Work from Home in 2021

Many of us have settled into our new “normal” of working from home (WFH). It is predicted that many more individuals will be working permanently from home in the future as 2020 showed that we are fully capable of doing that. Many tech and research companies have already decided to make the change. Some are down-scaling their office spaces and creating a rotation system where employees can “rent-out” desks and rooms on the days they want to come to the office. I personally have always enjoyed the mix of remote work and in-office work (see my earlier blogpost on working from home vs. in office) so I am excited to see how multiple employers are going to offer that and the changes that they are going to make in order to allow for that to happen.

Despite this, re-entering into working from home after the holidays is posing to be challenging in the new year given the current circumstances. I think that we all have to take time this month to reassess what is working for us and what is not. Below, I share with you some tips on working from home that I have learned (and am continuing to learn) and I have seen rotating on social media as we move into the new year.

  1. Put yourself first – self-care is key.

Virtual participation can become exhausting! You have to maintain composure, keep your eyes fixed on the screen, pay full attention, and sit for extended periods of time. Your eyes and back can easily feel strained. Always remember that no one is going to watch out better for you than yourself and that you can’t respond to others needs if your own are not being met. So, it is important to maintain-self care. To relieve exhaustion, you can:

  1. Participate in some meetings with your camera off. Take a phone call instead. If you are leading meetings, allow for others to connect via audio only.
  2. Limit the length of your meetings and lectures and add in mandatory walking or stretching breaks.
  3. When you are not working, participate in off-screen activities such as reading a book, listening to music, crafting, and cooking as much as possible.
  4. Be comfortable in your working space whether that is wearing PJs or sweats or dressing up professionally. Do what works for you! Invest in your room/office space where you are working/ living to become your sanctuary given the amount of time you spend there.
  5. Treat yourself. Celebrate your accomplishments.
  • Keep an agenda and organize.

At this point, a 2021 agenda seems pretty useless, eh? Well, it doesn’t have to be. You can still plan out your days, weeks, and months, to help you stay on track and motivated. Write down all your deadlines. Don’t forget to include your “big events” such as birthday celebrations, graduation, and anniversaries. That being said, try to be flexible. It is okay if everything in your agenda or to-do list isn’t crossed out. The whole point is for it to act as a guideline and to put all your thoughts for the upcoming days on paper. Also, organize your space earlier in the year to make it work for you. This includes organizing your desk space, living space, computer, agenda, and routine.

  • Bridge the divide between “home” and “work”.

The divide between home and work is not as clear anymore. Take it from a PhD student that the lack of divide will make you feel as if you are struggling in both work productivity and home-life. It is not too late to create the divide. For that, you can:

  1. Designate a working space (or if you are like me, multiple working spaces). It may be difficult in certain homes to have a separate room or home office. But, you can be creative with this one. If you don’t feel bothered working in the same space as others, you can make your dining table a working space for you and your family members to work. If you prefer quiet, you can find a corner in the house that is separate from the rest of your house. Entering a designated working space will better allow you to transition into work, while leaving that space will allow you to transition out. When you are working from your bed, that sense of transition is lost.
  2. Box your time. Keep cognizant of the number of hours that you are working. Taking more breaks throughout the day may mean that you are working late into the evening and then, you may feel as if you worked the entire day. We may also feel the need to work longer because what else is there to do. Well, that’s when burnout can happen. What is important is not the number of hours worked but the amount and quality of work done. With virtual work, you have to learn to be your own time manager and master time boxing.
  • Don’t become fixated.

Don’t become fixated on being productive. On the news. On following an agenda. On social media. On activities that everyone else is doing. On setting boundaries. 2020 has taught us to be flexible and patience – we must not lose that as we progress into a new year and work environment.

  • Communicate.

Share your goals, schedule, and accomplishments with others whether that is colleagues or family. It allows you to remain engaged as well as gain continuous feedback. At the same time, feel free to go on communication freezes for your productivity and/or mental health. If communication whether that is texts or emails feel like an interruption, turn off your notifications. If family members interrupt you, create a signal that allows them to know that you are working whether that is keeping the door closed, a sign on the door, or wearing your headphones.


Life is what happens when you are making other plans

“Life is what happens when you are making other plans” – Allen Saunders

Saunder’s quote, then used by John Lennon, reflects the major paradox in our lives. As humans, we are conditioned to plan for our futures. From a young age, you are asked “what do you want to be when you grow up”. We plan and plan, from our education, careers, marriages, children, houses, travel, retirement, etc… so that we can prepare for them and secure our futures. Planning isn’t bad but what 2020 has shown me, out of everything else, is that life is going to happen that is beyond our control and we need to be flexible and not let our plans for the future take precedent over our present.

