I’ve always claimed that my journey to PA school was unconventional – just consult my admissions essays. Despite my claims, few know the story of how I landed here at Elon. My intention on writing this particular blog post is to provide a sense of completeness to my story and perhaps demonstrate that one really can turn mountains into molehills if given enough time.
Even though I’ve been in the south for over a decade, I’ll always claim that I’m a Yankee. I moved away from my boisterous, kind and honest middle-class family two months after high school and wasn’t homesick a single day. In fact, I loved the south immediately and transitioned fairly quickly – in spite of the rather alarming culture shock. The biggest differences between north and south? First, people aren’t whole-hearted truth-tellers in the South – sugar coating and passive aggression is the norm. Secondly (and no less jarring): segregation by race appeared to be commonplace, although not per political mandate, and no one else was bothered by it.
My undergraduate studies were done High Point University – I became the best of friends with my roommates and got involved in the campus happenings as soon as I could. My favorite subjects quickly became biology and psychology, and I was fascinated by the neurophysiology and neurocircuits of addiction. There was no neuroscience major at the time, but I was driven to make it my career. Believe it or not, I have never slept so little in my life. My time in college became purposeful: I needed to get into grad school – I had a PhD in my future and nothing was going to change that. I got the highest grades I could, with as many internships and extracurricular activities as I could. I repeatedly came home after my roommates went to bed and left hours before they woke up. I went weeks without seeing them. College was awful.
After it was all over, I earned two bachelor’s degrees while volunteering and working both on and off campus and was all set for grad school. I breathed a sigh of relief that I survived undergrad (truth be told, it wasn’t always a guarantee) and played “Almost Like Being in Love” as recorded by Frank Sinatra on repeat. After a short stint in clinical research to bridge the gap between a December graduation and August grad school start …enter: culture shock #2.
A steep learning curve.
The biggest issue with the undergrad-graduate transition was the lack of time we were given for acclimation. There was no hand-holding in graduate school. We weren’t given clues on how to best respond to obscure writing assignments or clarification on vague test questions (despite asking). There were no extra points. We were taught and encouraged to scrutinize everything and it was clear that we should answer the question we had before we asked it. We had very few didactic lectures and exams, but those we did have were taught by scientists hardly knew us (the classes were small, but many didn’t have time for that nonsense). Our job was to not just absorb material, but learn our craft: the science of our chosen lab.
On what seemed like day one, I was charged with learning my field, designing, executing, troubleshooting, analyzing, presenting and publishing my work and tutoring young scientists. You don’t have a list of priorities, everything is a priority. You made your way on your own merit and cognitive processing, like it or not. The best lesson I learned in those early years: do not waste time – fail fast. Abandon ship as soon as an experiment was not going to yield publishable results, whatever they may be. Before long, I was able to punch holes in any research project that was presented, whether or not it was in my field (but there is a sense of pride that comes with being belligerent [and correct]).
Science is pretty cool.
Every scientist will tell you how fascinating and important their work is. But really, my science was (still is) really cool and increasingly important. My largest (dissertation) project focused on the utility of kappa opioid receptors as pharmacotherapeutic targets to reduce the withdrawal symptoms associated with alcohol use disorders in animal models using behavioral and electrochemical techniques. With this and other work, my CV rapidly became impressive. I was awarded government funding, multiple travel awards, poster nods and developed and maintained a solid publication record. I ran the outreach organization associated with the neuroscience program, I tutored many students through the choppy waters of graduate school and I had offers for post-doctoral fellowships long before I considered defending my dissertation. The obvious elephant is that I’m not in science anymore. So….how did I end up in Elon’s PA program?
Jumping out of the deep end
A phenomenon known as “imposter syndrome” exists among many graduate students. It involves the belief that one was simply ‘let’ into graduate school per an administrative error, that one did not really belong and it was only a matter of time before they were “found out”. I was an imposter of the highest degree. Throughout graduate school, I felt like I was the square peg trying to fit into a round hole. I loved the science and scientists, but I could not stand the politics, the passive-aggressiveness or the backhanded culture of competition. I felt (and to a great degree innately understood) that my survival as a female scientist was dependent on playing the field with the good-old-boys who largely ran the show.
