– Gen M.

There are many ways of overcoming challenges, like trees have many strategies to thrive in a difficult environment. Sometimes you need to stay strong and grow tall, while sometimes it is better to be flexible and bend with the wind. Both roads can lead to success.

Sometimes you need to stay strong and grow tall, while sometimes it is better to be flexible and bend with the wind. Both roads can lead to success.

When I was eleven or twelve I decided I wanted to go to one particular secondary school in the International Baccalaureate Program. In order to get in several exams had to be past. A few weeks after taking them I waited impatiently for the decision letter to arrive. When my mom finally handed it to me, I was devastated (well as devastated as a 12 year old can be): I haven’t been accepted into the IB program, just into the regular program. I was so upset in the weeks that followed that my mother decided to call the school to get an explanation. Apparently my French written scores were much too low, something I had always struggled with. I thus decided to make it my mission for rest of the school year: become a better writer. In June, my little fingers dialed the secondary school phone number and asked for a meeting with the principle. My mom drove me over and I entered the conference room with a large black and manila portfolio. Those ones that look like little square brief cases. I had assembled all the pieces I had written that year and ready to show the principle how much I had improved.

I remember saying “I might not have a great natural talent for spelling, but I do know how to use a dictionary efficiently”. Who does that? Walk into a school and say “Hey you should really let me in to your program!” Apparently 12 year-old me.

The principle made me write him a little story and then corrected it. There were still more mistakes than he wanted I think, but he still said yes. He said yes if you really want to be part of the IB program I will approve it. He had a word of caution, warning me that if I were to no succeed in the program going back to the regular program would be very hard for me morally, but he still said yes. In this case hard work and determination really paid off. I got into the program and stayed there!

10 years later I made the jump from graduating with a Bachelors of Science to starting a PhD program. For the 1st year of the program most of my time was taken up by classes, applying for scholarships, and trying to find an advisor to supervise my research thesis project. However, even a quarter through my second year I couldn’t find an advisor. I worked hard to try and show that I had some good ideas, but remained flexible to the potential supervisors interests and ideas, and that I had mastered class materials and was a hard worker. I just couldn’t convince anyone it seems. I made a really really hard call: I decided to drop down to a Master’s of Science degree and start applying to other graduate programs. At the time it felt like a failure.” Why couldn’t I succeed at this endeavor? What did I do wrong? Am I not smart enough to do a PhD?”

Once I switched to a Master’s, and thus my proposed research project was smaller, I was able to get a couple of professors to support my through co-supervision. At least I wouldn’t leave the school without a degree or finishing a research project. In my search for a new potential program, instead of searching for schools, I searched for supervisors and emailed them directly. I definitely didn’t want to make the same mistake twice.

Within a few months I had found a potential supervisor who even before we met in person helped me apply for scholarships and flew me out to interview to be sure we would be a good match. This ended up being one of the best things that happened to me. I got a full scholarship and finished my PhD in 3 years. And interestingly, once I left the university where I did my MSc, I continued to collaborate with students and professors there, and even extended my collaboration network. To this day I continue to work closely with researchers I met during my Master’s and my PhD. In this case meeting my goals meant shifting them, remaining flexible and how to achieved them, taking another path.

Sometimes overcoming challenges means climbing the mountain (work hard and stay strong) and sometimes it means taking the road around it (find out where you want to go and go with the flow instead of fighting it).

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