From Canada to the US for a PhD in Mental Health at Johns Hopkins University and exploring careers outside of academia, with Kira Riehm

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In this episode, Sujani sits down with Kira Riehm, a psychiatric epidemiologist and a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Epidemiology at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. They discuss Kira’s journey and interest in mental health and things to consider when pursuing education in the U.S.

What You’ll Learn from this Episode:

  • What kicked off Kira’s interest in pursuing a career in mental health
  • What Kira’s academic/career journey has been like so far and where she hopes to go next
  • What things to consider if you are thinking of pursuing education in the U.S. versus in Canada
  • What skills may be obtained from pursuing a PhD
  • An overview of the Johns Hopkins PhD in the Department of Mental Health program including:
    • What coursework is like
    • What the environment is like
    • The specialties of being the only mental health department in a school of public health
  • What Kira’s research interests are and what she has worked on in the past
  • Kira’s postdoctoral experience and what research she is currently working on
  • What it was like for Kira being a Canadian student doing her PhD in the U.S.
  • What financial resources are available for Canadian students looking to pursue higher education abroad
  • Advice from Kira for public health students, especially for those looking at studying abroad or pursuing research experiences
  • Tips from Kira on how to plan out a career path

Today’s Guest:

Kira is a psychiatric epidemiologist and a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Epidemiology at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. The primary aim of her research is to understand the causes, correlates, and consequences of mental health disorders among adolescents. Drawing on a wide variety of data sources, she designs research studies that involve the application of rigorous epidemiologic methods to answer pressing questions about youth mental health and substance use. Her work has been published in JAMA Psychiatry, Pediatrics, American Journal of Preventive Medicine, and American Journal of Public Health.

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Episode Transcript

Kira 0:00
Sometimes the research topic might not be the perfect fit for you. And that’s okay. It’s more about the people who you’re working with. You want to be working with good people who are going to be there for you from day one, and who are going to be there for you after you leave an institution as well and who want to see you be successful and who don’t have a predefined idea of what success looks like for you.

Sujani 0:24
Welcome to PH SPOTlight, a community for you to build your public health career with. Join Us Weekly right here. And I’ll be here too, your host Sujani Siva from PH SPOT.

Hi, Kira. Welcome to the PH SPOT podcast. And yeah, so great to have you here. fellow Canadian studying in the US right now. So we’ll get into that a little bit. But yeah, welcome and great to have you here.

Kira 0:53
Thank you so much. Yeah, I’m thrilled to represent Canada a little bit on the podcast.

Sujani 0:57
Yeah, you don’t have the video on but we will be sharing the screenshot. And Kira’s wearing her McGill sweater, which is the University of Montreal for anyone who’s not too familiar with the universities up here in Canada. So representing.

Kira 1:11
Yes, absolutely.

Sujani 1:12
So Kira, you know, I already gave a little bit of what you’re doing right now to our listeners. But you know, maybe we can start off with where you kind of got this interest to pursue a career in this broader area of public health. And we’ll kind of like get into the specifics of it. But maybe you can take us back. Maybe there was a point in time, or maybe it was, you know, over a number of years, or who knows a decade of you kind of mulling over this idea of public health. Or maybe it was accidental that you found this area. So I’m really curious to hear how you discovered the area of public health.

Kira 1:48
Yeah, that’s a great question. For me, it was actually definitely an accident. Yeah, it was sort of a spurious discovery. McGill, so I did my undergrad and my masters there. And I think that they might have changed this in the meantime. But they, unlike a lot of universities in the state, they didn’t have an undergrad in public health. I did a minor in social studies of medicine, which I think was probably about as close as you would get to public health. But that was more a focus on things like sociology and anthropology, which I think really informed a lot of my learning in the area, but wasn’t quite pure public health. And so I did my undergrad in psychology. And following that I worked as a research assistant for a year with the intention of applying to clinical psychology programs soon thereafter. And the sort of accidental aspect of this was that as I was looking for clinical psychology programs that I wanted to apply to, and really looking at people’s research that seemed to interest me the most, I kept finding that the professors that I was interested in whose research really appealed to me were actually not in clinical psychology, they were in public health, they were in epidemiology. And at first, I just thought that I wasn’t focusing my search properly, and then sort of brushed those professors aside, and was still committed to looking purely in clinical psychology departments. But after sort of reflecting a bit on that process, and realizing that everyone who I wanted to work with was in public health, I experienced a bit of a shift in my goals. And also the work that I was doing as a research assistant at the time was was more heavy in epidemiology than I think I had anticipated. And so when I went back and did my masters at McGill the year after, I took classes in epidemiology and biostatistics and really just fell in love and knew from there that- that epidemiology was what I wanted to do. Yeah, it was kind of an accidental discovery on my part, but one that I’m very glad that happened.

Sujani 3:39
That’s great. I think a lot of people that I speak to it and sounds like it’s an accidental discovery, the field of public health, which is interesting to hear. Did you ever during that point, you know, think about the Master of Public Health degree because, you know, we have a lot of our listeners, and just our community members who often consider both the MSC as well as the Master of Public Health, the mph and often, you know, they’re looking for advice and tips as to how to choose one over the other. So I’d be interested in hearing about your journey to deciding to pursue an MSC versus an MPH if you ever had that consideration.

