Your PhD, What Next?

I hope you are not looking for an answer because I am afraid it is not here and I am trying to figure it out, too. This is a different experience for me because for all my life, I have always known what I want. I will give you some background.

I was born and raised in west of Iran. I spent my childhood summers at my grandparents’ house located in a town surrounded by majestic Zagros mountains and walnut trees. I loved my grandma. It saddened me that at every possible occasion, with a deep sigh, she remembered that her father stopped her from going to school at the age of 10 and this changed her life forever. I greatly appreciated my opportunity to go to school every September and wanted to swallow every single word that my grandma missed.


By the age of 18 I knew I wanted to see new places and meet new people; maybe I was searching for the people in my novels, whom I admired. Determined to go to Tehran, the capital, I ranked 76 among approximately 400,000 participants on the national university entrance exam in the field of experimental sciences. My ticket to Tehran! To the surprise and disappointment of my teachers and parents, I chose to study pharmacy, not medicine.


I knew it was right for me; I quickly fell in love with medicinal chemistry and drug design. At first, I struggled a lot with adapting to life in Tehran and the populated dormitory, but I guess it was one of those ‘does not kill you but makes you stronger’ situations. If you are feeling overwhelmed in Vancouver and at UBC, I hear you; hang in there!

An exciting part of studying in Tehran was the opportunity to meet professors who went abroad for their sabbatical. This was inspiring for me and I was fascinated just by hearing about their experiences. I got my Pharm.D degree ranked 3 among our class of 80 with a first ranking thesis. Later I won the Ministry of Health and Medical Education scholarship to get a PhD abroad. My ticket to foreign lands!


I decided to finish my 2-year Health Service before going out of the country for my PhD. I had used the public system throughout my school years and this was the best time to give back to my hometown. I started my job at the Provincial Healthcare Centre. Our team worked on various programs such as national immunization, eradication/control of infectious diseases and prevention of mother/infant death. Our goal was to ensure every person in our province had access to the medicine, vaccine or advice they needed. This involved lots of village to village travel, getting upset with bureaucracy and getting stuck in snowy mountain roads but we all had a dream of full coverage. Despite others’ judgement about me leaving Tehran, I was totally satisfied with my choice and felt lucky for the opportunity.

Another fortunate event of this period was meeting my husband. We had amazingly matched characters. You never know what life has in store for you; I had almost finished all my own and my husband’s documentation for my PhD scholarship but then a controversial presidential election happened. The subsequent events made it clear for us that we did not want to carry the scholarship. I declined it and prepared myself to apply to grad schools independently for the next school year.


One of the best moments of my life: I left the Canadian embassy with a study permit taped in my passport. Soon after, I came to UBC to join a medicinal chemistry research group in the Department of Chemistry. I was very naïve about the whole process; arrived in Canada on August 31 and my potential supervisor told me he had accepted two students in June and they were already working in the lab. Fortunately, I learnt that Dr. Brooks is a professor in both departments of chemistry and pathology. I was happy to discover that such an interdisciplinary lab existed, and he accepted me in his lab. I had a discouraging start with my PhD. A pharmacy background meant I had to take courses in Chemistry. After some years of being away from school and not having enough background for 500 level chemistry courses, I had to work very hard to meet the requirements. Only later in my first year, I learnt that I could have taken some courses outside of the department, but I guess I was not telling the right people about my struggles and thus, was not finding any possible solutions. WRONG; many people could offer solutions and help for such cases.

PhD Research

My PhD project was new to me, biomaterials and polymer coatings, but it definitely sounded exciting and applied. The first steps went smoothly then I got stuck. Being new to the field and having self-doubt, I kept repeating the same experiments just because I thought I was doing something wrong. WRONG; no matter what your background is; research principles stay the same so don’t doubt yourself. I should have stepped back and re-thought everything instead of sticking to the same question.

I was not enjoying my project anymore and in hindsight, that was foolish. I was lucky to have a very experienced and ‘big picture’ supervisor with a wonderfully patient character. Ironically, I did not discuss my struggles with him and tried to show only my best face; WRONG! I remember mentioning changing my project twice, which was turned down and that was it. Looking back, it is obvious to me that I did not initiate a clear and evidence-based conversation with my supervisor. Otherwise, I am sure, the result would have been different.

Anyway, it took me some time to start exploring different characterization methods available on campus to overcome the project challenges. I believe learning new techniques and meeting people from different fields uplifted me. I visited a research lab in Germany for a short time and came back with extra energy to finish my thesis and another small project.

After PhD so far..

Even more than half way into my PhD, my plan was clear and solid; go back to Iran and become a faculty member. However, the longer we stayed here, my husband and I fell more and more in love with living in Canada. Now what to do after the PhD? Staying in academia has always been on top of my list. I love teaching and research, but I appreciate how competitive it is to get a position. Also remembering my pharmacist days, it is more satisfying for me if I see an impact of my work in a more direct way.

Clinical Chemistry Postdoctoral Program

I went to a couple of industry tours and talked with some scientists and my conclusion was that maybe industry is not a right first option for me. Luckily, I learnt about the Clinical Chemistry postdoctoral program. This is a unique program in which I could use both the skills and clinical knowledge I gained as a pharmacist plus my training in chemistry and instrumental characterization. I felt very fortunate to have learned about this opportunity.

I defended my thesis in May 2017 and my son was born at the end of July. My plan was to apply for the next Clinical Chemistry postdoctoral program starting July 2018. The timing was perfect for moving to another city and for my son starting daycare. Well, it did not work that way. I interviewed with the University of Toronto and University of Calgary but did not get the position. There were concerns regarding issues that I cannot do anything about now, such as the fact that I started university in the year 2000 (they nicely asked me if it was a typo - and why it took me so long to reach this stage). There was also feedback for areas that I can work on, such as interview skills and English communication.

I keep contemplating and sometimes regretting things I should or could have done differently but the truth is that there is no magic. It takes time for some people to find their way off the regular path around them. I am currently doing my postdoc, in Dr. Devine’s lab, working on some exciting real-life projects. I live on campus with my family and I cannot ask for a better place to live, work and raise my son. I am determined to work hard and improve myself for the Clinical Chemistry program or any other position that I am hoping to discover.