Professional Development

Fright Night, Academic-Style: Val Walker, Physiology PhD, and Mitacs Director of Policy on her alt-ac career path

October 29, 2014

This article is part of a series exploring professional paths for graduate students and postdoctoral fellows that make use of or leverage academic training but are not limited to traditional faculty positions (#alt-ac). If you would like to hear more about Val's story and ask her your questions, come to our November 13, 2014 Alt-Ac Career Cafe.

It's almost Halloween, that special time of year we celebrate the joy of fear. But forget dudes in hockey masks, skeleton costumes and toothy pumpkins. According to Val Walker, there is only one thing that can truly terrify a graduate student: graduation.   

After completing an MSc in Kinesiology at SFU, Val began a doctoral program in Physiology at McGill University.  Though she loved teaching and researching, as she neared the end of her doctorate, Val started craving experiences beyond what the university system could offer.

“I wanted to do something different with what I knew, I just wasn’t sure what.”

That didn’t go over so well with some of her colleagues and other faculty members.

“People would ask me where I would be doing my postdoc. When I said I wasn’t sure if I was going to stay in academia they would give me this funny look, like what was wrong with me? It got to be a bit uncomfortable at times so I just started saying that I hadn’t made up my mind yet.”

Immediately after graduation, Val was recruited into the Government of Canada through its Recruitment of Policy Leaders (RPL) program. The RPL program is open to anyone with an advanced degree who has policy and leadership experience, and offers successful applicants mid-level positions in the federal public service. Val suddenly found herself in a world totally foreign from the academic one she had left behind.

“My first briefing note was five pages long and had half a page of references. My boss called me into her office and said you have to cut this in half and lose the references. It was a steep learning curve.”

Though scary and exhausting at times, Val’s on-the-job experience helped her gain an entirely new set of skills that lead her to her current position as Director of Policy at Mitacs, a not-for-profit organization that funds research internships in industry for graduate students and postdocs. It’s a position she loves because it allows her to use her academic training in a whole new way.

“Sure, I’m no longer studying a tiny protein in the heart, but I’m still applying the same research techniques –the same logical, methodical way of thinking and conducting research. The results of this research are having an impact on graduate student training and on Canada’s innovation and productivity landscape. Plus I get to share this information by speaking at conferences and talking at career panels. Most importantly, I get to help grad students find their way in the world—which is all that more meaningful for me because I was that lost grad student once.”

By taking the risk and plunging into the unknown, Val found her way to a place even sweeter than all the mini-mars bars in the world.

- Jackie Amsden, APEX Professional Development Coordinator

If you would like to hear more about Val's story and ask her your questions, come to our November 13, 2014 Alt-Ac Career Cafe.

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