How changing sides made this oncologist a happier person…

I’ve moved to the other side. But the thing is, it’s not so dark where I stand.


During my residency in medical oncology, amidst the strain of learning my craft, seeing countless appointments, and studying for board exams, I centered myself by meditating on where I would wind up working when I finished. It would be my first professional job and I envisaged seemingly infinite considerations to ponder – location, benefits, hours, size of facility, caseload, etc. Sitting atop the algorithm for my decision was the question: Did I want to work in private practice or academia?


As I approached the terminal days of my residency in 2009, the economy was shifting and the proportion of opportunities for employment were a mere fraction of what is available nowadays. Candidates nowadays have their pick among dozens of opportunities, whereas I applied for the grand sum of three jobs. Two were in private practice, while the third was an academic position at a veterinary school.


Each had the requisite pros and cons and I dutifully weighed my options. Would geography be the deciding factor or would it come down to the numbers? Where would I feel the most valued and useful and professionally satisfied? To fully consider those questions I had to take a serious look at what brought me to this decisive point in the first place.


Despite wanting to be a veterinarian since I first knew there was such a thing as an “animal doctor”, I took a rather circuitous route to veterinary school and becoming a medical oncologist. I was studious during high school and undergraduate, but my sub-stellar GPA wasn’t going to garner an acceptance, and as I approached graduation, I recognized I concurrently lacked the motivation and maturity necessary for admission at that particular time in my life.
I embarked on a Master’s degree to buy myself some time to cultivate personal needs before committing to such a specific career pathway. To help finance my advanced education, I was offered an instructor position teaching anatomy and physiology to non-Biology majors. A decision made out of a financial necessity morphed into an awakening of a passion for educating others, especially those who lacked the same enthusiasm I possessed about science and the intricacies of the form and function of the human body.


A few months into my post-graduate degree, I decided to switch gears and pursue my PhD in biology. My goal was to obtain the appropriate credentials necessary to be employed at a small, liberal arts college, teaching, and maybe think of vet school one day, when I was old. Like, you know, 35 or so…


I quickly learned the majority of individuals who pursue PhD degrees in biological sciences rarely do so for the primary want to teach. My ambitions landed as square pegs amongst the round holes of my colleagues, who were vastly more dedicated to basic science research than I was. Without much deliberation, I decided to hasten my timeline and applied for veterinary school sooner than my initial thoughts of “many years into the future”. Fortunately, I was accepted, and approximately 8 years later, found myself repeating the process of deliberating another major life decision related to my professional career. While jumping through the last hoops of my residency I struggled over deciding which job among the three I applied for would be the “perfect” one for me. Though I agonized over miniscule details, my heart and head agreed that teaching was the place for me and the academic job was what I wanted. I never considered the possibility that the choice wouldn’t be mine.


I wasn’t offered the job in academia. While not the first time I didn’t get what I wanted out of life, it was the only time I’d targeted a professional goal and failed to obtain it. My disappointment was magnified when my top choice of the two private practice jobs passed me over as well.


Four years of undergraduate work, a Master’s degree, two years of a PhD, four years of veterinary school, one year of internship, and three years of residency did not provide me with the promised chance to “be anything I want to be.” Instead, I was left working at the only job I was offered.


At no point in my lengthy training did I consider I that I would not wind up happy professionally. I knew I would face day-to-day annoyances and understood there would be expectations beyond my capabilities. I wasn’t expecting rainbows and unicorns, but I never thought I would harbor a persistent and progressive sense of frustration and restlessness in my career.


With each passing year of working in private practice, I grew increasingly impatient and discouraged with myself professionally. I changed positions and geographic venues several times over the span of nine years, but never found a place where I felt content with my contribution to my occupation. I was burdened by the relentless nagging concern of, “What if?”


What if I had been chosen for the academic job several years ago? What if I was responsible for teaching veterinary students how to be better doctors? What if I had the chance to start engaging in research again? Would that world sustain me greater intellectually? Would I feel more productive or contributory towards my chosen field? Would I even be good at it?
Then there are the more abstract questions: What if I was chosen for the academic position years ago? Would I still have met my husband and be married? Would I have liked living there? Would I always wonder what life in private practice was like?
While contemplating the parallel, but alternative, world my life could have taken was interesting and intellectually stimulating, it didn’t help me understand what the best approach to changing my current situation. I remained stagnant and unfulfilled.


About a year ago, an opportunity arose for an academic position for a medical oncologist at North Carolina State University’s teaching hospital. I mentioned it to my husband, more in passing than with any edge of seriousness. When he encouraged me to send in my CV, I listed innumerable reasons why I shouldn’t.

Despite the myriad of reservations I put forth, he provided the one and only one that mattered.  He was the only other person who knew I’d always wondered, “What if?” His persuasion pushed me to apply for the job as I’d already talked myself out doing so.


I was stunned when the call came through offering me the position. Once the initial euphoria wore off a little, I immediately questioned if this was the right choice, time, move, or place for me. Self-doubt crept up and reminded me I wasn’t good enough for academia back when I finished my residency, so why would I be a better candidate now?


How could I leave my current job and new house? Why would I want to disappoint my friends and family with yet another move and yet another story about how this will be the right job for me. There were many reasons not to take the offer, which were outweighed by the most important reason why I had to do it: it truly was what I always wanted to do. I knew it was time to stop wondering, “What if?”


While I have only been here at NC State a few short months, I cannot stress how much this was the right choice for me. I have trouble connecting with that person who so deeply resisted making this change. I am happy professionally and living in a place I’ve already grown to think of as my home.


Some say the other side has greener grass, while others say it’s darker. The truth is, you’ll never know until you take the leap of faith over the fence to see what it’s really like.


Turns out, the other side was the right side for me.

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