How embracing volunteer work with a positive attitude led me to my dream job

Being a pharmacy post-grad from India and coming from a very different background, my journey was not easy. But volunteering in the healthcare field helped glue me together, and, ultimately, brought me to my dream career.

I was trained in a medical background about how drugs work – their pharmacokinetics, pharmacodynamics, pharmacology, mechanism of action – but figuring out how to mix and match and fit into the domain of research was a challenge for me.

I wondered how to justify my six years of pharmacy education now that I was a research volunteer at the University of Miami. Sometimes, I even thought, “Oh come on, what am I even doing here? Is this the place for me? Do I belong here?”

One unexpected tool that helped me along the way was writing. When I was younger, I began writing poems and slowly started writing articles. It started with small articles; my papa corrected or gave more ideas which inspired me to keep my passion going strong. Ultimately, over the course of seven years, I had about 50 articles published in The Times of India.

This passion for writing led me to edit manuscripts and paperwork as part of my volunteer research work. What I am today, and what I will become in the future, I owe to the support and affection of my parents – and the love of writing they instilled in me.

Eventually, I started taking interest in experiment protocols. With a small set of experiments, learning about the reagents, apparatus and equipment inventory control, I began my journey. From short to long hours, my work on experiments began to grow.

My partner, Anis Ahmad, was here as a post-doc, and I shadowed him day and late night through in-vitro, in-vivo and animal-based experimental work. Together, we worked together these two years on all projects big and small, attended conferences and had fun fights over the designing of posters.

I relished the journey and took delight in my volunteer work. Over time, the faculty began tossing more responsibility my way, which gave me opportunities to multitask and learn new skills. People stopped seeing me as just a competent resource and started depending on me to get things done.

My mentor took a chance on me as a potential employee and helped me transition from a volunteer to a research laboratory technician here at UM.

But this journey is not unique to the healthcare field. Education, training, volunteer experiences and passion can make you a perfect fit anywhere. Volunteers should give their unpaid job the same level of respect they’d give a paying gig because by helping out in so many small, different ways as a volunteer, you can actually make yourself indispensable.

Taking pride in your work goes a long way. When it comes time to hire new workers, those employers will remember your professionalism as a volunteer. Volunteering offers you the chance to network with people in your related field, demonstrate your skills and learn new ones, too. Treat your volunteer position like a job. Take your tasks and assignments seriously, perform religiously with dedication and consistency in quality of work – and you may just end up in a career you truly love.

Saba Ansari is a guest columnist. She is a research laboratory technician in the Department of Radiation Oncology at the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center.