Kira 4:15
Yeah, that’s another really good question. The reason that I went with an MSC was more money related than anything. At the time that I was a research assistant. I had had really good mentorship from my advisor at the time, Dr. Brett Tooms, at McGill, who I believe is still there. And he really pushed his students in his lab to apply for grant funding at the time. And so I had already secured funding to do a master’s degree. My understanding is that and again, this might have changed since I’ve been out of Canada for about five years now. But my understanding is that that funding from CIHR can really only be applied to an MSC degree, can’t be applied to a more practical degree like an MPH and so it was both an interest in terms of I knew that I wanted to do research and I didn’t really want to go into public health practice. So that was the first thing, but it also was absolutely a money consideration. I really didn’t want to have to take out loans and the the Masters funding was good enough for me to be able to use that for a degree.

Sujani 5:09
That’s a good perspective. Similar to you, I did my Master’s of Public Health degree or master’s degree in Canada a number of years ago. So I do know things have changed. I don’t know the specifics of it. But definitely there are more programs and definitely more resources available for that degree as well.

Kira 5:26
Yeah, I’m glad to hear that it’s changed. I think at the time, I don’t even think McGill at the time had a public health program. They had a master’s in epidemiology, but they didn’t have an MPH degree. And I also just really liked Montreal, and I wanted to stay there. It’s a really wonderful city. So I think I was also constrained by the program that was being offered at McGill. Yeah, again, that factored into the decision too.

Sujani 5:47
I guess, yeah, your decision to pursue an MSC you kind of alluded to the fact that you wanted to do research, and then there was the component of just having some financial stability. Were you already planning out a career like within the field of academia? Or is that something that is evolving for you right now?

Kira 6:08
That’s actually quite a loaded question. Yeah, I think I had always intended to do a PhD. I knew I loved research. And once I discovered the sort of methods set that you get when you study epidemiology, I just I really fell in love with that. I love that epidemiology is just it’s a way of thinking. It’s not really, of course, it’s a topic area. But most epidemiologists have a content focus. And so I made my mental health, but really pure epidemiology to me is just it’s a way of thinking about problems in a way of approaching study design in a smart way to study what’s going on in the world. And I think that really appealed to me, I guess, with regards to your question about academia, up until the pandemic, actually, I was very, very set on an- on an academic career, I was told by my advisors that they saw me being a professor, and they saw me being really good at it. And I agree with them. And I still think- I still think that’s an option on the table. That said, I think I’m sort of shifting gears a bit and just looking a little bit more at non academic options. And it’s, it’s funny that we’re talking about this now. Because even just in the past few days, I feel like I’ve really spent a lot of time on places like LinkedIn, and Glassdoor and other websites just looking at different options for a non academic career. And the options are is mind boggling. I just had no idea what else was out there. And so I’m looking forward to sort of looking into that more. Again, not totally set on that yet, just kind of looking at my options right now. But it’s, it’s really exciting.

Sujani 7:30
Maybe it’s worth putting a timestamp right here in the recording that it’s the end of January 2022. So in case our listeners are kind of listening to this episode months later, and they are looking for what Kara is up to now, we’ll find out.

Kira 7:44
Yeah, I’m, I’m excited to see what happens. I mean, at least for now, I’m in- I’m in a postdoc that I really like at Columbia University, and I’ll probably be here for the foreseeable future. So unless you’re listening to this, like three or four years down the line, that’s probably where I’ll still be at.

Sujani 7:59
Okay, so I’m curious to hear what you did discover in the past few days, other options and opportunities outside of academia. Yeah, maybe we can start with what it is your research is focused on and kind of your interests around mental health and epidemiology. And then what you did discover in terms of other options outside of academia.

Kira 8:18
In terms of my research interests, I would say that they they fall broadly into two areas. The first of those is just general adolescent mental health. I think probably the big motivating factor behind my research is that we know for many studies now that depressive symptoms have risen among adolescents, especially in the past decade, there appears to be sort of inflection point around 2010 and 2011, where depressive symptoms just slowly started rising in teenagers. And that rate of increase hasn’t really slowed down since. And so I’m interested in studying factors that might be contributing to that increase, and just sort of more emerging novel risk factors for mental health problems in teens. So some examples of things that I’ve looked at are things like social and digital media use, I’ve looked at things like substance use, like e cigarette use, and more recently, I’ve looked at more, I guess, like novel risk factors that hadn’t been examined before. So one of my studies looked at things like fear of violence or a fear of a school shooting happening at your school. So that falls under my first area of research with regards to adolescent mental health. In terms of my second interest, not only am I interested in what is contributing to increases in mental health problems in teens, but I’m also interested in what we can do about it specifically, I do a lot of research related to depression screening. And essentially depression screening is recommended in the- in the US to be conducted universally in primary care settings for teenagers. But the evidence base supporting that practice actually isn’t as strong as many of the policies that are in place in the US would lead us to believe. And so I’m interested in using large datasets like surveys or insurance claims data, electronic health records, in order to inform decisions around when we should use screening and who it might benefit and what types of outcomes we could expect to see improve. Yeah, that’s just a broad overview of my research. And you had asked me about what I had found. In terms of options. I think probably the biggest discovery that I’ve made is just related to mental health startups, I had never even really looked at the startup world, that just seems like a completely different world from the very rigid academic setting that I’ve grown used to. But mental health startups, understandably, have really taken off during the pandemic. There are quite a few that I found specifically that look at just increasing access to mental health services, especially for children and youth. And obviously, that really appeals to me as a- as a mission. And I’m sort of experiencing this shift where I’m trying to decide what angle I want to come at this problem with access to mental health services from like, do I want to be the person doing the research in academic settings? Or maybe I could do research and other type of advocacy work outside of that. And so yeah, exploring the mental health startup world has been really interesting. Yeah, I’m super excited to learn more about it.

