A calling

Son and I celebrated our 9th wedding anniversary yesterday. It was a quiet little celebration at home; taking the kids out on a Wednesday school night is more masochistic than celebratory at this point in our lives. I got a bunch of sunflowers and an impressive chocolate brownie cake. Son got a linen shirt and bottle of limoncello. We had miso soup and leftovers for dinner. It was pretty much perfect. I marveled at what a lucky lady I am to have two healthy, happy kids – each with a unique set of strengths that will serve them well in the future; a cozy little house with a manageable little yard in a safe neighborhood; a job that delights and engages me while offering plenty of opportunities for professional growth; and a partner who has offered unfailing loyalty, good humor, gentle support, and (mostly) sound judgement throughout my adult life. What more could a woman ask for?

Looking back to a year ago, two years ago, and three years ago, it is remarkable how far I’ve come personally and professionally. Three years ago, I was on a long road to recovering from the shock of not achieving my goal of securing a post-PharmD training opportunity. Although I now have a good handle on the reasons the stars didn’t align for me in the spring of 2014, it still befuddles me a bit when I look back. Getting a scholarship to college, undergraduate awards, and a graduate research fellowship happened naturally, and I had assumed that post-PharmD training opportunities would fall in my lap just as easily, given how hard I worked and all that I achieved in pharmacy school. When no opportunity opened for me, I was at a loss as to how I could move forward to achieve my professional goals (and re-pay my pharmacy school student loans).

Two years ago, I had a new baby and a new job. The baby was pretty much perfect, aside from her baby acne. The job was not the dream job I had had in mind when I was in pharmacy school, but it was good enough for the time being, given my family obligations.

June of last year, if I may be honest, I was feeling under-utilized and somewhat discontent with my position. I had worked hard and spent a lot of money to gain clinical knowledge and experience, and it wasn’t needed for my job. That might have been acceptable if I had better work/life balance or a bigger pay check, but after an hour’s commute each morning and evening, it didn’t feel acceptable. Since things were slow at work, I kept myself engaged with birthday party planning and a few job applications.

This year, however, I’m infatuated with my job. It’s almost disorienting to recall that I had once been crushed to see my dreams of working as a hospital pharmacist elude me or that I had once considered PAREXEL a less-than-ideal place to work. In short, I’ve found a calling. I might even take it a step further and state that, despite the winding path and shifting personal and professional goals, I found MY calling. A special field of work that makes my heart sing. I had suspected that drug safety and pharmacovigilance would be a good career for me when I first started considering industry jobs as an alternative to hospital jobs. When I applied for post-PharmD fellowships, although I was too guarded to profess exclusive interest in a single type of fellowship, the pharmacovigilance fellowships were the ones that kept my dreams of a great career alive. My work in laboratory logistics wasn’t bad, but at this point, the best part of it was definitely the fact that it helped me enter the world of drug safety. I don’t really believe in destiny any longer, but I don’t have any regrets about abandoning my pursuit of a career in chemistry at this point, and although I still imagine that I might like to work as a hospital pharmacist someday, it’s mostly in the context of developing my drug safety career by gaining additional clinical experience.

My manager has been fantastically supportive and encouraging. She told me to let her know whenever I didn’t have billable work, and she quickly figured out that she could keep throwing more and more projects and responibilities at me. I’m currently assigned to 19 projects. Most of them are projects with minimal scope for pharmacovigilance, but I’ve definitely had days when I billed time to 8 different studies. My manager has indicated that I should (in her opinion) have been hired at a a higher level and that if I keep up my current pace, I should (in her opinion) be promoted two levels when the annual promotions happen in the fall. At this point, I don’t begrudge being hired at a lower level. Sure, my monetary compensation for 2017 will be less than it hypothetically could have been, but I’ve gained the respect of my peers and my department’s management, and that will prove much more valuable over the long haul than a year of under-compensation. And even more importantly, with every project and task I’ve been given this year has been a learning opportunity, a chance to gain skills and experience that will secure my future career. I’ve never been one to underestimate the value of postgraduate training.

As this whole world of career fulfillment has opened up to me, my single, almost paradoxical fear is how I will be able to keep up my current trajectory. Sure, I could be promoted to PV line management in 2-3 years if that’s a career path that interests me; at least my manager has intimated as much. But then what? I’m deeply loyal to PAREXEL at this point, but will this fascinating but limited world of clinical trial safety be enough for me to fully achieve my career goals? How can I gain experience with periodic safety report writing in a company where such work is contracted to the medical writing department? How can I learn about signal detection in a department that almost exclusively focuses on investigational drugs? Can I gain expertise in risk management without working for a drug marketing authorization holder? Don’t get me wrong; PAREXEL is contracted to perform literature searches, aggregate reporting, signal detection, and benefit-risk assessments, but my understanding is that those activities are currently isolated to the India pharmacovigilance team. The U.S. team specializes more in early phase and U.S.-based clinical trials, which is great for gaining study start-up experience and clinical trial case processing experience but provides less opportunities to gain skills needed to gain a leadership position in the broader fields of pharmacovigilance and pharmaceutical risk management.

