Maryssa Canuel graduated with a PhD from the Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology in 2008 and obtained an MBA in 2010. She currently works as an Associate Medical Director.
Q: What made you interested in doing a PhD?
In CEGEP, I liked health sciences, but I wasn’t sure what avenue to pursue. I knew that working in a clinic as an M.D. wasn’t for me, and I always had it in my mind that I was going to do more than a Bachelor’s degree. I liked research, so I followed that path.
Q: What would you say were the most valuable experiences you took from graduate school?
My most valuable lessons had nothing to do with my research projects—they were about the process, the critical thinking, and the scientific method. I also gained valuable experience in presenting, structuring my work, and managing my time. I did a lot of TAing and I had a lot of different responsibilities through that experience. Those were really the important skills that I took away and still use today. I work in medical communications, and the way scientific content is presented is important.
Q: When did you realize you didn’t want to stay in academia?
Maybe a third of the way or halfway through, I realized I wasn’t going to pursue a career in academia. I really liked the research aspect of the PhD and I would have loved to continue but I wasn’t really interested in living grant to grant. Seeing how removed my supervisor was from bench work and focused on funding made me realize that this wasn’t what I wanted.
So I started looking around at different options and at that point, I started an MBA to branch out and gain other experience.
What I think would have been extremely beneficial was a co-op or internship program where I could have done a little bit of research in a company or at a government institute and received practical experience.
Q: How was the experience of doing an MBA?
It was amazing. I adored the experience. I wanted to do the program at McGill but McGill wouldn’t have let me enroll in two programs simultaneously, so I did it at Concordia University. I don’t know if their philosophy is different, but I got the practical experience that I wanted during my PhD. Many of the professors were from different companies and industries and they would share their real world experience. I thought that was really interesting and valuable.
Doing the PhD and having that scientific process and rigor made doing the MBA so straightforward. In the sciences, the process of writing articles or a thesis involves developing a hypothesis, and describing methods, results, and the conclusion. If you apply that kind of approach to MBA courses, they are relatively straight-forward.
Q: What would you say were kind of main sources of support?
My lab mates and other students in the department. My supervisor was supportive but I didn’t have the feeling that I could go to him for everything career-wise—just topics that were academic.
Q: What were some of the more challenging aspects of completing a PhD?
For me, the research, the courses, and the progression were really straight-forward. There weren’t any challenges. Where I faced more difficulty was afterwards, the “now what?”
Q: So how was your path after graduation?
When I graduated, I had lined up a position doing medical editing at a small company that did continuing medical education. I did that for about six months and then happily accepted a postdoc position. At the end of my postdoc, an acquaintance offered me an internship at Genentech in San Francisco. It was a great experience that allowed me to use my scientific and business skills. I would have stayed if my visa hadn’t expired.
Q: What was that internship experience like?
It was amazing. It was with their Pipeline Portfolio Planning group. We evaluated data on molecules that were in early development and, given the marketplace, determined which molecules were worth pursuing. That was absolutely fascinating to me—it was very analytical and scientific, but there was still strategy involved.
Q: How did you end up in your current position now?
My visa expired and I came back to Montreal. I returned to medical editing and management of the medical writing team. I’m in a similar field now, although focused on continuing medical education rather than medical sales training.
Q: Was there any part of your skill set that you wish you would’ve been able to enhance further?
I think the main thing that I would have loved and that would have completely changed where I am today was if there had been a co-op or internship program to get industry experience. I’ve weaved my way through different options to a place where I’m happy but I think if there had been that kind of program built in, I could have gotten there a lot faster or maybe somewhere that would have been even more of what I wanted.
Q: Is there any piece of advice you would give your former self before you started your PhD?
I would tell myself to be more assertive early on with seeking out different opportunities and building different relationships outside of the department, outside the lab, at conferences— really looking to build those relationships and to not be scared to say that “I did this”. We end up, a lot of the time with our publications, saying, “We did this, we did that”. Then when it comes time for you to interview and to work outside of academia, in industry, and people have asked me, “So what was your role exactly? What did you do?”
Q: Is there anything else you want to say?
I didn’t love every experience that I had after my PhD, but I learned something everywhere I’ve been and in everything that I’ve done. I realize now the importance of looking for opportunities where you might not think and looking beyond Big Pharma.
Many thanks to Maryssa for sharing her PhD narrative!
This interview took place in August 2020. Interviews are edited by the TRaCE McGill Editorial team for length and clarity before publication.