From Grad Student to Vet Student: Mei-Hua Hwang's Journey
January 24, 2021
It was March of my graduating year.
I was in the process of finishing up my undergraduate, final-year research thesis. When June came around, my family and I would gather for convocation. After four years of hard work, I would finally have that Honours BSc in my hands, and then…
I didn’t know what came after that. I mean, I did—sort of. And I knew roughly how to get there—sort of. That was a considerable amount of uncertainty in just two statements. It’s hard to tell in retrospect just how much had been planned, and how much of it was me flying by the seat of my pants and somehow making ends meet, but I can pin-point the email in which the whole thing was set in motion.
“MSc/PhD Position in veterinary cancer diagnostics,” the subject line read. It was a recruiting advertisement sent out to students in my department. Cancer diagnostics. PCR. Sequencing. It was a rare opportunity to be mentored in research by veterinary pathologists at the Ontario Veterinary College, and with a stipend, even... but the application deadline was less than a week after I received the email.
That fall, three years before I would later start my journey as a student veterinarian, I was enrolled as a graduate student—an MSc candidate—at the Ontario Veterinary College, the Department of Pathobiology.
Q: “Why did you decide to become a veterinarian? Why did you decide to complete graduate school before applying to the OVC?”
There were two major factors in deciding to do a graduate program: first, I was a pragmatic kid who was running out of options, and second, I was a pragmatic kid who knew what she was good at and wanted a safety net.
(Note: I fully realize this makes it sound like grad school was a means to an end; it was not, but I do want to highlight some of the more strategic parts of decision making that we don’t hear about as often. I’ll talk a bit about some of what I got out of grad school further down!)
Before any of that, why veterinary medicine at all? I’ve always been fascinated with animals. I studied biology at McMaster University and chose to specialize in physiology. I was drawn to the intricacies of anatomy and the exquisite efficiencies (and I would later discover, the curious inefficiencies) of their physiology. I would marvel at how evolution and the environment derived these mechanisms and how disrupting those processes interrupted the function of the organism on a whole.
Perhaps gravitating to veterinary medicine wasn’t a particularly far-fetched leap of logic.
There was just one small catch... Admission requirements.
Much of my animal experience had been with birds only (undergrad was my ‘bird phase’), and none of it was under the supervision of a veterinarian. Over the years, it seemed that no matter how many clinics I contacted, no matter how far I went, I could not get my foot in the door and secure a volunteering position. I had to think outside of the box. The graduate research program offered me mentorship from veterinary professionals outside of the clinic and time to continue searching for clinical experience.
(Spoiler 1: The clinicians and mentors I met during my time as a graduate student made the wait worthwhile.)
That was the first strategic consideration. The second strategic consideration was that I wanted a contingency plan. What if this didn’t work out? (What if I truly wasn’t cut out for this?) I had done an undergraduate research thesis by that point and had a solid chunk of laboratory experience. I enjoyed what I did and was decent at it. I figured with a bit more work, I could make something of myself in research if this all went sideways.
(Spoiler 2: it went sideways in multiple points in time; clearly, we didn’t let that stop us.)
Ironically, as I got more and more into my graduate program, the more I realized that the sort of research I wanted to do—translational research and developing novel diagnostics techniques—would benefit from becoming a veterinarian, going into practice for a few years, and then returning to the lab again. I guess in the end, everything came back around full circle. I did more research to get into veterinary medicine; I wanted to get deeper into veterinary medicine to do better research. Funny how that worked out.
Q: What were the steps you took to be a successful OVC applicant?
As foreshadowed above... By failing at least once.
The first time I applied, I was not offered an interview. It was on my second application that I was admitted into the program. I think going through that first application attempt best prepared me for my successful application; however, the circumstances between the two applications were rather different.
The biggest difference was that I applied through the undergraduate cohort first and then the graduate cohort (please refer to the OVC admissions page for the most updated information on these options). The graduate cohort application process differs primarily in the additional paperwork in the admission process and the emphasis on research and productivity during one’s program.
For my first application, I was in the second half of my MSc program. By then, I would have completed at least 4 out of 6 semesters of my program, technically allowing me to apply through the graduate cohort, but as I hadn’t yet completed my research, I wouldn’t have had the publications or conferences to make me competitive there. I still didn’t get an interview through the undergraduate cohort… but I couldn’t just stop there.
So. I finished my MSc on time. In that year between programs, I doubled down. I continued to work for the Department of Pathobiology as a research associate. I continued my research and that of students in our lab... and outside of it. I published and went to conferences, talking to anyone who would listen about my work. I took any and every opportunity to work with animals and in clinics. In the end, I applied through the graduate cohort and was offered an interview.
(Spoiler 3: I was admitted into the program that July.)
Q: What did you get out of graduate studies?
My response to the first set of questions made the move to do graduate studies sound distressingly Machiavellian, but there are many important things you take from the program that are utterly invaluable to your journey through the DVM program and later, to your career. Here are just a few:
The ‘back end’ perspective: Veterinary medicine is entrenched in empirical evidence and scientific findings; out professional standards of practice are guided by experimental research and clinical trials. By understanding how research is carried out, you are better able to understand the “why” behind what you learn, and are therefore better able to communicate this to your colleagues and clients.
Scientific literacy and a grasp of statistics: In the same stream as above, you will often be required to consult scientific literature to gather information, understand the methodology and rationale behind conclusions, and evaluate potentially conflicting findings. It may be to keep abreast the ever-changing landscape of veterinary medicine, or to find the best, evidence-based approach to a case... This skill is crucial.
Career paths outside of practice: Not all veterinarians work in private practice; many consider positions in research, industry, or governmental regulatory bodies! For all of these, having solid research experience can be a major boon.
Resilience: If you’re involved in any sort of veterinary social media, you may be aware that mental health is currently at the forefront of our profession. You may already be impacted by this. Graduate programs and research in general are an exercise in resilience and perseverance: experiments don’t work, funding falls through, reviewers want major revisions on your manuscript—again. This isn’t meant to dissuade; the reality is just that the very nature of research presents you with many opportunities to practice and figure out just what you need to get back up and try again. And by the time you finish your graduate program, you will have a much better idea of how to be kind to yourself through it all.
This doesn’t even speak for all the other little things you pick up along the way. Hate public speaking? Try out the 3 Minute Thesis competition and push that comfort zone. Ever wanted to try teaching? Teaching workshops and TA positions are available. Afraid to meet new people? Your fellow grad students can become some of the best friends out there (there’s something to be said about going through stress together).
I’ve come quite a long way since opening that email years ago, and I’ve still got a long way to go. Graduate programs aren’t for everyone, but if it ends up being a right fit for you, there is so much you can gain from it. The idea of adding even more years to this long and winding road may sound daunting to some people; I can appreciate that. It’s true that it can be a lot... but I will get there eventually, just as so many OVC students have before me. One way or another.
All the best and hang in there!