I don’t buy into the narrative that 2020 was the worst year ever, at least for me. For one, I haven’t seen the future and there could possibly be a worse year in store for me. Historically, there have been many terrible years (can’t imagine how it was to live during the world wars). I also grew up hearing stories from my parents about how my dad survived living on the streets, sleeping on cardboard during the Kuwait war, not knowing if he will survive the night. Only then to return home to India to find out that his mom had passed away and that my mom had given birth to me during the Indian riots. In these riots, many Muslim neighbours had perished and the only reason my family is alive today is because their Hindu neighbours protected and hid them. When you hear these stories and those from this year regarding racism, police brutality, people afraid to get Covid care because of their skin colour or religion, people losing their loved ones, suicides and deaths of young individuals, explosions, loss of jobs, and airplane crashes, you can’t help but feel privileged and truly blessed. Today I feel lucky that I and my loved ones are healthy, safe, and financially okay.

Was 2020 challenging? Yes, it was. It was challenging to the point that I haven’t been able to write a post about it until now. It became challenging even before the Covid-19 pandemic hit. I began 2019 with two herniated discs that made me feel physically weak. Becoming dependent on others for simple tasks such as driving, writing, and opening the fridge and not going to the gym after being told that I can’t do heavy physical exercise for some time also took a mental toll on me. I took the year to become stronger physically with physiotherapy and mentally, only to suddenly lose my future father-in-law at the end of 2019. Losing my three grandparents at a young age during a time period that I don’t have many memories from, I didn’t know what it felt like when losing a loved one. I still don’t because I wasn’t too close to my father-in-law, but I do know now what it feels to become a support caregiver and be surrounded with people who are in grief. I felt my life and future plans had changed. I began 2020 with these feelings. In February/March 2020, I was beginning to feel more like myself when I finally was able to start focusing on my thesis work. My partner (who is awesome and totally didn’t add this during proofing) and I also decided to get married at the end of the year. I became consistent with exercise and healthy eating. I started planning again and feeling like myself! But of course, life happened in the form of Covid-19 middle of March (at least in Canada). My thesis was put on hold with the university being closed, including the research data centre where my confidential data is stored. I realized that I wouldn’t be able to graduate when I had intended to. Wedding planning was put on hold because of all the uncertainty. I felt like I became a parent to my parents who didn’t know and follow the safety protocols as closely as I did because of my public health background. What was happening in the world and in the news made me feel heavy. I wasn’t able to manage my podcast and the project had to be put on hold. I lost my dad’s sister. I became frustrated easily. I cried easily.

But, was 2020 also a blessing? Yes it was. I was able to get married at the beginning of October with my close loved ones nearby and on Zoom. Planning it was definitely a challenge, especially with the guest list given that we had planned for a 600-person traditional South Asian Muslim wedding and family members from outside of Canada were not able to join. But, the wedding was way more beautiful and special than I had imagined it to be! Transitioning into a new routine and moving became easier with my partner and I mainly working from home. The research data centre was re-opened (with safety precautions in place of course) allowing me to work and make progress on my thesis. I was given the opportunity to work on long-term care, one of my passion areas that I was focusing on in one of my thesis chapters even before it became highlighted during Covid-19 in Ontario. I won a funding competition to receive enough money to be able to conduct one of my thesis projects on long-term care and immigrants and hire and supervise my own team of research assistants. I won an internal award and contributed to two other successful grants. I was able to collaborate on three papers that are now under review for publication. I was able to successfully transition into and work in the online teaching space. I guest lectured in three separate courses. Plus, life slowed down for me to build a skin care routine, do DIY projects at home and for my wedding, start a fitness app, and spend time with my family.

I took a lot away from this year, including the importance of community, resiliency, patience, collective power, supporting the vulnerable, learning and unlearning, responsibility that comes with privilege, and supporting local. I don’t think I will take the small things for granted such as dinners, celebrations, and pop-up visits. Life may throw more at me in the future and next year will be difficult trying to push my thesis forward, but I think I am more prepared for it than I was a year ago. For now, I will enjoy the present and say my gratitudes!

Happy New Year everyone – wishing you love, health, and safety as you reflect on this year and move forward into the new calendar year.

Until next time,


Feature Friday: Donya Razavi

Tell us about yourself and your current position.

Hi. I am Donya Razavi. I am a recent graduate of the fabulous interdisciplinary PhD Health Policy program at McMaster University. I am passionate about global health. During my studies, I got the fortunate opportunity to work with Dr. Lydia Kapiriri, an expert in global health research and priority setting. I am a proud Iranian-Canadian and Torontonian, who is now living in the Hammer. I am an only child of two parents without whom I would be nowhere close to where are I am today.

What is your PhD thesis about?

My dissertation had three different dimensions which I was able to pull together – priority setting, equity, and stakeholder participation. Broadly, my dissertation which consisted of three separate studies, focused on the engagement of vulnerable women in health system priority setting in rural Uganda.

More specifically, my first study was a scoping review of frameworks that are used to guide priority setting around the world – in both high-income and low-income countries– and assessed whether the frameworks engage vulnerable population. I found that while some frameworks require public participation, vulnerable populations were often missing. In my second study which was focused in Uganda, I identified the stakeholders that are involved in local decision-making and further recognized that although there are mandatory structures for public participation, the public isn’t participating, especially those who are vulnerable. These two studies led to my third study in which I honed in on one vulnerable group, women, and qualitatively studied why and why not women participated in priority setting and what recommendations the women had for how they could better engage. I discovered that they wanted to participate and had valuable insights, but there were many barriers to do so.

