By Faria Ahmed
When I was 18 years old and entering university, I could never have imagined that ten years later I would be where I am today. Like my favourite characters in books and on television, I thought I would go through all the ups and downs of life by my early 20s, land my dream job by my late 20s, find true love by 28 and get married by 30. Probably have one or two kids by the time I’m 33. Now I laugh when I try to plan the next 2 years of my life because its unpredictability has finally set in. This brings me to the adventurous, tumultuous and widely enlightening journey that I made while seeking out my dream career.
It might sound like a bit of a brown immigrant cliche, but I was born to two physician parents in Bangladesh and was expected to also become a doctor as part of the family legacy. After I finally finished high school, I couldn’t make it through the brutal competition into the few publicly funded medical schools in my country, and I could not afford any of the private ones. As a result, I settled for the next best thing – a career in medical science research. All those cool shows like CSI seemed to have an amazing forensic team who did biochemical tests to prove or disprove crimes! That was definitely what I wanted to do later in life. Understand that not becoming a physician was already a big blow to my reputation (according to my family) and the only way to salvage the family name was by promising to work on a career in academia where I would get a Bachelor’s, followed by a Master’s and a phD degree. Eventually I would become a professor teaching at a university while holding the title of a scientist at a research institute.
I was mentally ready to accept that career path. I received an offer of admission into a top architecture program at BRAC University in Bangladesh after a few different tests and interviews. I also received an offer from North South University’s Biotechnology program. I picked the latter and eventually graduated Magna Cum Laude from that program.
However, during those four-plus years of attending university, my interests had begun to shift. I had realized during my undergraduate research project in the laboratory that I didn’t enjoy being in a secluded lab environment performing cool experiments as much as I liked being outside in the world, interacting with people and helping solve worldly problems hands-on. Things in my personal life had also changed a lot by then; my mother had passed away and it was time for me to move to Canada as an immigrant and go live with my father. This is when I was asked by my family to decide on what I wanted to study for my graduate degree.
Internally I knew that I wanted to do hands-on clinical work. I had checked out programs in nursing, EMT and paramedicine because working in trauma gave me an adrenaline rush like nothing else. However, the only way my family would have ever accepted me re-entering clinical work would be as a physician – not as anything else.
By my final year of undergrad, I already knew deep in my heart that I didn’t enjoy being in a laboratory. As cool as it was to design experiments and analyze the data to draw meaningful conclusions, the actual act of being inside a large, cold room, (often by myself) was just not a pleasant experience for me. So I began to do some digging to figure out what programs and professions are available in Canada that I could really fall in love with and actually enjoy doing. Medicine was definitely of interest, but going to school to re-do pre-requisites in Canada (because my ‘local’ credits were not acceptable to them) and then applying for a program where only a few percentage of applicants get in – was a bit nerve wracking. I also was interested to be less of a diagnostician and more of a hands-on caregiver. So, I considered paramedicine, nursing, EMT, dentistry, and pharmacy. After an extensive amount of reading online, watching youtube videos and speaking to actual people who were working in these fields, I felt that nursing would be the way to go.
The way I saw it was that there was nothing I could not do as an RN (registered nurse). I could choose to stay a nurse and work in hospitals, nursing homes, clinics and doctor’s offices. I could choose to specialize in anesthesia, geratric care or pick another specialty. I could even become an independent NP (Nurse Practitioner) and diagnose patients in the community, much like a family doctor. I could combine by undergraduate research experience and my nursing degree to help conduct clinical trials. I could become a teacher and build a career in academia if I wanted to later. I could one day wake up and decide to join some international organization and volunteer my time as a nurse in warzones or places with famines and epidemics.
The one big problem was that I needed a full 4-year undergrad to become an RN. No one in my family or even my close circle on friends was on-board with this idea of me going back for yet another 4-year bachelor’s degree.
Meanwhile, my family’s insistence had driven me to apply to graduate school programs and my offer letters began to come in. My nursing acceptance came first and I was absolutely thrilled. Within a few short days, my acceptance to two different Master’s programs came in as well. With these offers, there was a guaranteed tuition scholarship for the two years of my Master’s program as well as the guaranteed research stipend (which is like a salary).
This made things very difficult for me. My family disapproved of nursing very openly. Not only because I hadn’t received scholarships for it, but also because it was a profession that was looked down upon (and unfairly so) in South Asia. The perception that nurses don’t get to make any medical decisions and they are only there to follow instructions of physicians blindly led to this poor attitude towards them. Everyone there assumed nurses were meant to bath patients, draw blood and clean their wounds. That perception is such an incredible disservice to what nurses do, especially in North American where they have amazing training, skills, opportunities and significant roles to play in patient care and survival.
This is the moment that I (kind of) regret a little in my life. I gave in to the greed of leading a comfortable life devoid of student loans and part-time jobs. I also gave in to what my grandmother, aunts and my father were rooting for. That’s what led me to continue my career in medical science research.
I want to say that I ‘wasted’ the following two years of my life doing a Master’s of Microbiology & Immunology under the Faculty of Medicine at OttawaU. However, that would not be fair to all the experiences and achievements I had during that time. I won awards and competitive scholarships. I attended conferences and got flown halfway across the country on fully funded trips, was put up in fancy hotels and gave talks in front of esteemed healthcare and research professionals. I also got a publication in a journal as the first author of the paper.
In the end of all that, I went right back to where I had started. Three scholarships, a few prizes and recognition, and one research publication later… I still remained unhappy and anxious being stuck in a Biosafety Level 3 Laboratory. I entered a dark period of my life when I began to realize how I would let people push me next into a phD. And just as I had thought, my supervisor eventually made me an offer I could not refuse, and I accepted a position in his lab to do my phD in Immunology as well.
I spend 30 incredibly suffocating days following that decision. After that, I had had enough. I went back to my supervisor and to his surprise I said I didn’t want to do my phD. He was disappointed beyond belief and so were the rest of my family members and loved ones. Even my closest friends were questioning my decision and my sanity. But I knew what I did was right for me.
I had never been so sure of something in my life. I knew this is what I wanted to do and I knew I would do it no matter what. I watched silently as my ‘world’ crumbled around me. I finished my degree, I graduated later than my peers, I had no job offers because the only thing I was trained for throughout my life was research. It became nearly impossible for me to get a job in fields other than research, as my skills were simply too specialized for that industry. My Scholarship money and my research stipend both ended and I was broke and unemployed. Even in that moment when my father kept asking me what I hell I was doing with my life…I turned to him and said with full confidence, that I was going to become a nurse.
In that very moment, I had found myself.