Sujani 10:57
That’s fascinating. Yeah, I think with the pandemic, we’re seeing that public health is kind of moving away from the traditional roles within government agencies and not for profit organization. And we are seeing kind of this expansion into startups as well as like larger corporations, which is, from my point of view, quite exciting, because we are finally understanding that public health is foundational to everything that we do in society.

Kira 11:23
Yeah, absolutely. And frankly, as like an- as an early career researcher, it’s been, it’s been really empowering. To see how many options there could be for employment outside of academic settings, I think, especially the the degree program that I did the PhD in mental health at Johns Hopkins, that’s a really unique program, really only Department of Mental Health, I believe in the US that’s within a school of public health. And so it provides a really unique skill set that really no other program offers. And I think it’s been hard for me to imagine my career possibilities beyond that, because many people in my department, most of the alumni, I would say end up doing something in academic settings. And there are only a handful of people who have gone outside of that. And so I just, I guess I just didn’t have a lot of role models to sort of look up to who pursued these other options. But I’m trying to reach out to alumni more and talk to them and talk to the few people who have- who have left academic settings and just see what their experience has been like.

Sujani 12:17
And I’ve kind of heard that anecdotally, from other institutions where the alumni are coming back a few years after they’ve graduated to reassess their career path a bit more. So it’s interesting to also hear it from your perspective.

Kira 12:31
Yeah, absolutely. I agree.

Sujani 12:33
Okay, so you talked about the- the John Hopkins PhD program, and I did want to touch on that a little bit. We chatted about how you went from Canada to the US to pursue your PhD? Could you tell us a bit about that decision process that you had to go through to one, choose a PhD program that kind of aligned with the mission that you were on? And then why the US and not kind of stay in Canada? And maybe you know, you could tell us a bit about what your plans are? Whether you’re gonna come back to Canada or continue practicing in the US? I know, you’re probably still kind of figuring things out. But yeah, just curious to hear what that decision process looked like for you following your masters.

Kira 13:12
Yeah, thanks for asking that. The very first thing I’ll note that I think really had a huge impact on my experience, and maybe some other Canadians can’t relate to as much is that I’m a dual citizen. So I do have dual Canadian and US citizenship. And so I think that made opportunities in the US much more accessible to me because I was eligible for US funding, much more so than most Canadians who don’t have US citizenship are. So I think that, that that just opened up so many doors for me, and I’ve had US citizenship since birth, my parents were both born in New Jersey, and they applied for citizenship as soon as I was born. Honestly, having that citizenship growing up didn’t really make that much of a difference. And it hasn’t really made a difference for my brother who has lived in Canada his whole life. But it made a huge difference for me when I was looking at PhD programs. So yeah, there have been other Canadians, like a few who were in my department at Hopkins and just had so much of a harder time trying to secure funding and just support their work while they were there. And so I really do feel grateful for the opportunity, I had to come to the US and just not have to think so hard about funding and just be so constrained in terms of my options. So that’s the first thing I’ll say, next with regards to the mental health programs, specifically, as I’ve alluded to before, I think the type of training I got in this institution was just unique and couldn’t- could not have been more well catered to my interests. Like I don’t think that there’s really any program quite like it. The type of training that I received specifically was essentially, maybe not quite as intensive but almost- almost exactly the same course load and coursework as students who are in the epidemiology department. But we also got very content specific training in things like psychiatry and psychocology and just an understanding of the mental health system, but also just basic training in neuroscience and things like understanding the brain and psychiatric genetics. And so as I’m thinking about the job market and sort of how to market myself, I do really appreciate just the breadth of expertise that I haven’t psychiatric epidemiology like that’s, that’s really the training that I got. And yeah, that was super unique. And again, not really something I could have gotten anywhere else. So that was one of the major reasons why I decided to come to the US in the first place. I think that to answer the next part of your question in terms of am I thinking of going back, it’s kind of a hard discussion, I would love to end up back in Canada, I think that would be great. I really haven’t spent a lot of time looking for jobs there. I’m just not really sure what the job prospects are like, especially given my more recent switch to looking at non academic options. Previously, when I was focused on just academic options, like realistically, there’s only- there’s only three cities in Canada that I really would like to live in, just due to personal preference. And I think that that would be Vancouver, Toronto, or Montreal. That’s kind of just where I want to live. And I know that that’s a restriction I put on myself. But Canada is just so much smaller than the US and it’s mind boggling to me here. How many? How many universities and colleges there are in the states like I just it- city? Right?