Overall, my dissertation showed that both publics’ and vulnerable populations’ perspectives are important inputs into health system priority setting and we need to build mechanisms to facilitate their engagement. Fair equitable priority-setting and engagement can lead to more equitable outcomes.

How did you get to where you are today?

I am a child of immigrant parents who have really emphasized and instilled in me the value of higher education. From very early on, I was set on an academic path.  My passion for health and politics, in particular, originated from my family ties as well. I grew up in a family that is highly political and is not afraid to speak their mind. I was also very interested in global health from the beginning. That’s why I did both my undergraduate degree and masters in global health. It was these experiences that led me to my PhD in Health Policy where I learned that my passion wasn’t only global health practice but global health research that leads and informs practice.

I am also a social person. I enjoy and seek social interactions. So, a context in which I can interact with colleagues, faculty, students, and study participants naturally pulled me in. It’s also why I love teaching! I believe a part of that passion comes from my mom who was an elementary school teacher. A part of what led me to do qualitative work, where I can interact with research subjects at a more human level, came from an early recognition that people are people and not a number.

Why did you choose your PhD program/field?

I initially wanted to go to medical school, but during my masters, I realized that that wasn’t my passion – it wouldn’t bring together politics and health for me in the way I envisioned. In the back of my mind, I guess I always knew that but I didn’t realize and accept it until I did my master’s research and as a part of the program, (global health at McMaster University) I traveled to India for fieldwork. I became intrigued then by higher learning in academia, research, and the ability to travel with research. I now wanted to do research with a humanistic approach where I can interact with research participants and see them as people, rather than a number. I chose McMaster University because it offered a masters IN global health allowing for in-depth learning of the field and the opportunity to do fieldwork while completing a dissertation. McMaster was also luring because it would give me a chance to live on my own, but it was also not too far away from home. Soon, that one-year course-based masters program became a two-years thesis-based masters program and then a multi-year PhD. My masters brought me to McMaster and my life journey kept me here.

What words of wisdom would you tell your younger self?

I would tell myself two things: 1. Don’t be scared of failure 2. Take more risks

I was afraid to take risks and make some decisions because I was afraid of failing whether that was picking a wrong course or field of study. Every decision you make changes your trajectory but it doesn’t have to change it for the worse. It also doesn’t have to change it for the better – change can be valueless. Change can just be change!

What is/are your favourite activity to do outside of your work?

There are many activities that I enjoy! I love music and movement so of course, I love dancing whether that is Latin, Iranian or at my Zumba class. I am a television- movie nut. I love the escapism that comes with good a tv series or movie. I like having a balance between having my own time and being social. While I haven’t traveled a ton, I really enjoy traveling, eating new foods and learning about different cultures. Did I say I love food already? I love food, both cooking and eating it.

Where can others find more information about the work that you do? (links to publications, news articles, interviews, blogs, twitter, youtube, etc…)

 List of Publications

  1. Razavi SD, Kapiriri L, Wilson M, Abelson J. (2019). Applying priority-setting frameworks: A review of public and vulnerable populations’ participation in health-system priority setting. Health Policy, in press.
  2. Razavi SD, Kapiriri L, Abelson J, Wilson M. (2019). Who is in and who is out? A qualitative analysis of stakeholder participation in priority setting for health in three districts in Uganda. Health Policy & Planning, 34(5):358–69.
  3. Kapiriri L, Razavi D. How have systematic priority setting approaches influenced policy making? A synthesis of the current literature. (2017). Health Policy, 121:937–46.
  4. Mulvale G, Embrett M, Razavi SD. ‘Gearing Up’ to improve interprofessional collaboration in primary care: a systematic review and conceptual framework. (2016). BMC Family Practice, 17(1):83.

Social media

Twitter handle – @donya_razavi

LinkedIn –

Lessons learned as a Teaching Assistant

I have been a Teaching Assistant (TA) for three separate courses thus far: Research Methods, Epidemiology, and Health and Public Health Economics. All three of these courses are at the graduate level at McMaster University and are available (and required for the first two) to students in the Masters of Public Health Program. First-year PhD students in the Health Policy program who do not have exposure to economics also take the Health and Public Health Economics course that I TA.

My experiences in all three of these courses have been different which goes to show that your TAing experiences depend on a number of factors. It depends on your stated and unstated responsibilities, the level of the course, the professor, the students, and the course structure. I have been lucky with my TAing positions as they have all been positive experiences. They have given me exposure to grading, providing feedback, content creation, and teaching. They have reinstated the realization that I love teaching and mentoring – I think it’s what pulls me towards academia.

