January 29, 2016

Alumni Voices: "Medicine is not the only way to help people"

In the first of our series of alumni voices, Neelesh Mittal (SAS '10) shows that sometimes the right major path leads to unexpected but fulfilling destinations:

When I got to Rutgers in the Fall of 2006, I was ready to pursue a career in medicine. After all, it’s what I wanted to do since I was 5 years old. My entire family knew that and expected me to become the surgeon I always said I would become.  I knew that I needed to ace Organic Chemistry, do clinical or lab research, score at least a 30 on my MCAT, and volunteer.

All this excitement came crashing down after my very first semester when I completely bombed General Chemistry I. After some deep thinking, I decided it was no matter because I would study super hard for General Chemistry II and show improvement and then medical school admissions committees would not care.

Flash forward to May 2007 – I did not improve much in General Chemistry II. The same story pretty much repeated itself for many of my major classes. I did however do clinical research the following summer and was published in two leading medical journals. Even with my grades, I pressed on, dropping a lot of cash on an MCAT course and taking the test twice. I got a half way decent score, which was not enough to offset my transcript. Advisers, professors, and smart friends and family all suggested finding a new route to helping people. 

I had enough credits to graduate with my Cell Biology and Neuroscience major one semester early, so December 2009 was the end of college for me. This was a good time for reflection. I didn’t do well in my science classes but excelled in my political science and other humanities classes. While I still had a passion for health & medicine, I came to the conclusion that becoming a doctor simply wasn’t going to be that path. I needed a job so I started researching the companies that would come to the Rutgers Career Fair in January. My experiences included clinical research and two publications and a stint as a pharm tech. I figured I could get a basic clinical research job at an academic hospital and buy time to really figure out what was next (because who wants a dead end $11/hour lab job?)

One of the companies coming to the career fair was a medical device company which created devices in the same area as my clinical research. I extensively researched this company and saw they were hiring for a role in Regulatory Affairs – essentially, getting new devices cleared by the FDA and foreign regulatory agencies. I met them at the Career Fair, went into their office the next week for an interview, and got an offer two weeks later. It was the only company I applied to. They loved that I had done all this research and showed a passion for working in teams and across multiple functions. Flash forward 5 years, and I have transitioned to a rewarding sales and marketing role at the same company where I work with surgeons one-on-one in the Operating Room to advance patient care.

Moral of the story: Medicine is not the only way to help people. Life goals made when you were 5 can and should change. Listen to the smarter and older people around you. I can’t speculate what would have happened if I changed paths earlier in my college career, but I know for sure I would have saved a ton of time, money, and stress. Sure, I’m not the guy at the OR table, but it definitely beats not being in the room at all.  

January 22, 2016

You Can Be Anything...JK, No, You Can't

From childhood, parents and educators may have assured you of the open-endedness of your story. Encouragement is delivered by platitude, often via inspirational classroom poster: “You can be anything you want to be,” “You can do anything you set your mind to,” “You are destined for great things.” And for a while…perhaps even still…you believed it. But, of course, it isn’t quite true.
Image courtesy of Despair, Inc. (despair.com)

We all experience limitations. That's life. But it's important to recognize that limitations don't have to be limiting. They may feel bad, like the opposite of those motivational posters: "No!" "You Can't Do this!" "You fail!" 
But limitations are opportunities as well: opportunities to think more intentionally about what is working and where that might take you. 

Please don’t mistake this post for one of those cheap “you’re not special” rants that gets lobbed at your generation every few months. On the contrary, our argument is that you are TOO SPECIAL to get so lost in possibility or tunnel vision that you miss your purpose. Believe this, there is very real danger in being so preoccupied with a hypothetical everything (or one very specific something) that you miss a very real something in your path. 

Recently I met with a student who is on Academic Probation. After two consecutive term GPAs below a 2.0, he had come to believe that he simply wasn’t as smart as his family or he thought, and he wore this realization with a heavy sadness. We talked through his difficulties and the disconnect between his interests and achievements and the expectations of his family.

As an exercise, I asked him to look at his transcript as he would a stranger’s and tell me the story that unfolds. He carefully and thoughtfully narrated the decisions, missteps, and failures; he even identified the moments of success… but was quick to dismiss them.

I pointed out that if we removed all courses toward his intended major, his GPA would be a 3.25! That was not an accident and it was not because his other courses were "easy." Not surprisingly, at closer look, the remaining courses shared common themes in human behavior and motivations.
But what does this mean? And what might this mean for you?

Some advice not included on the motivational posters:

1. Stop diminishing your successes.  
Advisors hear it every day: We say: “ 'Wow, you did exceptionally well in insert course here!" The student replies: "Oh, yea, well that was easy.”
Any time you’re tempted to use that phrase, remember that someone has failed every course that Rutgers offers. Recognize and embrace your abilities as talents. Language is powerful, so consider saying “Oh, courses like that seem to work well for me” or “Thanks, that material was interesting. ” 

2. Know the difference between an ill attempt and an ill fit.
I failed PreCalc 115 in my first semester because I fell behind and couldn’t regain ground quickly enough to fix the mistakes I’d made. That was an ill attempt
Image courtesy of Despair, Inc. (despair.com)

I played basketball as a child because I was exceptionally tall for my age. I never loved the game, preferring to shoot hoops in the driveway, but I played because everyone assumed I should. As it got more competitive, I realized that no matter how much I practiced,  my height could not make up for my lack of coordination. Continuing those efforts wouldn’t have been courageous, it would have stolen time from the pursuits that did suit my strengths and serve me (and others) well. It was an ill fit.

If you’re uncertain of which “ill”ness you’re experiencing, come and speak with an adviser to discuss your experiences. Remember: YOU are the expert on your experiences; WE are the experts on your options and opportunities!

3. Dream big…ger. You’re not here to train yourself for your first job, nor can you educate yourself for a lifetime in just four years. Estimates indicate that your generation might expect to hold as many as 15-20 jobs during your employment lifetime. Can any major, in and of itself, prepare you for every position that you will hold in the future? Of course not. Your career may not even exist yet. But, use your time here 'on the banks' to cultivate yourself as a lifelong learner and seek experiences to build skills that will serve you and help identify your strengths. You are more than your major! 

It's hard to be here, right in the middle of your limitations, trying to figure out the road ahead. Hindsight, as they say, is 20/20. So we asked alumni to lend you the benefit of their insights from the vantage point of successful careers and lives. Many wrote to share their journeys and be for you who they needed when they were 'on the banks.'

Stay tuned across the semester for our guest alumni posts and more Froshblog reflections on the undergraduate journey!