Sujani 16:17

Kira 16:18
Yeah, it’s wild there. Even I live in Baltimore right now. Yeah, there are just so many colleges and universities here, and I just had never heard of them. Meanwhile, in Canada, there’s like less than 20 universities in the entire country. It seems like there’s really slim pickings in terms of academic options. And I just don’t really know what the non academic options look like in Canada. So that’s kind of a little restrictive. And then, I’ll also add that just outside of the world of academics in my career, I think I have gotten used to certain conveniences of living in the US, most notably Trader Joe’s, I really like Trader Joe’s. And I can honestly say that I would really miss that if I move back to Canada, which might sound ridiculous for people who don’t love Trader Joe’s as much as I do. But, it’s just these, like certain comforts that I have come to really value that are just not- you just can’t get them in Canada, you know?

Sujani 17:06
Yeah, no, that makes total sense. And just the sheer size of the population, the opportunities in the US make you want to even just explore those options before you think about the three cities here in Canada. So that’s fair.

Kira 17:20
Yeah, yeah, absolutely. That’s how I feel about it, for sure.

Sujani 17:24
Okay, so you know, you do have a dual citizenship. So I don’t know if this question that I ask you really matters. But did you feel like being a Canadian student doing your PhD in the US was at all different in terms of the experience you had? Or the training? Just any- any differences that you noticed?

Kira 17:42
Yeah, I think I mean, I think there were little things. Oh, I think one of the huge things was moving here and trying to navigate the health system and health insurance. My gosh, it is so stressful, to navigate health insurance here, like in Canada, like you can just go to a- I don’t have to think about getting a bill in the mail for however number of dollars with no rationale for why something costs that much, you know, but that’s that’s just the reality here and during my second and kind of continuing up into the present day, actually. But during my second year of my PhD, I started experiencing a lot of chronic back issues, probably related to just running a lot and then sitting and I also have mild scoliosis, but trying to navigate getting myself to be pain free and seeing a physical therapist and seeing the doctors I needed to while being a PhD student and trying to figure out health insurance was unimaginably stressful. It’s so expensive here. That, I think was probably the biggest culture shock that I would point to having moved to the US, I don’t think would have been nearly as big as a stressor in Canada.

Sujani 18:47
Yeah, we had a question from someone who is Canadian interested in exploring opportunities for their masters in the US and I wasn’t able to give them much advice in terms of funding and you know, just additional financial support for those Canadians who want to study the US. I don’t know if you came across any from any of your colleagues or roommates or anyone you’ve met that could kind of lend a hand to any Canadians kind of exploring the US for their grad school.

Kira 19:17
Oh, yeah, I actually, this is something I actually talk a lot about frequently in terms of funding options available to Canadian studying in the US. So there are quite a few Canadians actually at Hopkins, either people who have lived in Canada or people who- Who I call it secret Canadians, where they’ve never actually lived in Canada, but for whatever reason, like usually the citizenship of their parents or something else, they have Canadian citizenship through that. So one source of funding that I think is really critical for people leaving Canada or considering leaving Canada to know about is the doctoral foreign study awards from CIHR. And I think that- I’m not sure if- if shirk and and circ also have those awards. It might have changed, but I’m most familiar with the CIHR awards, there’s a word called the doctoral foreign study award. My understanding is that it’s analogous to the doctoral funding. It’s available to Canadian studying in Canada, but they reserved 10 award slots every year that are given to Canadian studying outside of Canada, so you can be anywhere else in the world. I was awarded that funding while I was at Hopkins. And I had that for three years. And it offsets so much of the costs that I was experiencing and really improved my quality of life. And so I would definitely look up doctoral foreign study awards. And if there are any listeners who want to access my application materials, like please send me an email, I’d be more than happy to pass them on. I just I’m really adamant that more Canadians need to know about that funding option, because I met so many Canadians at Hopkins who didn’t know that that was available to them. And it really was upsetting, especially just how much it improved my quality of life. I want more people to know about that. And I’ll add something. And that’s actually quite funny. These DFSA awards are awarded to 10 people every year outside of Canada and my roommate and I actually won a DFSA in the same year at Hopkins. And we didn’t know each other at the time that we both want it. And she’s an engineering. So her research is totally different from mine. We remember reading each other’s bios, after we each found out that we won and thinking, oh, that’s cool that someone else from Hopkins won, but I’ll never meet them because our research is so different. And we randomly met because we both rock climb. And when we realized that we had met each other we were freaking out because it was just so random. And a few years later, were really close friends. And we lived together. So yeah, a nice Canadian anecdote.

Sujani 21:37
Oh, that’s awesome. Curious, did you come across any similar financial support for Master’s level training in the US? For Canadians?

Kira 21:44
I understand that that’s probably a big question. For a lot of listeners, I have to say I’m not familiar with them, because I did my Master’s back in Canada. So I didn’t really look into those as much. Yeah, I’m really more familiar with PhD focused funding.

Sujani 21:56
No, no, this is good. I think you kind of gave me an idea of possibly spinning up some sort of like a crowdsource scholarship database of some sort for public health. So that’s something we can definitely look into.

Kira 22:07
Yeah, I think that would be wonderful. I do think that there are always more funding options out there than people are really aware of. But I think that a resource like that would be really fantastic for Canadians.