Some lessons that I have learned while TAing are as follows:

Build a positive rapport with the course professor

Before the course begins, spend time with the course professor to go over responsibilities. It is important that you both are clear about each other’s responsibilities and expectations. Sometimes, it’s required to do so but, if it isn’t, be sure to take the first step to set up a meeting. I (as well as many professors) like to have frequent meetings to check-in throughout the semester. That way, not only can you discuss how the course is going, receive feedback, and adapt, you get to learn how professors think and organize themselves and that’s a great learning opportunity. Remember to also keep a positive rapport with the professor as they are your employer and might be writing you a reference letter in the future. Being in a good relationship with the professor also makes TAing much more enjoyable.

Try to diversify skillset

If you have some control in your TAing experience with respect to which courses you will TA or the responsibilities you will have, try to diversify your skillset. I think teaching assistantships are great opportunities to learn employable skills and build your teaching portfolio if you are interested in academia or your presentation and organization skills if you are interested in non-academia. The specific skills that you want to gain and develop through your TAship will depend on your long-term goals and your current strengths and weaknesses, but some including teaching, grading, mentoring, content creation, and communications. Also, be sure to be flexible and open to new experiences in order to gain those skills.

What course you TA matters

At one stage in my PhD journey, I had to choose between two great courses that I would like to TA. When selecting one, I considered what I would gain from both and which one would be more valuable for me both short-and long-term. You want to choose a course carefully given that your association with that course will give you an “expert” title in that field. You may also want to TA a course that deepens your knowledge and is relevant to your thesis, goals, and career. That course will also give you a networking opportunity to build relationships with professors and students. So, you want to ensure that those are worthwhile for your development.

Review the content regularly

If lecture slides are available, review them beforehand. You may get questions during or after lectures and being comfortable with the content will be extremely helpful. Also, try to attend the lecture so you know what the professor goes over verbally in class. A good tip I was given was, never overestimate how much you know the material – teaching is different than knowing.

Be the type of TA that you wish you had

I think that it’s important for those in leadership to be empathetic, kind, and passionate. As such, I try to embody these qualities when I TA. Understanding that people have different learning and communication styles, I also try to be flexible in my teaching style and try to cater to different types of learning environments. Moreover, during my undergraduate and graduate studies, I never had a teaching assistant who looks like me. So, now that I am a TA, I try to ensure that I am being a positive role-model especially to those who also come from “under-served” communities, am inclusive and try to make space for everyone’s voice to be heard, and am passing down my knowledge and academic and life experiences to others. I also try to expand my knowledge of content that are relatable and diverse.

While there are a lot of benefits to being a Teaching Assistant, there are also some challenges which are equally important to know too. Although graduate teaching assistants get paid well, their TAing income is provided as part of their financial aid package which is not a large amount. So, many teaching assistants are financially unmotivated to work, and teaching/grading is forced upon them in order to receive financial aid. Also, a challenge is maneuvering the boundary between being a teaching assistant and a colleague when you are grading your own classmates. Often, its not terrible if you are fair and transparent. However, if the classmate gets a bad grade, it can become awkward. So, you must be aware of and acknowledge the conflict of interest when communicating with and grading your colleagues. Another challenge is balancing your TA activities with your research. Graduate students are always pressed for time, and so, sometimes TA responsibilities can push your dissertation to the side and other times, TA’s can’t put in as much effort into their TAship as they like.

Feature Friday: Ahmed Firas Khalid


Tell us about yourself, including what is your current position.

My name is Ahmad Firas Khalid, a recent graduate of the Health Policy PhD program and a medical Doctor. I am originally from the Middle East – I was born in Jordan and I grew up in Abu Dhabi, UAE.

I struggle in answering where is home. I see myself as belonging to many countries, Palestine where my parents and I are originally from, Jordan where I was born, UAE where I was raised, and Canada where I now live and am a citizen in. I also say Hamilton is home, which is where I lived for many years. Ottawa is home as that is where I immigrated to. Geneva is also home. My family is home.

I come from a large family, I have two brothers and three sisters.

What was your PhD thesis about?

My PhD was on supporting the use of research evidence in crisis zones. It was a question that I always had at the back of my mind but became more prevalent to me during the Ebola crisis a few years ago. At the time, it was this huge new epidemic that we didn’t know how to treat and we did not know how to get evidence there to the local context in a timely manner that is accessible and helpful. So, being motivated, I spent the last four years dedicated to exploring this in a practical sense. I completed three studies and each of them adds value to this field and offers tangible ways to bring evidence into local crisis zones.

How did you get to where you are today?

While I was working at the WHO, I realized that to go up in the career ladder, I needed a PhD. I also understood then that I needed to better understand research. I was looking at evaluations of maternal and child health and systematic reviews but I did not fully understand the intricacy behind the findings. I did not know how to interpret tables – it was foreign to me. I realized that if you are not exposed to research, then you will not understand the work. So, I knew that I had this gap that I had to fill at some point. Initially, I thought that I would do my PhD at an older age, in my 40s or 50s part-time while working. But during my masters convocation at McGill, with a big smile on my face, I kept thinking that I am so happy. It was my “aha” moment realizing that I thrive in academia. I am my best version in an academic institution – it is a perfect incubator for myself. I then took a couple of years to critically evaluate where I wanted to go and who I wanted to work with.

