Category: Careers


We are shaped by our choices

During my first degree, I was determined to get experience in my field so that I would not become another unemployed person with a Bachelor’s degree.  When I look back now on the experiences that I gained, there is a very clear connection between the choices that I made and the opportunities available to me.  At the time, it sure didn’t seem that way.

Young, dumb and lacking in experience

My first degree was in Cell Biology and Genetics.  I had entered university without any experience doing anything remotely related to science – I would guess that this is true for most undergrads, regardless of what field they are specializing in.  I had no work experience, no volunteer experience, nothing.  I was also dreadfully afraid of speaking with my profs – the few that I spoke to were aloof or uninterested in taking on an undergrad, even as a volunteer.

Being the lab b*tch

It got easier in my senior years.  Class sizes were smaller so it was easier to get to know the professor.  I found a work study position for 10 hours a week as a laboratory assistant.  It was not glamorous work by any means.  I sorted tips, washed glassware and plastics, and then sterilized the glassware and plastics.  I worked there for 8 months without touching a single experiment.  But it paid a decent amount of money and I learned my way around a lab.

Meanwhile, I was volunteering.  I worked one day a week at the local aquarium and science center as a husbandry assistant.  I really enjoyed this job – among other other tasks, I got to feed the fish!  I also volunteered on campus in the natural history collections.  I became proficient as a taxidermist and got pretty handy with a scalpel and needle.

At this point, I wasn’t feeling too good about my career prospects.  I could clean and sterilize lab glassware, take care of fish, and turn roadkill into museum displays.  Hum.

Putting it all together

My next job was at a pharmaceutical company.  They were hiring a lab glassware washer to work 10 hours a week.  I decided to apply, since the job seemed made for me and I could use the money.  So again, for another 4 months, I washed and sterilized labware.  I was really efficient at washing glassware now though, so I usually finished in less than 10 hours.  I started asking my boss for other things to do.

At first, it was small tasks like helping out with inventory or making solutions.  But it helped to show everyone that I was willing to learn and had a good eye for detail.  I got to know a lot of other employees as well.  One day my boss pulled me into his office and said, “CF, I know you’ve been willing to do more work for us.  Would you be interested in working an extra 10 hours a week?”  Of course, I said yes.  Turns out, they remembered that I used to work at the aquarium taking care of the fish.  They wanted me to take care of the animals used in their pharmaceutical research program.

This put me into contact with two amazing managers and got me the opportunity to learn techniques in cancer research.  I mentioned that I had experience using sharps like scalpels before and pretty soon, they were teaching me how to give injections or slice up tumor samples.

The payoff – An employed college graduate

Those same managers helped me to secure my first job three weeks before graduating.  This was pretty good for someone fresh out of school who never did a formal research internship!  Thanks to my random job experiences, I had a job straight out of university that combined everything I learned in a job – working with animals, cancer research, and surgical modeling.

Taken on their own, those experiences didn’t seem to add up to much.  It was only after I got good at certain skills – using a scalpel or taking care of animals, for example – that other opportunities opened up.

That’s not to say that the choices you make should define what you do, forever and ever.  Not at all!  After a few years, I realized that biomedical animal research was not for me, so I left the field transitioned into computer science.  (There’s a lot of interesting biology you can do using computer science, in case anyone is curious!)

But again, I was able to change careers easily because I of the contacts I had met while doing biomedical research,  computer-related seminars I had randomly attended, and having a job whose benefits included free tuition.  In contrast, a lot of people I know are stuck in the field because they do not take the time to get new experiences and skills.  Their options are limited whereas mine are not.

I never would have predicted this outcome based on my first job, washing glassware!  That’s why I think it is so important to take advantage of any opportunity you have to learn new skills and meet new people.  You never know who you might meet, what new ideas you might pick up, or how you might be able to draw upon those experiences later on.

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Doing what you love for less

If you’ve been over and check out our ‘about us’ section, you’ll have learned a little bit about what it was that made me want to be a little bit different. Indirectly, this experience got me started on my favorite hobby and that is my love of wine. Looking at the big picture, I can see my involvement in this industry playing a much larger role in my life, but in the context of where I’m at now I want to share a little bit about my hobby any how I can afford to pursue it without compromising my finances.

The three months that I spent in Paris was my first real introduction to wine. It was plentiful, cheap and of great quality (I could buy a €2 bottle at the grocery store for the same price as a $12-15 bottle in Canada). Thus began my infatuation with the noble grape. Ever since that trip I have done whatever I can to learn about wine, how it’s made and how to get the most out of each glass I have.