On the other hand, given the multitude of recruiters who have wanted to connect with me on LinkedIn since my job title changed to drug safety associate, my fears are probably unfounded. One recruiter explicitly told me, “PV is HOT right now,” and I do have the advantage of a a relatively broad skill set and an employer with a large and diverse set of service offerings. The new PAREXEL Access department has embodied the push to support clients with observation research and other forms of data collection during the periapproval period; surely, there must be opportunities for me to contribute to those efforts at some point in the future if that’s the direction I want my career to grow.

Peter is finishing first grade next week, and my oldest niece is graduating from college. For me, though, the commencement speeches are hitting home more than ever before. I recently finished listening to Sonya Sotomayor’s memoir, My Beloved World, and although she and I are very different women, I felt my own ambition, focus, idealism, and determination reflected in her writing. How can I make a positive impact on the world? How can I achieve my childhood dreams? How can I follow my calling?

One major difference between myself and Sonja is that she is a single woman without children. I have a husband and two kiddos, and I of course do not want my relationship with them or their own personal development to be stunted for the sake of my career. I hope that as I grow personally and professionally, I will have more to offer them as a wife and mother, not less.

One thing that I have learned over the past couple years is to recognize strengths and weaknesses in myself and the people close to me. I hope that this recognition will help us all to find fulfilling paths through life.

Peter has been an interesting puzzle to make sense of. The Student Intervention Team at his school referred him for a full IEP evaluation mid-year. Most of the evaluations took place in March, and the IEP qualification meeting took place at the end of April. When I first received the evaluation results, I tried to figure what diagnosis or disability they might be pointing to. High-functioning autism? ADHD? Auditory processing disorder? A specific learning disability? Now that some time has passed, I think that for now, it’s fair to simply say that he’s a bright boy with a slow processing speed and mediocre working memory. Result: inconsistent and mediocre executive functioning skills coupled with beautiful thoughts that have finally materialized through Lego structures and drawings and graphic art as his fine motor skills have finally started to catch up to his ability visualize concepts. His 4-year-old passion for U.S. states and capitols and 5-year-old passion for flags is maturing into a 6-year-old determination to learn trivia about every country of the world. For example, “Mom, which continent is Cyprus part of?” (It was a trick question, as Peter explained that the Republic of Cyprus is considered part of Europe whilst the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus is better considered part of Asia.) Over the past weeks, Peter described to me the faults he identified in his teacher’s classroom globe: Eritrea is missing and Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, and Sudan appear as unified countries. Thankfully, Russia appears rather than the U.S.S.R., but I figured that the globe had to be at least 25 years old. So today, Peter proudly gifted his teacher a new, up-to-date classroom globe. Since Peter loves taking our family globe off its pedestal to better examine the southern corners of the Earth, I chose a free-mounted globe that future classes of first graders can chase around the classroom during “choice” time. Peter received a sweet thank-you note from his teacher that suggested she was just as excited about the globe as Peter, though I’m not sure that’s possible.

Peter did qualify for an IEP based on the vaguely-defined “developmental delay” disability category. The school is suppotring him through PT, speech pragmatics exercises, and special education support during writing periods to help Peter organize his thoughts and get them on paper. He certainly has many good thoughts, a gift for decoding, and a fantastic memory for trivia, especially trivia with a visual-spatial slant, but organizing and articulating thoughts in response to complex questions, prompts, or directions takes extra time and guidance. I’m sure Peter will do well in life as long as he pursues a career that places more value on how well you reason than how quickly you reason or how well you multitask.

Alina, on the other hand, is Peter’s foil in many respects, a quick-witted, strong-willed, passionate firecracker with naturally advanced fine motor skills. Her day care provider jokes that she never has to vacuum any longer because Alina picks all the lint out of her carpet, and it’s probably not much of an exaggeration. Alina indirectly persuaded her mother to sign her up for gymnastics classes last month because she would become so indignant that she was not allowed to join Peter’s lessons. Peter is in a grade school gymnastics class while Alina is in a parent-toddler class, but Peter probably needs the support of a parent redirecting him and encouraging him to listen to and follow the coach’s instructions than Alina does. Alina is always the first child to jump up and do whatever the coach asks. I doubt she will qualify for any extra help with motor skills or executive function skills when she is school aged…

And that’s the beautiful diversity of individuals that makes the world go ’round.

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