That was not me. I wasn’t good at the politics. I knew I couldn’t play any field that I wasn’t 100% invested in. And, to be honest, I had no desire to even try. To be fair, it’s just the nature of the sport. Everyone I worked with was a brilliant scientist and a fabulous person in their own right. I felt that science, despite my intense interest and success, became lonely and unfulfilling. [Unrelated: at this time, my engagement had unexpectedly ended (albeit for the better) three months before a well-planned wedding.] It became increasingly more clear that I didn’t belong and it would be best if I left science. Pairing me, the scientific misfit, with the world-crumbling event of a broken engagement made it easy for me to leave academic science. I would walk away with a Master’s degree and begin anew.
Based on my credentials, I had done enough work to garner 2.5 Master’s degrees, but the degree wasn’t as important as regaining my life and happiness. My committee was composed of some of the most brilliant and kind people I’d ever met, and they supported my decision. They were sad to see me go, but helped me along my way nonetheless.
An aside: Although there is nothing inherently wrong with a Master’s degree; however, I had bigger aspirations than that. I quickly shifted gears to figure out what career would fit me best. Notably, my motivation to go to graduate school was from a desire to make an impact on the health of those who needed it. In going into graduate school, I thought I wanted to do this ‘behind the scenes’. Thus, in switching careers, choosing medicine was easy, and I chose PA program because I wanted more patient contact than an MD would allow.
…so that was it. I was admitted to Elon and spent my remaining days wrapping up what was left of my research. I had a renewed happiness for an uncharted future.
A new beginning to a new end.
Scientific data talks are typically an hour long. We spend 45 minutes talking about years of scientific work, and leave the last 10-15 minutes for questions. I was giving (what I thought was) the last talk of my graduate career in April, 2015. Apparently I did OK. After the talk, while (ironically) shopping for my cousin’s bridal shower, my boss calls me and requests that I reconsider my graduation and stay to complete the PhD, with the assurance that I would be done by January, 2016. I would’ve been a fool not to take the offer and started outlining my dissertation the next day. Almost 300 pages and seven months later, I turned in my dissertation and was granted complete graduation without revision by my committee (big deal). I moved to Elon two weeks following graduation with my dogs and the boxes of knowledge I gathered from my many years of schooling.
An unfair comparison
A comparison between PA school and graduate school is this:
In PA school, you’re given a treadmill and told to run….in the hailstorm that is medicine.. and don’t kill anyone along the way.
In graduate school, you’re given the parts of a treadmill, told to build it and run in the hailstorm that is your research at the same time…run faster, faster, faster…
One is not better or worse than the other, they’re just different.
Throughout PA school, you hear anecdotes from people wishing they had more personal time. I find the angst that others express about their loss of freedom and desire for more fascinating. I have been the least stressed and had the most sleep and personal time in PA school than I have in at least the past 5 years! I know, it sounds ridiculous, but I have reasons. I say that partly because I’ve regained respect for my mental health and physical wellbeing. The majority of it is because when you buy into science, you live and die by your experiments and publications. Graduate school pulls the personal life from you. I was devoid of all weekends and almost all holidays. I missed multiple family and friendly events for the sake of continuing science, and those I did make it to were dire situations. To be fair, these were my choices, but I implore everyone to be more grateful for the personal time we’re granted in PA school, as opposed to focusing on the long hours studying.
To be honest, grad school wasn’t all bad. In fact, I would do it again. I learned more than I can express about science, and even more about me – resilience, willpower, the ability to stand on broken feet (more than a few times). I have never been more honest or critical –for better or worse– and that really sticks with a girl. I made some of the very best friends I will ever know and educated thousands in the community on various brain-related diseases, disorders and the importance of academic bench science. Moreover, I will never think the same way again. And I guarantee that after this experience, you’ll be changed for the better, too.