 What is your goal?

I like being a part of academic institutions. I appreciate the structure in universities of expanding the minds of students, mentoring students, and connecting with colleagues, – its unique to academia.

What was your favourite part about academia?

The friends that you meet. When you leave, you come out with a network of people who you can keep in touch with and move along with.

What words of wisdom would you tell your younger self?

I would tell myself to calm down. It is something that I continue to remind myself to do and to stop worrying about the future. I would tell myself to be in the moment. It is cliché but it is true. You should have goals and work towards them, but remind yourself that things will work out somehow.

What is/are your favourite activity to do outside of your work?

I love doing cross-fit – it brings me so much joy. It is an outlet and community for me. I love being healthy. I also love spending time with my mom, being active including playing tennis in the summer when it is hot out. I am also happy when I am out with my friends.

What advice do you have for other people who look at your profile and want to be like you?

People read articles about me and they form an image of me as someone who chases awards and the spotlight. I will never deny that. But in another perspective, you can also see me as someone who is working hard to be seen. I think that’s it’s important to give yourself a chance to be seen by others and by that I mean, show up and do the work. I wanted to make the most out of the four years of my PhD. I made sure my thesis chapters get published, that I receive awards and grants that allowed me to do the research I wanted to do. I tried to diversity my skillset into many things. The competition is fierce and you have to set yourself apart. My advice is that make the most out of what you get and when you are thinking about masters and your PhD,  look for opportunities to do that.

Where can others find more information about the work that you do?





Khalid, A. F., Lavis, J. N., El-Jardali, F., & Vanstone, M. (2019). The governmental health policy-development process for Syrian refugees: an embedded qualitative case studies in Lebanon and Ontario. Conflict and health13(1), 48.

Khalid, A. F. (2017). Approaches to the Use of Research Knowledge in Policy and Practice during the Syrian Refugee Crisis. Prehospital and Disaster Medicine32(S1), S53-S54.

Kandasamy, S., Khalid, A. F., Majid, U., & Vanstone, M. (2017). Prostate cancer patient perspectives on the use of information in treatment decision-making: a systematic review and qualitative meta-synthesis. Ontario health technology assessment series17(7), 1.

La Vieille, S., Lefebvre, D. E., Khalid, A. F., Decan, M. R., & Godefroy, S. (2018). Dietary restrictions for people with glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase deficiency. Nutrition reviews77(2), 96-106.


World Health Organization. (2019). Summary report on the expert consultation on fostering institutional and structural capacity for evidence-based health policy-making, Cairo, Egypt 29-30 November 2017 (No. WHO-EM/RPC/043/E). World Health Organization. Regional Office for the Eastern Mediterranean.



Comprehensive Exams

Comprehensive exams…. the two words that all PhD students at some point come to dread. Not many understand what they are. I surely didn’t know what exactly comprehensive exams were and what they entailed until I went through the process myself earlier this summer. Basically, comprehensive exams or comps for short, is an examination that all PhD graduate students (if that program has that requirement) need to complete at the beginning of their studies. You can call it a qualifying exam, proposal or preliminaries but the purpose of them is to show that you have the knowledge and competency to move on to the next phase of the PhD – the thesis or research. It is often conducted after your courses are complete and are separate from your course examinations.

The format of the comprehensive exam(s) differs depending on the university and program. It may be written and/or oral. You may be given a reading list or you may need to create your own reading list. It may be on one specific content area or it may touch many different topic areas. It can be your research proposal or completely unrelated to your research proposal. It may test your understanding of theories or methods or it may not. Some programs may allow you to re-take the comps if you fail the first time while others may not.

My comprehensive examination consisted of three written exams. The first one was written in the summer of my first year and two were written in the summer of my second year after I had completed all my courses. Each exam was 7-8 hours each. They took a Q&A approach in which I had to answer multiple questions on each exam using long-answers. I typed out my answers and the exam was open-access (I had access to my books, notes, and computer during the exam). The first examination was a breadth exam in which I was tested on my knowledge in my program’s three specialization areas: health economics, political studies, and social organization. The second examination was a methods exam in which I was tested on my knowledge in quantitative methods, qualitative methods, and mixed methods. The third examination was a field exam which tested my knowledge in my specialization area which is health economics. For each examination, I was given a reading list. For the first two, I used a list that was common for all students and for the field exam, I negotiated the reading list with my supervisor and comp exam lead.

After having completed comp exams, I can now say that although the process was a bit stressful because it truly is comprehensive with the breadth and depth that we cover, it was not too bad and it was useful. I am not going to tell you to calm down nor will I tell you that it was all roses. How you feel about it is up to you and how you deal with exams. Just acknowledge how you feel, deal with it, and just keep going. Below, I share with you three strategies that worked for me. It may or may not be relevant for you depending on the type of person you are and the structure of your comps.