Sujani 22:17
Awesome. Okay, so you talked quite a bit about the Hopkins program, you already defended your PhD, you’ve moved on to postdoc at Columbia. But I often like to ask guests to kind of just walk through and give anyone who may possibly consider the program and the school that you completed your PhD. And just a bit of how a day would look like you know, in terms of coursework and your interactions with others in the program, and just a little bit about a day in the life of what the PhD student Kira looked like?

Kira 22:48
That’s a great question. I think it changed a lot over the years. The program that I did is I think it’s designed generally to be completed in four to five years. I did it in four, and I was actually, I was actually the last person in my cohort to graduate. So we all started in August 2017. And I defended in July 2021. And I was- I was the last of my- of my group of four cohort mates to defend my dissertation. So yeah, I guess over the four years, like a day to day lifestyle change substantially. The first year was just mostly coursework. One thing that’s really unique about Hopkins that I really like is that instead of two semesters, the School of Public Health actually works on a quarter system. So there’s four quarters to the year. What I like about that is that the classes are shorter, they’re only eight week classes instead of 16 weeks. And so I think that the breadth of topics that they can offer classes on is so much wider than in other places, because the classes are shorter. On the other hand, because classes are only eight weeks, they move really fast for weeks in your writing midterms. And so it’s definitely an adjustment to try to keep up with that pace. So first year is mostly coursework like you really, you really don’t have time for much else. I remember I was working pretty much around the clock, including weekends, it was hard to find time to fit stuff in. But I was really passionate about what I was learning and really motivated by the professors who were teaching me. And so I think that that lifestyle worked for the first year. The second year in the program, you’re sort of transitioning out of coursework and preparing for your comprehensive exam, and you write your comprehensive exam halfway through your second year. At that point, you’re considered all but dissertation. So you’re considered a PhD candidate at that point. So once you finish that you sort of transition out of taking coursework all the time and more into starting to think about your dissertation, possibly applying for funding, writing a proposal, you kind of move into other responsibilities that are part of the program. So things like being a teaching assistant, you might take on some research assistantship positions. And so you’re spending less time in classes but more time and things like research meetings and just meetings related to being a teaching assistant and other things like that. And then that transition sort of continued into your third year. I think during my third year, I took maybe one audited or took a class pass fail maybe once once a term just to- just to have some structure to my days, but otherwise, mostly a lot of independent time starting to really think more deeply about your dissertation. And then finally, my fourth year was mostly just executing my dissertation and working on other side projects as- as they came along. But by that point, you’re working a lot independently and working on your research. And even though I think you’re working on your research independently, at that point, I still very much felt like I was part of my cohort, my cohort was essential to my well being during my PhD. When people think of Hopkins, I think, especially at the School of Public Health, which is world renowned, I think that might be associated with some level of competitiveness, and this like cutthroat nature of the institution. And I have to say that I did not have that experience whatsoever. The other PhD students who I met at Hopkins were just outstanding, so intelligent, so smart, just compassionate, very kind, very generous, just pretty much across the board. And so I think that was a theme. And all of my daily schedules was just interacting with my colleagues there. And I grew to really love that I really adored that about Hopkins was just the people who I met there were absolutely incredible. Yeah, that’s kind of like what my days look like while I was there.

Sujani 26:11
That’s really great to hear. I think hearing this from the inside that it’s a very supportive university institution is great to hear for anyone who might be considering the institution.

Kira 26:20
Yeah, yeah, it was really, I don’t think that’s just my perception either. Like, like, of course, there are days and there are days where things aren’t working. And of course, doing a PhD, of course, has its ups and downs. But really just the advisors who I met, the students in my cohort, the students and other cohorts in my department, outstanding people and friends for life. I know for sure.

Sujani 26:23
That’s great to hear. You say you defend it in the summer of 2021. Is that right?

Kira 26:43
Yeah. And I think in late July.

Sujani 26:49
And so you had one year, I guess, of your program, in the middle of the pandemic, did that affect kind of your- your last year at all?

Kira 26:57
I wouldn’t say it affected my trajectory so much, because my dissertation was based on secondary data, I use insurance claims data. So that was data that were already collected, essentially. So I didn’t have to do my own data collection. And so in that sense, it didn’t lengthen my timeline at all, like I know it has for a lot of other PhD students, I will say that it changed a lot of the side projects that I was working on, in terms of my research, I did get involved in a lot of COVID, 19, and mental health related research that I’m still publishing up to today. So that was kind of an unexpected shift in research priorities that I hadn’t seen coming. And so I’d say that that’s probably how the pandemic has affected my life the most. I think, also, like a lot of other PhD students, I did experience a lot of isolation during that time. And that was definitely not the best for my well being and for getting my PhD done. But I think moving in with a friend who I really trust, who’s also a PhD student, I think really helped. And then having my cohort be so supportive and great was also really helpful. And I don’t think the support that we offer each other once the pandemic started changed from when we were seeing each other in person all the time.

Sujani 28:03
Yeah, a lot of your classes you had already completed. So there wasn’t that shift to online learning.

