Category: Work

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.

When does it become too much?

As the saying goes, when it rains, it pours.  Shortly after posting about how I became a writer for the Stem Cell Network, I received two possible leads on other writing jobs.  One panned out, the other didn’t (as a freelancer – never count on a job until you actually get the first paycheque!) and as a result, I’ve been running around in circles trying to get things done!  Love it.

It is stressful at times when you’re sitting in front of the laptop, trying to find the words to link this paragraph with that paragraph – but it is also incredibly rewarding, at least for me, in ways that my previous jobs never did.  In the same way, I find my new career in programming rewarding.  There is just something about creating something new and watching it take shape that is incredibly satisfying.

But now I’m wondering if I should give up my part-time job in order to concentrate on writing.  It’s a casual job, so I can choose to take shifts or not, but I do try to work 2-3 times a month so that my skills are not forgotten.  I’m also a little hesitant to give up work just before returning to finish my last year of classes.


It is unresolved as of yet, but I remind myself that it is far better to have decisions about what I want to do with my time than not!  And also apologize for the lack of blogs  🙂

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.

When to go out for lunches at work

Yesterday I brought my lunch to work.  I had cheese tortellini with carrots on the side and a banana.  Yum.  I bring my lunch to work almost every day, while there are people in my office who go out for lunch every day.  I’ve never asked them why – maybe I should? – but I am often one of only three or four left in the office when everyone else goes out to eat.

While I’m happy to just bring a lunch every day, I will almost always join the office out for lunch on Fridays.  Working downtown, this can put a dent quite a dent in my monthly spending allowance, as lunches range from $10 to $20 without a drink.  I only get $100 – $150 a month to spend!  So why do I do it?

Usually it’s not for the for the sake of lunch itself.  The food I make at home is better proportioned and more nutritious, if all I want to do is get full.  But eating is not just about getting full, otherwise we’d all eat nutritious, calorie dense food and forgo the seasoning.  To me, eating is, and should be, an experience. Eating is pleasurable – so why not enjoy it?

It could be as simple as the experience of enjoying a well made home cooked meal, such as when a family sits down to dinner or when I unpack my lunch to taste something the bf made for me last night.

Similarly, when the bf and I go out to eat, we do it for the experience.  We like having decadent food and great wine, once in a while.  We like attentive service and innovative restaurants.  We rarely go out to eat purely for the sake of eating.  When I do mystery shops for restaurants, the food itself takes up only a small portion of the report.  The larger part of the report asks – how was the dining experience?

When I go out to eat with my co-workers, it is for the social experience.  Friday lunches are when people have a beer, loosen up, and talk over a leisurely (and over-priced) meal.  If I never went, people would have a harder time getting to know me.  By going once a week, it gives them a chance to see how I am “outside” of work – this is especially important in temporary jobs, such as mine.  When I go back to classes, I want them to remember someone who worked hard but was also a fun colleague.  I do not want to be the “aloof” intern who was “too good” to have lunch with the boys.  I want them to remember someone that they would work with again.

It is not worth sacrificing $10-$20 a day every day simply to get full.  But it is worth sacrificing that money once in a while to get a social eating experience with friends and colleagues at the end of a work week.

Meet my four jobs

I have four jobs. Thats right… four.  Perhaps surprisingly, I don’t work 80 hour weeks! Most of my jobs require very little effort and provide a much bigger return. Meet my four jobs:

My full time job

Currently I’m working as a software developer. This is the job that gets the basics done – One paycheck covers all of my bills plus some money for spending and saving and the other paycheck is used for retirement savings and upcoming tuition expenses.

I’m only going to have this job until May, at which point, I have to take my remaining classes. However, I have lined up a job which starts in May but is half-time, allowing me to take classes while I work. Since my living expenses are so low and since I will not have to save for tuition expenses any more, working half time will still pay for all my basics plus allow me to save a bit as well.

My part time job

I’m on the casual list at the hospital. 2-3 times a month, I’ll come in and work. I choose when I work and I don’t take more shifts than I feel like. And it pays $20/hour!  The main reason I keep this job is because of the flexibility and the high (for a part time job) pay.  If I ever need extra money, this is my go-to job.

It’s not related to my current field of computer science, which is why I will not use it to fund my cost of living while I am in classes. But since I can choose when I work, I will keep this job indefinitely.

I use this money to put extra payments towards my student loan, to save towards my next condo, and to save money for upcoming living expenses while I’m in school.

My contract job

I write for a scientific organization as a contract writer. Once a month, I write one blog for their website. It’s fun because I like to write, the topics are engaging, and it only takes me a few hours of concerted effort per article. It pays by the traditional per-word standard of freelance writing.

I use this money for luxuries – colouring my hair for example. I also put some of it aside for dividend investing and sometimes I’ll put some of it towards student loans as well.  I take a little bit out for spending.

My casual jobs

I write for a local music magazine website as a concert reviewer.  I don’t get paid, but I do get free concert tickets.  I haven’t had to buy concert tickets in ages.   For a bit of writing, usually half an hour to an hour, I get my entertainment for free and I get to express my opinion about music.  I often get more than one ticket as well, which makes for a free date night or a free outing with friends!   The value of the tickets range from $10 to $60 per ticket.

I also pick up mystery shopping jobs.   Often, these shops are for restaurants.  I get a set “allowance” and instructions on what type of foods I have to order.  For example, I might have to get one drink and one appetizer.  Whatever money I have left after paying for those items is my profit!  The value of the meals and drinks range from $20 to $70, and my profit usually ranges from a $5 to $20.  After my visit, I write a short report, which takes about one hour.  Again, for a bit of writing, I get more of my entertainment expenses covered for free.  Many of these visits even require you to have a dinner guest, which makes for another free date night!

It’s worth it!

The key thing to note is – most of those extra jobs serve a specific purpose. They are flexible, thus allowing me the opportunity to make more money when I need to. They provide me with entertainment for free, or opportunities to eat out for free. They allow me to write and to express my opinion. These are things I enjoy or value!

In the short term, my extra jobs let me minimize my spending requirements and save more for things like tuition and retirement. In the long term, my extra jobs are a buffer against an uncertain job market and unexpected life events.