Helen Kang earned her PhD in sociology, with a focus on medical sociology and history, from Simon Fraser University. She is now a self-employed consultant who specializes in health-care communication. Find her online on LinkedIn and at helenkang.ca.
What did you hope for in terms of employment as you completed your PhD?
I was very much set on becoming a professor at a university. I wanted the job security and prestige. But there were early signs that the job might not be the best for me. I found teaching extremely anxiety-provoking, I had strong ethical and emotional opposition to the concept of grading students, and like any others I was prone to imposter syndrome. I had one academic job interview for a tenure-track position in my graduating semester, and the process of preparing for it was so stressful that I couldn’t sleep or eat. When I didn’t get the job and graduated without a professorship or postdoc lined up, I took a full-time job at a local hospital in health-professions education. For two years after that, I longed to be a professor and tried in vain to make that happen. Then I started to take the early warning signs seriously, and began to reflect on what I truly wanted from my life and career. It was clear to me that professorship was not right for me. When this realization dawned on me, there were suddenly endless possibilities of what I could do.
What was your first post-PhD job?
My first post-PhD job was as a clinical educator. I helped to develop educational materials for health-care professionals in the field of HIV/AIDS. I was in this full-time job for three years. I worked with physicians, nurses, social workers, pharmacists, and community workers to develop educational materials about HIV/AIDS. My portfolio included webinars, lectures, workshops, online courses, undergraduate courses, and guidelines. I learned a lot about working professionally in a 9-to-5 situation. The job had a flexible description and I was able to make it my own, putting my own unique spin on it. I’m proud of what I did in that position, which I left in 2016.
What do you do now?
I’m a self-employed health-care consultant specializing in medical writing. I help health-care organizations solve communication/organizational problems by articulating their needs and goals in clear, audience-appropriate language and format. I specialize in developing guidelines (i.e. for clinical practice and health-care operations), which involves review of evidence and best practices, knowledge synthesis, project management, committee work and, of course, writing. I create flowcharts and clinical algorithms, which I find especially enjoyable. I also work on grant applications, policy documents and other content required in health care. I’ve worked in the fields of HIV/AIDS, major trauma, developmental disabilities, and addiction care.
How did you get this job?
My first job in HIV/AIDS health-professions education gave me the experience and skill set to work with health professionals. I became self-employed to be able to work on various projects, including my own personal projects, and have greater flexibility in my time to be able to visit friends and family who live in other parts of the country. I just celebrated the second year of being self-employed and so far I have a handful clients who come back to me to work on various projects. I initially connected with these clients through word of mouth (via former colleagues at my first job). I also do work for my former employer but as a contractor now.
What kind of tasks do you do on a daily and weekly basis?
My tasks are shaped by the projects and their timelines. I usually have at least two projects on the go. The longest contract has a two-year-plus timeline and my shortest contract lasted a weekend! In any given day, I could be searching PubMed for articles, reading medical journals/guidelines, writing literature syntheses, creating a form to be used by health-care providers, creating and formatting content for online courses, creating clinical decision-making algorithms based on research and notes by doctors I work with, etc. Most of my work time is devoted to what I call “deep work” — reading and writing — but I do have meetings on occasion with clients and stakeholders (i.e. doctors and nurses). This is when I feel like a medical ethnographer. My observation and fieldwork skills come in handy when synthesizing discussions.
What most surprises you about your job?
How much I don’t miss academia! The surprise is starting to wear off, now that it’s been over five years since I graduated. I used to be able to picture myself as professor and nothing else. Tenure or bust. So for me to thoroughly enjoy what I do now, find fulfilment and a future in it, is surprising and remarkable.
I’m also surprised that I don’t have to break my back to produce good work. In academia, I felt like I could never do enough — never read enough, never know enough, etc. Every time I put something out, such as an article, I was wracked with anxiety about how it would be received and taken apart. Now, I am fundamentally confident in my abilities. I know I can solve my way through complex problems. I know I can deliver good results to my clients — even great results. Even when I make mistakes, I know that I can spring back from them.
Finally, I’m surprised at how much my PhD training helps in what I do. There are the obvious advantages: I know how to research and write, which are valuable skills outside of academia. But there are the less obvious benefits: I know how to look at a complex problem (research question), mentally map a solution, formulate the best approach to solving the problem (methodology/method), execute it, and present the results (findings and conclusion). I can also take multiple complex issues and synthesize them (theory). These skills are invaluable.
What are your favourite parts of your job?
I get to help doctors to do their jobs better for the ultimate benefit of their patients. That never gets old! I have a note for mysef on my bulletin board that reads “Do it for the people!” to help me through the slog of reading dense medical articles. I often work on projects that are on the cutting edge in their fields, whether it’s developing the first clinical guidelines for major trauma in Canada or the first comprehensive operational guideline in the country for supervised consumption sites. That’s amazing. What I do has real and immediate impact on the world.
What’s next for you, career-wise?
I want to be really good at what I do and build a name for myself as the go-to person for guideline development. I also want to return to health-professions education and connect the two parts of my portfolio. And I’d like to stay self-employed for as long as possible. I like my lifestyle. (For example, I’m typing this Transition Q & A on my laptop at a coffee shop on a sunny weekday afternoon.)
What advice or thoughts do you have for PhDs in career transition now?
Think outside the box. “Teaching,” “research,” and “writing” mean all kinds of amazing and interesting things in the world outside the ivory tower, beyond what we’ve been trained to think they mean (and should mean to be worthwhile). So does “expert(ise).” The economy of expertise is slightly different outside the university walls. So stay open minded and be ready to observe and learn.
Be professional. This is a loaded term because there are class, race and gender implications of what being “professional” means. So, to rephrase: act in a way that you want to be treated by someone else in a work context. This includes being courteous in email, being on time, respecting other people’s time and boundaries, doing your research ahead of time and presenting yourself physically in a way that is respectful.
The last one is an advice I heard elsewhere. I wish I can remember who said it because it’s a gem and I want to credit them. Your next job isn’t necessarily your last job. It’s not about finding the perfect job but a good job where you can grow.