Kira 28:08
Yeah, I was- I had to do some online TA-ing. And I actually taught a class before I graduated, and I think June 2021. So I was like an instructor for just a brief one credit- two day class. So I did experience like some online teaching, I guess, but not so much the learning aspect. I don’t know how- I don’t know how PhD students are doing that. I genuinely think that I don’t know if I could do it, I’m sure. I like to think that I would find a way but even just with the minimal amount of time I spend in front of zoom these days, I I find it exhausting. And I think doing the level of coursework that I did during my first year, where I was just working pretty much all the time, but online via zoom, I think would be impossible for me.

Sujani 28:52
Yeah. And I know things are obviously changing with the pandemic, but has Hopkins transitioned to in person classes now?

Kira 29:00
I guess I’m not at Hopkins anymore. Like I’m still working as a research assistant. So I’m not totally up to date on their policies, but they did have in person classes last fall. And I think like many universities with the Omicron variant, they sort of put off starting the spring term in person until I think maybe they’re starting up again now, but I’m not sure. I think I know Columbia’s policies on that a little bit more closely. Now that I’m at Columbia.

Sujani 29:24
That’s a good segue into the stock that you’re currently working on. Let’s hear a bit about that decision. So you defended your dissertation in the summer of 2021. And then is that something that you went into immediately following that?

Kira 29:39
Not like totally immediately, I defended my dissertation. Yeah. In July, and then August, I was able to take some time off, but I mean, there’s so many things you have to do when you finish your PhD degree that I wasn’t expecting. So I was still very much working I guess, during at least the beginning of August and parts of August, but I did try to take some time off. I packed my cat up and we got on the plane And I went to go visit my parents. So that was really nice. So I did get to take some time off during August, which I really valued. And then I hit the ground running in September with a postdoc at Columbia.

Sujani 30:09
Yeah, I used to hear you said, there’s a lot of things that you don’t realize you have to do after you defend your dissertation. Could we hear about some of those?

Kira 30:17
I think there’s just like lots of forms to fill out, like so many forms, there’s forms and their surveys and had to format my dissertation to get it printed for the library in a very specific way. And it just was things that I just wasn’t expecting to have to do. Like, I just thought I would be like, hey, I’m a doctor now, like leave me alone. And it’s like, no, that’s actually not how that works. But yeah, I mean, nothing, nothing super annoying. But just little things here and there that were time sensitive that I needed to be attentive to.

Sujani 30:49
So yeah, now you’re in your postdoc. And you’re looking back at the journey that you’ve had from, let’s say, undergrad, what advice would you give to public health students early on in their career, either, you know, pursuing an undergrad right now, or maybe just starting off their masters? And they’re probably looking ahead. So I’m wondering if you have some advice that you could share based on your path that you take?

Kira 31:16
Oh, gosh, okay, cool. I think it’s, I’m excited to talk about this. I mean, I don’t know if I have any, like sage wisdom to offer. But I think one thing that’s been really constant throughout my career path, since my Bachelor’s is really that I think the success that I’ve had on this academic trajectory has really been a lot in part to the people who I’ve worked with, when I think back to just some key players in terms of my career trajectory. It was really Brett Toombs, back at McGill, who set me on this path, and who saw potential in me, and then put in the work to get me some of my first author publications. And he didn’t have to do that. But he did. He did that for all of his students, and was a fantastic mentor. And then I think that was a large component of what I was able to get into Hopkins. And then at Hopkins, I was working with my PhD advisor, who just invested so much time and energy into my success there. And then there’s other professors at Hopkins as well, who invested time and energy into me. And I feel like I’m getting that same investment now that I’m at Columbia. And so I think what I’d emphasize to people who are interested in public health is that sometimes the research topic might not be the perfect fit for you. And that’s okay. It’s more about the people who you’re working with, you want to be working with good people who are going to be there for you from day one, and who are going to be there for you after you leave an institution as well and who want to see you be successful, and who don’t have a predefined idea of what success looks like for you. I feel like I’ve been able to be really open with my mentors at Hopkins, especially about maybe not wanting to go into academia. And I don’t feel like I’ve received any negative feedback on that, like, every mentor who I’ve mentioned this to has been really open and accepting. And I really appreciate that. And so I think a lot of people’s success in grad school is just because of the people who they work with. It’s obviously things like hard work and motivation and things that happen in your personal life, too. And, obviously, external resources. But yeah, at the end of the day, I think you have to think about the people who you work with as part of your team. And who do you- who do you want on your team, it’s important to be researching something you’re passionate about. But at the end of the day, you want a good team of people who are going to stand up for you and stand behind you. And I think that has been pivotal, really, in my experience in academia and graduate school.

Sujani 33:32
Yeah, I’m glad you say that. And I’m going to re emphasize the importance of building your network and your relationships early on in your career, because those are the individuals who are going to guide you through your career.

