Web Exclusive: Changing Directions

Finding a new job for the summer in a new city and learning the value of embracing the unexpected

by Christopher Anselmo on October 8, 2015 - 9:31am

Quest Fall 2015

I decided to go to business school because I wanted to propel myself into a new career in a new industry. Leaving the tech world for the life sciences field would be no easy transition, and I realized a master’s degree would be my best way to accomplish this goal.

Christopher Anselmo

One of the key experiences in business school is the summer internship between the first and second year. It was imparted on me from Day 1 at Boston College that a summer internship is a necessary building block in order to land the right job after graduation. The company you intern for sometimes extends an offer after the internship, but at minimum it is great experience you can put on your résumé to show off to other employers.

Searching for an internship is a process that causes most students tremendous stress. In the full-time program, almost everyone quits his or her full-time job to start with a clean slate. There is the occasional student whose employer is paying for them to take two years off, but this is rare. Therefore, there is a lot at stake.

It is a tough enough process for students who are able-bodied. Add in my adult-onset neuromuscular disease (Miyoshi myopathy, a form of dysferlinopathy, which MDA classifies as a form of distal muscular dystrophy that involves weakness that begins in the lower extremities, especially in the calf muscles.), and it was an even more formidable challenge.

A giant leap of faith

Going into the process this time last year, I was afraid, albeit irrationally. I wondered how much more difficult the process would be for me. Would I have the energy to stay up late writing cover letters, going to different locations for interviews and being able to handle rejection on a consistent basis? I knew I was intelligent and that I had marketable skills, but my disease has not always been the kindest to me in instilling self-confidence.

My strength has been deteriorating at a consistent pace for the last seven years. Starting around 2008, after I graduated from college, I began to experience signs of muscle weakness. By the time I entered graduate school in fall 2014, I was using crutches full time, and I fell every few weeks, which made going from Point A to Point B unnerving. I could not get out of chairs easily, and could not go up and down stairs without significant assistance from others. The previous June, I broke down and purchased a scooter to use around campus.

To think about job-hunting, which would inevitably involve trips to employer headquarters, unfamiliar situations, new floor plans and new chairs, was scary, I’ll admit. This was the first time in my life I would ever be looking for a job as an individual with a disability.

Yet, despite all my reservations and fears, 10 months later I found myself beginning an internship at a reputable pharmaceutical company, in New York City of all places. How did this happen? It involved perseverance, soul-searching and a giant leap of faith.

I experienced a lot during this time, both good and bad. It is easiest to separate my journey into two parts; the experience and what I learned.

As I mentioned before, I had initial reservations about the job-hunting process. In addition to getting used to classes, I had to worry about checking job boards, networking with alumni and writing cover letters. Everyone kept telling me that I had to start job-hunting ASAP, and to use every available moment to connect with someone new, or research positions or prepare answers to your interview questions.

I knew I wanted an internship at a pharmaceutical or biotech company, as I wanted to be close to the research and therapies that had an impact on people’s lives. Since I didn’t have a science background, it would be a great way to stay up to date on the latest science and be able to leverage my unique background as both a business student and a person with a rare disease.

Persistence is the key

Despite my initial fears, I didn’t want to sell myself short. My skills were just as competitive as any other business school student, even if I didn’t have the physical strength or the energy level that others possess. I can contribute and thrive in a work environment just like anyone else.

While my fellow classmates were able to interview in different cities and attend job fairs around the world, I did not have that luxury. The process was an exhaustive process as it is, so to add in travel would have been be too much. Therefore, I decided to limit my search to Boston.

Let’s face it, the job-hunting process is not fun — anyone can attest to that. It is laborious and oftentimes it consists of several rounds of interviews. It also forces you to face rejection. As I feared from the outset, I was rejected bynumerous companies, even though on paper I thought I was an ideal fit. It’s just the way it is;  trying to understand every rejection would be counterproductive. There were times I felt I would never get an internship!

But, persistence pays off.

Eventually, I came across a company that I felt was an ideal fit. The position was a finance position. It was definitely out of my comfort zone since I had no finance experience, but I wanted to try it out. The company is a reputable one in the pharmaceutical industry, and to have the experience of working there for a summer would be invaluable.

The only hang-up? It was located in New York City.

Leaving my comfort zone

After initially discounting it as a possibility, I decided to give it a shot and apply. What did I have to lose? I either would be rejected outright or I could say no to the offer.

After applying, I was offered a chance for an interview, which took place on campus. A few days later, I found out I made it to the final round for an interview at the company’s headquarters in New York City. I had not been to New York in a few years, so to interview there would be exciting, even if it meant a train ride to and from and tight timelines that would tire me out and take a toll on my body. Fortunately by this time, the company was aware of my condition, and they worked with me to make sure my trip would be as comfortable as possible.

I went down on a Thursday night in January, after Boston had just experienced the first of many snowstorms. New York barely had any snow, which made things easier.

Although I wore a suit and was nervous like every other candidate, I still felt like I stood out like a sore thumb. After all, I was a kid on crutches who struggled to get up from the chairs in the lobby. I was afraid everyone who was looking at me would judge me negatively, just as I had felt on my first day of business school orientation a few months before. It is an unfounded fear but one I had nonetheless.

The least nervous I was all day was during the interview. I had practiced my responses ahead of time, and delivered my answers confidently and coherently. My neuromuscular disease did come up, but only when I decided it was the right time. When asked why I was interested in the industry, it was a natural time to bring it up, and how it inspired me to want to work in the life sciences field. Suddenly, the interviewers understood where I was coming from, and my disability was framed on my terms: as a source of determination for me to pursue this next step in my life.

