Be brave, be persistent and be myself: Walking on the road to my dream career

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Ye Zhang, M.A. Economics ‘12
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Thumbnail As a person who wants to study policy related to mental health and make a change back in China, I felt that I needed some advice on my career development from experts. This led me to the Duke Career Center where I met Paul Miceli.
I came from mainland China, and I received my M.A. degree in Economics in Fall 2012. After years of being a full-time student and planning to pursue a Ph.D. in public health, I preferred to take a gap year to explore my real interests while also preparing for my Ph.D. application. 

I joked with Paul that I was on a road less traveled because I was not interested in finding a full-time job but, instead, collaborating with faculty members to do research on mental health. This is particularly challenging for a student whose background is economics! I made appointments with Paul about once a week for almost three months, and we carefully discussed all my options and strategies.

At the beginning, Paul and I worked on looking for a lab with a focus on mental illnesses. I found out that I would need many of the same skills as someone looking for a full-time job or internship. Sometimes you really need to be brave in order to network with people and ask for informational interviews. I contacted my psychology professors and asked for information about their colleagues who are interested in the study of serious mental illness. I read professors’ websites, emailed them, and luckily received many responses. I went to their offices with my questions and research interests. I participated in conferences and I even found out that one professor randomly sitting next to me had similar research interests. I asked him for his contact information and followed up afterwards. Many times I felt nervous and even shaky before I walked into an office and handed out my resume and answered the question, “Why is a Master of Economics interested in mental health issues?” Through those conversations though, I developed a better understanding of the field I really wanted to make a difference in.

Along the way I’ve found that it is very important to have an advisor to be accountable to, and this is especially true for me because I had a big plan but no idea how to prioritize my actions. I tracked all my actions with a spreadsheet and asked for suggestions from Paul. Paul is very insightful and always straightforwardly pointed out the naïve points of my plan, but was also always encouraging.

Life is just like a puzzle game. You need to get many pieces and put them together, and surprisingly I’ve found my beautiful picture. That is, my desired destination. The most important thing is to be brave - do not be shy! A professor at Duke told me not everyone is clear about their dreams, so if they know a person who finds their dream and has passion for it, others usually are happy to help that person chase his or her dream. I have found my dream, and I know that many people are eager to help me achieve it.

Over the past year, extensive networking and perseverance has led to a coauthored academic article, a research position in the Department of Psychiatry, and many useful connections and relationships. I’ve also become the founder of an organization committed to helping depressed persons in mainland China. The skills and tools that I’ve utilized over the past year have been invaluable to getting me where I am today, and I know that I’ll continue using them throughout my career journey, wherever that may lead me.

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