it, but my work is minutiae. The general idea is that pharmaceutical companies hire sales reps to sell drugs to physicians. The sales reps often do not have a science background, or, even if they did, they need refreshers on a specific disease state or drug mechanism of action or clinical trial data. We provide this educational material. The sad thing is you generally need a M.Sc. or Ph.D. to be a medical writer. I can only hunt for missing periods and such.

Shannon: Do you find that your degree is useful in doing your job?

Eric: Yes, I was pleasantly surprised to find myself using stuff I’d picked up from my physiology degree at work.

Shannon: You went on an anti-smoking tirade (on Facebook) a couple weeks ago — was that spurred by something you learned at work?

Eric: I was working on a drug for lung cancer. The learning systems we produce are pretty complete — this one started from the etiology of lung cancer, and covered diagnosis, treatment, the client company’s drug, competitors, payment in the US health care system…so i was looking at a lot of lung cancer statistics.  Numbers don’t lie; the 5-year survival rate of people with advanced lung cancer is abysmal, but unfortunately showing a person a graph of how likely they are to die from smoking isn’t a very effective way to get them to stop. To be human is to be irrational, I guess.

Shannon: So you obviously don’t condone smoking. What about your job? Would you recommend it?

Eric: If you’re not sure about your next steps after getting a Bachelor of Science, I would recommend it, certainly as an exploratory step to learn more about an industry and a career path.

Shannon: You say you’re applying to grad school — do you think you may end up in academia in the end?

Eric: Definitely yes. One of my favourite profs at McGill did a degree in science, worked full-time and got another degree in engineering, got his Masters of Science in Physiology, and is now a professor. Life is a winding road, etc.

Want to talk to us about what you’re doing in your life after McGill? Email msurj.media@gmail.com

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