Since starting this blog, I’ve been thinking a lot about “the future” – What will my life look like in 20 years after we’ve accomplished the goal of financial independence? It can be pretty intimidating to think about and the best that I can come up with is that I really don’t know! What I do know, is that my passion for wine is something that I want to pursue.

Learning about and enjoying wine is not the cheapest of hobbies. It is important for me to pursue my passions, but it is also important not to sacrifice my goal of early retirement. I think that the ways in which I’ve gotten involved in the wine industry have been very efficient and cost effective; here’s what I’ve done:

Taking a university course about wine

My first taste of the wine world was through a credit course at my university. I learned about wine while earning credits towards my degree. This was a really great course and dealt with all aspects of wine from tasting and drinking wine to the main grape producing regions and the science behind wine making.

Volunteering at the Vancouver Playhouse International Wine Festival

The Vancouver Playhouse International Wine Festival is one of the biggest festivals in Canada. For the past three years, I have volunteered during their main tasting event. This has benefited me in two ways: First, volunteering lets me interact with wine makers and industry representatives from all over the world in ways I would not be able to as a consumer. Secondly, volunteers get to attend a tasting event of their choice which allows me to sample an incredible variety of wine and hone my palate at no cost. Regular tasting tickets cost $95.

Working as a wine store clerk

Getting a job at my local wine store has done more for my love of wine than almost anything else to date. The exposure to a wide variety of products on a regular basis and the connections I’ve made with other like-minded people has been invaluable. Having the extra source of income has also allowed me to pursue formal credentials through the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET) courses. I recently completed my Level 1 Foundation of Wines certificate and am now saving up for the Level 2 Intermediate course.

I don’t know where my involvement in wine will lead, but I’m happy to do something I enjoy for some extra income and a better knowledge of the industry. My point in explaining all of this is to show that following your passion doesn’t have to be a financial burden. I encourage you to be creative and find sustainable ways to do what you love.

Getting started as a freelance writer

When I was younger, I loved to write. While other kids in my class took grammar and punctuation lessons, I took creative writing classes where we wrote stories and printed and bound them into proper books. I submitted poetry for publishing when I was in grade 6. In high school, I went to see Shakespeare in the park and attended writing festivals for young writers.

There’s a (somewhat rueful) saying amongst Canadian children of Asian immigrant parents – You have three career choices: engineering, medicine or accounting. School came easily to me and I had good grades, so my parents encouraged a science education (with the hope that I’d eventually go to med school). University came and went, and I ended up working in life sciences research, specifically in the biomedical research industry.

So how did I end up getting a job as a writer for a science magazine?

I had a bit of a quarter-life crisis at the age of 24 or 25. I knew I wanted to do something different, but I was being torn in a lot of different directions trying to figure out what I wanted to do. I knew I could write, but I had nothing to show prospective employers.

Getting started with writing

I decided to submit a few pieces of writing to the local monthly newsletter of my professional organization. They were always desperately looking for submissions and it was a good way to get the writing juices flowing without any real risk. To my surprise, my pieces were well received and I even received compliments from several colleagues. I followed that up by submitting a longer article for the organization’s national magazine, which is read by several hundreds of people across the country. It was also well received!

Then I tried my luck at blogging and started up a science blog. It didn’t make any money but I was able to write about the things in science that actually interested me – big picture stuff, genomics, evolution, and ethics. I got on Twitter and met lots of other writers and like-minded people. I also volunteered to write for anyone who would let me have my own byline – event listings, music reviews, anything. It was during the height of my blog that I got lucky and caught a break.

Writing as a career ?

I have a reputation amongst my friends for always looking at the job boards and forwarding interesting jobs to people I knew. I like looking at job listings. I’m not sure why! I still do enjoy looking at them. One day, one of my friends forwarded a job posting to me. It was a advertisement for a “science blogger”. I applied, sent a few of my writing samples, and … I got the job! After a six month try-out, I’ve been writing for them regularly once a month.

For me, the key was simply persistence and a willingness to do something I loved – writing – simply for the because I enjoyed it.  I’m not saying that everyone who does something that they love will eventually make a living from it, or even make money from it.  Starving artists, musicians and actors all over the world would no doubt prove me wrong.  But you do yourself a disservice you don’t try at all.