Pausing doctoral studies to pursue an MBA in the midst of a global health crisis: lessons learned from COVID

Gurveer Bains

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, I was pursuing my doctoral studies at the University of Toronto while working for the Government of Canada. During the pandemic and given the reality that qualitative health research would be impacted, I reflected on my next steps and how I would go about developing and harnessing my career amidst this uncertainty.  

I always knew I wanted to complete my MBA; within an academic perspective, combining a background in research with management was the ideal knowledge base for a career in industry as opposed to academia. Professionally, having worked in the public sector, both within government and several hospitals in southern Ontario, I knew an MBA was worth attaining to elevate my thinking and strategies to collaborate within and across teams. The question was not if I wanted to pursue an MBA, but rather when I should pursue the MBA.

In January 2020, as the cases of a novel virus, COVID-19, began to expand across borders, amid reflecting on my career trajectory, I began to delve deeper into the idea of pausing my doctoral studies and pursuing my MBA in the midst of this global health crisis and adapt my skills to more of a management capacity within healthcare. Little did I know at the time that within a couple of months the world would shut down. As research was indefinitely paused, I knew this idea was worth acting upon and so I decided to pursue my MBA immediately.

Now came the challenge of applying. Applying to any type of school, whether this be undergraduate, graduate, and/or professional school is a daunting challenge; trust me I have applied to all three types. I knew my dream school was the DeGroote School of Business, located at McMaster University. Given the school’s reputation for experiential learning and the Health Services Management (HSM) specialization, this would be the best program which aligned with my goals and career aspirations. I wanted to attain my MBA while continuing to work for the government amidst of all the uncertainty of COVID-19. I applied as a round 3 applicant and thankfully was admitted commencing studies in September 2020; this news provided a new path within my educational journey. Moreover, this path led to many lessons which I will continue to value in my career and lessons I would like to share:

1. Become adaptable (really!)

It is not easy to pivot and change goals, deadlines, dreams, etc., however, at times this is necessary and this adaptability may provide access to more opportunities. Of course, each situation differs, however, it is important to balance short-term and long-term insights to reconfigure goals and pathways to attain these goals.

2. Resiliency is a skill worth developing again and again (and again!)

Uncertainty is a part of life; now, we hope that the uncertainty around a global pandemic is not a regular reality within our lives. However, building resiliency to changes beyond our control and changes which are unknown is a life skill needed to succeed in any type of industry.

3. Communication is key, think vertically and horizontally across your networks

Through the transitions and pivots I have made, I always communicated my thoughts and perspectives to colleagues, mentors, and superiors. Advice sought from those more experienced is a good blueprint to understand and implement changes and other considerations which may not have been discussed or considered prior.

4. Don’t be afraid of change

It is tough, it is difficult, but change is necessary as well. At times our greatest lessons and strengths come from changes in our lives, especially those which are unexpected. We grow as individuals and leaders when responding to change.

5. What if? A question worth answering

While we can feel overwhelmed by the number of choices and decisions we make on a daily basis, there is a need to address and reflect on the question of “What if?”. This is a tough question to answer, however, through the process of developing a response we are able to reframe and provide context to the decisions and choices we make everyday, and how these actions impact our overall aspirations.

As I reflect on the last two and a half years, I am confident that how I adapted and changed during the pandemic to figure out my career trajectory and my educational journey will serve me well in the future.

I strongly believe it is crucial to reflect on decisions and be open to change when needed.

Having completed my MBA and graduated in June 2022, I will now be able to complete my doctoral studies with a renewed sense of understanding of myself, my career, and what I can accomplish as an individual. I have also carved out a new path for myself which includes developing a career plan that incorporates healthcare and finance.  

And lastly, I hope the lessons shared above help others who are faced with a crossroad within their lives and reflect on the outcomes of this intersection.

Best of luck!

Gurveer Bains on pausing doctoral studies to pursue an MBA in the midst of a global health crisis

Photo by Jievani Weerasinghe

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