I returned to Boston cautiously optimistic. A few weeks later, I found out I got the job. Although exciting, I now had to face the elephant in the room: Could I make working and living in New York a reality?

High risk, high reward

New York was always a place I wanted to live, although I wish it had happened when I was much stronger and had more energy. That said, the desire remained. I spoke with my parents, my friends who live in New York and my career counselor. I pondered and prayed and dwelled on the offer for the entire two weeks I was given to make a decision. There were days I was certain I’d say no; although each time, I knew deep down that I’d regret that decision. When else would I have this opportunity again?

I realized I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d regret not going. I accepted the offer, even if it meant searching for a new apartment in a new city and all the logistical hassles that it would entail.

I am happy to say that I made the right choice. I had become so risk-averse in my new world, that it felt good to take a giant leap of faith for once, and live out a dream I had since I was a kid living in New York.

But, it wasn’t a fairy tale by any stretch. It was a tough first few weeks adjusting to the city, from the new surroundings to the faster pace. Anyone who has lived in or visited New York can relate to the fact that the pace is fast and uncompromising. I had to learn new sidewalks and curbs, where to get picked up and dropped off, and how to navigate a large, unfamiliar office building. I also learned quickly to stay to the side on the sidewalk; otherwise I’d get run over by people of all ages. Even older people zipped by me. Inside the office, I got lost many times at first, causing me to take many extra steps. I learned my way eventually, but it tired me out. Overall, I did a tremendous amount of walking over the course of the two months, which I paid for in soreness for several weeks after.

But the good far outweighed the bad. I learned new skills and made new friends, and got the opportunity to educate those around me about my disease and what it is like living with a disability. I got to visit many New York landmarks that I had always wanted to visit. I also reconnected with friends from high school who lived in the city, some of whomI hadn’t seen since we graduated over a decade ago.

Was living and working in New York City hard? Absolutely. But I would do it again — in a heartbeat.

Getting started

From my experience, is there any advice I can give to someone with a muscle disease who is looking for a job or who may be on the fence about job hunting?

I want to be careful here, as everyone’s situation is unique. Some people are stronger than I am, and some people are weaker. Additionally, we all have different backgrounds and skill sets, and the jobs we seek may be in entirely different fields. Some people I know are not able to work, so obviously none of this may apply. Any advice I offer here is in recognition of the delicateness of the issue, and that my advice is purely subjective.

Above all, I would say that, from my own experience, the mental barriers that I imposed on myself were far more difficult than any physical barriers I encountered from others. It took awhile, but once I accepted with honesty that I was going to have a tougher time than most with the job hunt due to my unique circumstances, I was able to get over my fear and apply for jobs. The longer I used it as an excuse not to apply, the more jobs came and went. Someone actually gave me a great piece of advice along the way, although I can’t remember the person who said it: If you don’t apply to a job because you are afraid you won’t get it, your rejection rate will be 100 percent. Don’t psyche yourself out ahead of time.

Another consideration for me was how to deal with disclosing my disability to a prospective employer. They would find out one way or another, so it was best to frame it on my terms. Additionally, if I identified as a person with a disability right off the bat, then I could work with them on accommodations once it was time to interview. Whether it was a map of the building, finding out where the handicap-accessible bathrooms are, a special chair for me to sit in, etc., the sooner I let them know about my condition, the more comfortable I was with the rest of the process.

How do you do this? Some applications allow you to self-identify as having a disability, and if you really want to, you can mention it in your cover letter or the accompanying email with your résumé. If you want to wait until you’ve made initial contact with someone in HR or a recruiter at the company, that works too. The truth is, employers won’t discount you for having a disability even though we may think deep down that it is one strike against us. I certainly had that concern during my job hunt, but I realized I had to fight through it. Even if it does happen in isolated instances (even though this type of discrimination is illegal), there are plenty of companies out there that will give you the fair shot you deserve.

Lastly, and this isn’t really advice more than something I realized from my internship experience: Working from home is easier than ever. Many employers are flexible about working from home, and teleconference software doesn’t take anything away from virtual meetings anymore. This may not be true at all companies, but during my internship, I was fortunate to be able to work from home one day a week, and if I wasn’t feeling great physically, I could work from home that day too. Best of all, working from home didn’t take away from my job performance at all.

At the end of the day, there is nothing easy about this process, whether or not you have a neuromuscular  disease. If you want to be employed, job hunting is unavoidable. It can be a bumpy ride, but it’s worth it.

Moving forward

I am glad I encountered this trial by fire last fall because I will be doing it all over again this year. Even though I am going to focus on trying to find a job in Boston, I will entertain opportunities in New York and beyond. If you told me that last year around this time, I would have thought you were crazy. I would have thought it was too risky.

But this time around, I have the confidence that I was missing last year. I know I can do it all over again. I have the confidence of having lived in one of the most mentally demanding cities on the planet and doing so successfully.

It is a long process, but it can be done. What the muscle disease community may lack in physical strength, we make up for in mental strength. You may experience ups and downs with the job hunt, but considering what we face on a daily basis, anything is possible.

If I can do it, you can too. This is coming from someone who went from wanting to quit school in the first month to having a fulfilling internship in another city 10 months later.

It absolutely can be done.

Christopher Anselmo is a freelance writer and MBA student living in Boston. He regularly writes about life with muscle disease on MDA’s Transitions Center blog.

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