  • Start early (but not too early) and practice
    • Start your readings early. The exam, as its name, is comprehensive. So, there will be a lot of material to cover. You cannot read and absorb what you read in a limited amount of time. I read, I took notes, I re-read the paper, and I re-read the notes. I wrote timed-exams and did practice questions both written and orally, which my supervisors provided feedback on. If your program does not provide practice tests or questions, create your own or ask someone to create them for you. I also wrote down questions as I studied and then a couple of weeks before the exam, I asked to meet with the supervisors to go over all the questions I had up to that point.
    • It is also important for me to say that while it is good to give yourself study time, you don’t want to give yourself too much time either. You will burn yourself out and as economists would say, I believe that there are diminishing returns to studying. After a certain point, you won’t get more out of studying and rather, it will take away time from other activities you could be doing instead. If you are in Health Policy, I would also suggest that over a course of time, you make note of health topics that are in the news and become familiar with them, as there is a chance that your exam questions will include these topics.


  • Organize your time, notes and files
    • Time management is very crucial as you will be balancing your other PhD responsibilities and social life while studying for comprehensive exams. I didn’t use established tools like Pomodoro method to manage my time and productivity (but I have heard great things about setting timers and you should know about these). Instead, I scheduled my time in advance and remained flexible to changes. Initially, I planned out my days on a weekly basis. So, for instance, I decided that in Week 1, I will read papers A to C on Monday and papers D to E on Tuesday, etc… I divided the papers up by my strengths. I started studying material that I was the weakest at, then studied areas that I was strong in and then went back to the material I was the weakest in. I did not spend all day studying. I would balance studying with other tasks throughout the day, but I did clear my schedule of all other PhD responsibilities the week before my exam. I also managed my time so that I don’t have to cut back on social activities that are important for me for self-care (give time to self-care activities for your mental and physical health).
    • Organization of notes was very important for me given the structure of my exam. I needed to be able to know quickly where I can find information and references. Headers, coloured pages, bolding categories and having a table of contents helped. I took notes while reading papers and then created summary sheets of formulas, definitions and key concepts from them. On my down-time, while watching TV, I also wrote down references so I can just copy and paste them during the exam. I kept both printed and e-files of all my notes.

My table of contents for my field exam notes

    • Notes are also only useful if you can access them. As such, files need to be organized with titles and file names that you would understand in a stressful time crunch.

Screen Shot 2019-08-17 at 2.26.12 PM
How my files looked like

  • Learn the logistics well
    • Learn details about the exam days before your exam so you do not have to worry about them. You can know these details from your program’s faculty, program staff, and upper-year students. Questions you should know the answers to:
      • What is the format of the exam?
      • What are some tips that I should know?
      • What will be covered on the exam?
      • Is there a word count? If so, how much?
      • How many questions will there be on the exam?
      • When is the exam and what is the duration of the exam?
      • Where will I be writing the exam?
      • Who is grading the exams?
      • Will I be allowed to ask questions during the exam? Who can I contact during the exam?


Hope some of this helps in understanding what the comprehensive exams are and how you study for them. Good luck if you are writing them soon!

Until next time,


Health in Graduate School

This past school year was the most physically and emotionally challenging year I have had thus far. At many points, I thought that I would have to take a medical leave of absence because of the physical pain I was in and its subsequent impact on my mental health. My condition, thank God, has greatly improved compared to how it was. As I reflect upon this year, my greatest challenge was my health and my greatest accomplishment was improving my health while not letting it impact my schooling and other parts of my life. This blog post, hence, is dedicated to what I have learned about health and wellness in graduate school from my own experiences (note: this may not be relevant to everyone).

  • Physical and mental health problems are very common among graduate students. In many conversations I have had with my peers, I have learned that almost everyone is going through something that is impacting their health. Some have sick family members, some are feeling stress from academia and others have hidden chronic physical or mental health conditions. This tells me that we should be kind to each other and supportive of one another because you really don’t know what the other person is going through.
    • Saying this, I also feel as if graduate students accept negative health outcomes as a part of graduate school. “If you aren’t pushing yourself to the level of being stressed, you are not challenged enough”. I don’t know if this is something that is a consequence of the academic field, but in many conversations I have had this past year, it felt like we were competing on how stressed and “broken” we were and the number of complaints we have. I do not think that that is healthy. You can be in graduate school and be happy and healthy!
  • In academia and life, you are encouraged to be independent, which is great, but when you have physical or mental health challenges, it is okay to ask for help. A strong support system is very helpful during such challenging times. Personally, I told my supervisor about my condition who has been very supportive. I had to ask many friends for help to take notes and carry heavy bags and asked my family to give me rides because I had to take a break from driving (especially on those icy winter days) for a while.
  • Practice self-care that works for you. Recently, self-care is “in”. For those of you asking what is self-care, it’s a broad term that includes everything that you do to make yourself feel good. It includes exercise, meditation, spending time outdoors, praying, journaling, dancing, or a treat at lunch. In order for us to get the benefits of self-care though, you need to do what works for you and be flexible with what that may be. For me, it used to be exercising. I used to go to the gym 4-6 times a week last year but after my injury, I was told by medical professionals that I shouldn’t run, cycle or do weights for some time. So, the gym no longer helped me to de-stress. Rather, it gave me more stress to see others’ do what I could not do anymore, so I have put my membership on hold and have been finding other self-care techniques that work for me (i.e. walks, bath salts).
    • Also, self-care is not beneficial if you don’t get to the root of your problem. If you have a physical or mental health problem, you need to go see a medical professional to learn what the underlying problem may be and get treatment. If the problem is your environment or your behaviour, then you need to change it. Self-care does not make these problems go away.
  • With health, it is better to be pro-active rather than reactive. For instance, I have become a large supporter of massages. Before, I used to see them as a “luxury item” and something that you only get if you are injured, old and/or wealthy. However, I have learned that they are a preventative tool. Also, as graduate students, we know we are going to be working a lot in seated positions on computers so before we develop chronic problems such as carpal tunnel syndrome, we should work on our posture and develop a healthy working style with frequent walking breaks, for example.

