Student Voices May 20 2019

Finding Your Path

For many students, grad school is an opportunity to enhance their education, pursue research opportunities, and find a professional niche. For me, it is a chance to reimagine the trajectory of the rest of my life. Since grade school, I have been traveling an extremely linear and structured path. I went from high school to a pre-med college program, to medical school, and then to residency. Although my journey to becoming a practicing physician was fraught with challenges, there was always a degree of certainty because the path ahead was clear. This was true until November 2016.

Kyle MacDonald, Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, MPH, public health

I was a pediatrics resident in Ottawa, Ontario, facing a crisis that, perhaps ironically, I never anticipated. It was then that I suddenly shifted from being a health care provider to being the patient. And it happened in the blink of an eye. After discovering that routinely working 26-hour on-call shifts at the hospital was not sustainable for me, I had to accept that my body had limits, that I was not invincible, and that perhaps my own identity was too tightly wound around a dream job that may never be. I was put on a medical leave of absence and had to adapt to a new normal. Finally, I decided to re-evaluate my next career move. In that time, I challenged many of my own unrelenting standards and self-sacrificing tendencies when it came to self-care. At first, I grieved for the loss of my budding career as a pediatrician and hated my body for restricting me. But over time, something changed. I began to see my body as a guide rather than an adversary. I started to reimagine how I could still change the world by improving health through a different role. No longer would I work on the front lines of a busy clinic, but perhaps I could magnify my impact by working on larger scale challenges faced by our siloed healthcare system. After many conversations with my family, friends, and other physicians, I found public health and have been inspired ever since. The idea of working on a systems-level married seamlessly with my longstanding interests in politics, economics, and policy. And as I dug deeper, I came to realize that instead of helping improve the lives of a few people in my community, I actually had the potential to improve the lives of millions on a global scale. In the end, this is really what I have always wanted.

As I approach the end of the one-year accelerated Master of Public Health program at Columbia Mailman, my life is at a crossroads again. Now that I have wholeheartedly leaped into the non-clinical world, I am planning my next move. Despite its many virtues, one challenge of an accelerated program I’ve found is that before you feel like you’ve been fully immersed in public health curriculum, recruiters are already on campus and job application deadlines are quickly approaching. One strength of the School’s accelerated program is that, like the traditional two-year programs, it requires a practicum or internship experience. This is particularly important for me because it will give me an opportunity to take my new skills for a test drive; I have studied the statistical mechanics that underpin the type of research we would discuss on hospital inpatient rounds, and I have started to learn to code and model latent variables such as qualitative symptoms of depression. I can analyze a hospital’s balance sheet, cash flow, and key financial ratios; I have gained a deep appreciation for the complexity of new drug development, and global health governance. This is just a snapshot of the dozens of hard and soft skills that I have acquired here. It has also been exhilarating to learn about the fantastic work that various companies and organizations including Pfizer, McKinsey, Deloitte, IBM, and NYC’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene are all doing to solve problems across the healthcare industry.

Pfizer, in particular, stood out to me because as one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world, Pfizer has been innovating and researching breakthrough treatments globally for over 150 years. Annually, the company spends billions of dollars on research to discover new and improved therapies for conditions across the medical spectrum. In January, a group of almost twenty Pfizer employees who were also Columbia Mailman grads hosted an information and networking event at the company’s headquarters in Manhattan. The event was an opportunity for people working in the industry to share their stories and career experiences with students like me. Employees work across several departments including vaccine development, oncology research, clinical trials, quality assurance, supply chain management, epidemiology, and compassionate access for those in financial need. One alum that I met completed their practicum with Pfizer and has been with the company since graduation. As a fellow international student, we quickly connected, and they generously offered to meet with me a few weeks later to continue our discussion. It was a testament to the Mailman School that alumni are so willing to volunteer their time to help the next generation of public health leaders.

Moving forward, I will complete my practicum with the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene by working to address the opioid crisis here in the city. Then I will jump headfirst into my next career. I still don’t know what exactly I will be doing a year from now, but that’s okay. What I do have is a rapidly growing personal and professional network, countless new skills, and the confidence that despite the uncertainty ahead, I know that I am exactly where I'm meant to be.

Kyle MacDonald graduated from Columbia Public Health in 2019 with a Master of Public Health degree. He received his BScH in Life Sciences from Queen's University and his MD from Memorial University of Newfoundland. 
If you would like to contribute to Mailman Student Voices, please send a three to five-sentence pitch outlining your topic to