Kira 33:44
Right, yeah. And one thing I think I’ll add on to is that if there are people who you’re interested in connecting with, who might have something that you could learn from them, like, I’ve been spending a lot of time the past couple of weeks, like reaching out to random people on Twitter and just saying, hey, seems like you’ve had a really cool career trajectory outside of academia. I’d love to hear more about it. Like, what can you tell me? What advice do you have? And as long as you ask in a certain way, and are respectful of people’s time and space, I like- people have been really receptive to me during that, I’m introverted in the word networking makes me want to throw up. Like, that’s super upsetting to me. But yeah, if you can find little ways of integrating networking and just meeting people and reaching out to people, I think you’ll find that generally, people are much more receptive than you might perceive them to be, and are willing to help a lot more than you would think. And so yeah, I’d recommend doing that as well. Like if there’s someone who you’re- you want to talk to, like, email them, the worst they can say is no, take those opportunities, like don’t let the fear of reaching out to someone stop you from doing that.

No, thank you for sharing that. And I often kind of talk about LinkedIn but nice to hear that you- you’re also able to find success and connecting with people on Twitter.

Yeah, I actually have really liked Twitter as a tool. I know that it’s kind of polarizing in academic settings. I think some people have really strong feelings one way or the other. And, yeah, I mean, I mean, I understand that, like, some of my research has looked at social media and mental health. And I’ve had to take breaks from Twitter, because I’ll find myself doing the scrolling just over and over again, and just making myself upset. But I think one of the reasons why I like Twitter as an introvert is because I can choose when I’m interacting with people, and I can choose exactly what I post and just like cultivate this very specific image for myself and my research and what I’m interested in. And I think I can also just make myself seem like a real person. Like, I’m not just like this scary researcher, who only only does research like I have, I post photos of my cat all the time, I post photos of myself after I’ve run, like in a race or something. And so I think make myself more accessible to a broader audience, but also still connect with certain people. And actually, Twitter is how I found my postdoc, I’ll put that out there as well, I would not have applied for that postdoc if I hadn’t heard about it on Twitter. It’s really a useful tool. And again, not for everyone, but something that I’d encourage people to explore.

Sujani 36:03
I’m definitely going to have to bring you back on the podcast to talk about Twitter as a tool for networking. So-

Kira 36:09
I would love to. I would absolutely love to do that. I have- I have a lot of thoughts on it. And yeah.

Sujani 36:14
Okay, so we’ll, we’ll make that happen. So stay tuned for that episode, everyone.

Kira 36:18
I’m excited.

Sujani 36:20
Okay, so this final question is about, you know, looking forward, and maybe you can talk about it from your perspective as an undergraduate student, or maybe you could talk about it, like you Kira, as a postdoc right now, is about thinking about the vision for your career, and maybe, you know, you have a certain process that you follow where maybe there’s certain, like foundational values that drive your career. But I’m curious to hear how you go about taking the next step in your career. Is it based on a value? Or is it something else that really helps you make those decisions?

Kira 36:57
Yeah, I mean, I mean, like, as it’s come up in our discussion, I think that this is something I’ve been thinking a lot about is how do I know I’m making the right decisions for myself? And how do I know what the proper next steps for me are for the future. And I think at the end of the day, I need to feel passionate about what I’m doing at work, I am happy to put the hours in and put the work in, when I feel like I’m part of a team, when I feel like I’m working on something important when I feel like I’m a vital part of a group that is very motivating to me. And so I hope to find a position where I feel that way and where I’m working with colleagues as part of a group about something that we all really care about. And so whether that ends up being in academia or outside of academia, I’m open to all possibilities. But yeah, really being part of a team where I feel valued is, I think, really important for me, and where I feel important, and where I feel needed. I think that’s really important for me, and I also, I also have been reflecting a lot on- on balance, and honestly, just having work life balance. And I think that’s one of the aspects actually, that really prompted me to start looking away from academia, especially at the beginning of the pandemic, I did find myself working like 11, 12 hours a day, because I just had nothing else to do. And turns out, that doesn’t work for me, I think some academics can do it, and I’m just not sure I’m one of them. Like I need to be working a reasonable number of hours a day, I can’t be working every weekend, I can’t be working every evening, I’m happy to put in the work sometimes if there’s a grant that needs to go in, or something else like that, again, something that I’m really motivated to complete that I feel passionate about, I think at those points, I’m willing to put in extra hours and extra work. But I also really feel like I need to find a position where I feel like I have that work life balance. I have other interests in life, you know, like I, I like running a lot, I would really like to foster kittens in the future and maybe get a little brother for my- for my current cat, I want to be able to visit my family a lot. I don’t want to be restricted in that. And yeah, finding a position where I can really balance that and have an employer that recognizes how important that is, for me to be successful in my position and outside of my position is really vital to me. So yeah, I think looking ahead, just the values of balance and collaboration, I think are going to be really important for me. So that’s kind of what I’m- what I’m on the lookout for in terms of job prospects.

Do you feel like you had this level of clarity for what you wanted for your career early on, either, you know, when you were pursuing your undergrad or your master’s degree?

No, it’s kind of more of a recent thing. Again, I think the pandemic really prompted me to think differently about things. I don’t know if this is like too much information, but I’m comfortable sharing it, but, one of my grandfathers died shortly before the pandemic, and then the other grandfather died during the pandemic. And I just, I missed both of them dearly, and I don’t want to ever be in a position where I feel like I’m not getting enough time with my family anymore. I think the pandemic has really changed how I view my time with my family and what I want to get out of that and what I can contribute and what they can teach me really that- that aspect of balance has been more of a theme during the pandemic and has really shaped what I really want to- want to get out of my career in the future and what I want out of life. And it’s sad that it took a pandemic, for me to experience that shift. But I’m glad that it happened. I’m glad that I have a clearer vision of what’s going to make me happy.