Of course, I am not an expert in what one should do when feeling ill. What I do know is that physical and mental health challenges in graduate school are common, and we should be talking about it more to help and gain from one another.

Poverty Line in Canada

Almost one out of eight individuals in Canada are living in poverty. What is even more problematic is that the poverty rate is disproportionately higher amongst under-served populations such as indigenous peoples, women, racialized communities, and people living with disabilities. Those who are poor face food insecurity, poorer health outcomes and access to health care, and homelessness. In addition, poverty costs Canada billions of dollars each year (estimated to be $72-84 billion/year)

Canada recently announced its first poverty reduction strategy called, Opportunity for All. The strategy includes creating an official poverty line, setting targets such as reducing poverty by 20% by 2020 and measuring and tracking the progress by regularly updating the poverty line, addressing data gaps, and tracking progress. The strategy also suggests to legislate the vision and targets and make Canada’s poverty line the official measure of poverty in Canada.  Canada’s Official Poverty Line is based on the cost of a basket of goods and services that a typical family of four need in order to meet their basic needs and achieve a modest standard of living in communities across Canada. This basket of goods consists of clothing and footwear, transportation, nutritious food, shelter and other necessary goods and services. The cost of such a basket has been calculated for 50 communities across Canada and as such, 50 different poverty lines have been established. A households’ disposable income (income remaining after removing taxes) is then compared to the cost of the basket in their respective community to determine whether they fall under the poverty line.

Having a poverty line will enable governments to set targets, the public to hold the government accountable on working towards reducing poverty and create a common language that all persons working in the field can use. As such, the federal liberal government can be commended in acting to address poverty and inequality. That being said, challenges remain in addressing poverty and inequality in Canada. Without addressing these, Canada’s poverty reduction strategy will become limited in its ability to create change.

Challenges to measuring poverty and inequality in Canada:

  1. Existing data and data sources to measure poverty are limited: The Canadian government plans to use the Canadian Income Survey to determine a household’s disposable income. One of the limitations of using this survey is the time lag in retrieving income data. With a time-lag, the poverty line will only be reflective of the past rather than the present. Another limitation is the moderate sample size of the survey as the survey is only administered to 27,119 households and 63,197 individuals. That is not a huge sample given that there is always some uncertainty with surveys. Another issue is that territories and indigenous populations at present are not captured by the survey (Corak, 2018).
  2. Consumption may be a better measure of poverty: Choosing disposable income as an indicator of poverty can also be challenged when you consider consumption patterns. Given that people make consumption decisions with knowledge about their future and past incomes in addition to their present income (income focuses solely on the latter), consumption patterns may be a better indicator of poverty. It is also a better method to use when you are interested in poor outcomes, rather than poor access. In addition, it has been shown that income poverty measures are about one-third lower than consumption poverty measures in each year (Pendakur, 2001). As such, what poverty measure one uses influence the outcomes one sees.
  3. Focusing on income ignores other relevant information: Another problem in Canada’s decision to measure poverty by comparing a household’s disposable income to a cost of basket of goods is that it focuses solely at income. This method ignores property, in-kind assistance, sharing of resources across households and generations, informal exchanges and non-declared income (Kerr, 2001). Also, having equivalence scales in terms of income imply that welfare is only in terms of material and economic welfare and not about the happiness they get from it.
  4. Poverty can be defined in many ways: How poverty is defined influences how it is measured and as such, the trends one sees and their policy implications (Corak, 2016). Broadly, there are two poverty definitions. Absolute poverty measures poverty in relation to the amount of money necessary to meet basic needs such as food, clothing, and shelter. A consequence of focusing on absolute poverty in Canada, is that it understates the poverty line as it shows that over time, the number of people who are of low-income has decreased as a result of median incomes increasing. Absolute poverty measures also do not look at the differences amongst people who fall below the poverty line even though it is known that negative effects of low income are continuous rather than discrete (Corak, 2016). In other words, it does not consider the depth of poverty. Also, those who are just above the poverty line may also be worse-off in terms of well-being similar to those just below the poverty line. Focusing on absolute poverty would miss this. Relative poverty, on the other hand, is poverty in relation to economic status of other members of society and is a measure of income inequality. As such, it is a better measure of poverty in developed countries such as Canada. Canada’s poverty line measurement is primarily a measure of absolute poverty as it uses a cost of a basket of goods to determine poverty level. That being said, by including “other necessary goods and services” in the basket of goods, a relative component is added to the measurement of poverty. However, it is clear that for the most part, the official poverty line is a measure of absolute poverty, making it limited.
  5. Methods used to calculate poverty line do not consider heterogeneity in Canadian households: Although household size and geographic variation are considered (by using an equivalence scale that is equivalent to the square root of household size and creating 50 poverty lines for 50 communities across the country respectively), the methods do not consider composition of families and how that may influence the poverty line measurements. For instance, poverty and income affect households differently depending on ethnicity, duration in Canada, and the number of people who are working in the household, how many hours they work and their wage rate. In the last decade, there has also been an increase in the number of hours that both partners work resulting in lower fertility rates and parents having children at an older age. There has also been an increase in the number of divorced families, childless-families and number of one-person households (Government of Canada, 2018). Also, it assumes that within a family, welfare levels are equalized across members. However, needs of parents may differ than needs of children which may not be captured. Lastly, it is not clear whether or not the consumption patterns of the reference group are appropriate for older people. This all goes to say that the composition of the basket may not be representative of all households.