Sujani 40:13
I’m sorry to hear about your grandparents. And I know they hold special places in our hearts. And yeah.

Kira 40:19
I dedicated my dissertation to both my grandfather’s so it was a great way to commemorate them. And I think about them often.

Sujani 40:26
They are definitely proud of you.

Kira 40:28
Thanks, I appreciate that.

Sujani 40:30
You know, similar to you, I often think of, you know, your career very much integrated into your life, it’s not separate from your life. And that’s something I’m trying to shine more light on through PH SPOT is, you know, this understanding that when you are deciding on what your career looks like, in the future, you incorporate a lot of these other factors that are important to you. It’s not just about being an epidemiologist, or being the director of an organization, think about other things that are important to you like balance, like collaboration, working as part of a team, having a team that really understands your life situation. So I’m glad you mentioned that. And, yeah, unfortunately, it took a pandemic, for a lot of us to kind of realize that, I’m glad to hear that it was something that’s been recent for you, because it’s okay to have a change in your career path. I think we can plan ahead, but know that constant reflection and evaluation will definitely change that path for you.

Kira 41:27
Yeah. And I think that there’s more and more realisation these days that you can make these switches multiple times in your career to like, you’re not locked into one direction. Like, I don’t feel like I’m locked into academia, because I decided to do a postdoc, you know, like, that’s not how I feel at all. I feel like I still have a lot of options. And like one of my mentors, for example, back at Hopkins, Elizabeth Stewart, a really famous statistician, she worked at Mathematica for a while, like an industry and then moved back to Hopkins moved back to academia. And so I think there’s just I use that as an example. Because I think there’s a lot more latitude these days in terms of moving around and what you have to bring to the table. And so yeah, I think if there’s another message I can give to listeners, it’s that you’re not locked into something just because you made this decision one time, you have such a broad skill set as a PhD and as a master student, and you can bring a lot to different workspaces. It’s just- it’s just a matter of how you package yourself and how people see you.

Sujani 42:22
Yeah, exactly. One last question. You know, when you, for example, discovered the postdoc at Columbia. And I know this realization of wanting balance in your work and working with a team is a bit more recent. But I’m wondering, how did you evaluate that position to see if it was the best fit for you? And you know, based on your, your core values and things like that?

Kira 42:44
Yeah, that’s a good question. So I chose this position, largely based on my research interests. And again, just going back to my research interests, the first one was adolescent mental health. And the second one was depression screening. And there are two mentors I’m now working with at Columbia who are each somewhat experts in those fields. And I don’t say somewhat experts, not because they actually are experts, but because they somewhat integrate that theme into their research on a day to day basis. And so those two people. And, and so I’m really happy to be working with both of them. I think at the time that I picked this postdoc, I was really more focused on match with my research interests, as opposed to fit as a person. And I think I’m lucky that this postdoc has worked out really nicely in terms of work life balance, and in terms of what I’m doing, and whether or not this is working for me. I think if I did the process, again, I would look a little bit more into the postdoc before I took it. And this isn’t because of my postdoc right now and how that’s going. I think I was just excited to land a position and I just accepted it immediately. But I think I could have done some more research by talking to current postdocs or talking to people who had done this postdoc and had gone elsewhere, and just seeing what their experience in the program was like. And I didn’t do that at the time. And I think that that was a reflection of where I was at with my dissertation, which was crunch time. Yeah, I do wish I’d taken the time to do that a little bit more. And I think looking ahead for when I apply to jobs in the future, I’ll be doing a lot more of that, figuring out what the work environment is like and talking to current employees.

Sujani 44:13
Well, thank you so much, Kira, for spending Saturday, is it? No, it’s Friday. Oh, my goodness, Friday with us. And I’m sure I’m going to have you back on the podcast to talk about Twitter and other topics. So you’ll you’ll be hearing from Kira again. So thank you and yeah.

Kira 44:31
Yeah, thank you for having me. This was a really nice discussion for me just both personally and yeah, I hope I’ve provided some advice that listeners can use in their own career trajectories.

Sujani 44:43
Hey, so I hope you enjoyed that episode. And as always, if you want to get the links and information mentioned in today’s episode, head over to And we’ll have everything there for you. And before you go, I want to tell you about our hands on into tensive training program that empowers early public health professionals, recent graduates and students with the mindset skills and tools required to land a public health job, advancing your career and become future public health leaders. So if you’ve been feeling overwhelmed and uncertain about building your dream public health career, then we can help you through this program. And right now you can join the waitlist at And we’ll notify you when the next cohort opens up. And so until next time, thank you so much for tuning into PH SPOTlight, and for the invaluable work that you do for this world.


About the Show

PH SPOTlight: Public health career stories, inspiration, and guidance from current-day public health heroes

On the show, Sujani sits down with public health heroes of our time to share career stories, inspiration, and guidance for building public health careers. From time to time, she also has conversations with friends of public health – individuals who are not public health professionals, but their advice and guidance are equally important.

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