This post is adapted from a course paper I wrote for my microeconomics course, and is being posted after receiving permission from my co-author.


Canada Without Poverty. (2018). Just the facts. Retrieved November 12 2018 from

Corak, M. (2016). “Inequality is the root of social evil”, or maybe not: Two stories about inequality and public policy. Canadian Public Policy, 42(4), 367-414.

Corak, M. (2018). Canada’s official poverty line: what is it? how could it be better? Economics for Public Policy. Retrieved November 12 2018 from

Government of Canada. (2018). Canada’s first poverty reduction strategy. Retrieved November 12 2018 from

Government of Canada. (2018). The changing ethnic composition of Canadian consumers. Office of Consumer Affairs. Retrieved November 12 2018 from

Joseph Rowntree Foundation. (2011). Poverty and ethnicity: A review of the evidence.. Retrieved November 12 2018 from

Kerr, D., & Roderic, B. (2001). Child poverty and family structure in Canada. PSC Discussion Paper Series: 15(7).

Pendakur, K. (2001). Consumption poverty in Canada 1969 to 1998. Canadian Public Policy, 27(2): 125-149.

Brown by Kamal Al-Soyalee

Many words are used to group people, one of which is “brown”. Brown, like “white” or “black” is used to categorize people by race solely on human skin colour. There are many people that identify with only of these “colours”, many that don’t identify with either of these categories and many that identify with many or a combination. The topics of race, identity or skin colour are complicated and messy, but ones that very important to talk about and address because they underly very important social and health issues including race and discrimination and its effects.

Kamal Al-Soyalee, an Associate Professor at the School of Journalism in Ryerson University has done what is in my opinion, a very difficult task, of portraying the perception of “brown” and “brownness” in different parts of the world, in his book, Brown (2016). He travels to 10 countries to interview people in order to fill the narrative gap on the social, political, economic and personal implications of being a brown-skinned person today. These countries include Trinidad, The Philippines, China, Sri Lanka, Qatar, The United Kingdom, The United States and Canada. These countries, as you probably know, are quite different from another in terms of the economy, heterogeneity of the population in terms of ethnicity, language and development. As such, the book is able to show that there is a certain “collective experience that unites people of brown skin” despite where they live and the cultural differences. That collective experience comes from the fact, according to Al-Soyalee that brown people (Middle Easterners, Latin Americans, North Africans, and South and SouthEast Asians) are not white, black or Chinese. With this common theme of unity, he also discusses that brown people are also not a homogenous group and that their experiences differ depending on where they live and who they live with.

As a brown person myself, I found the book to both reaffirm my own experiences with the perception of being south asian in Canada and show me whats it like to be a brown person in other areas. One thing that was reconfirmed for me was that its not necessarily your brownness that predisposes you to racism, but its how dark you are. I have noticed this in India where“fair-skinned” individuals are considered to be of higher status. This influences your employment opportunities, your relationship status, and how you are treated. Visitors who are lighter-skinned from the Middle East and Europe are praised and sought while those from Africa or other parts of South-East Asia are considered to be of lower status.

What was missing from the book was greater depth. However, that is understandable given that the book is meant to be an introduction to the area. You cannot capture the experiences of being brown in 10 different countries in just one book. So, you have to read the book, knowing that there are many voices that are not included. Overall, I think its a great book and one that I recommend to brown and non-brown people alike.

To learn more about the book:

City Age – The Data Effect in Toronto

Many say that we are approaching a new revolution: data revolution. Some actually say that data is the “fuel” to drive the economy of the future. Traditionally, data was collected through surveys, experiments, and administrative work such as hospital billings and registration documents. But, now around the world, data is being collected in many novel ways: social media and internet use, Netflix streaming, credit card purchases, satellites, fitbits, etc.. In health, digital health information is growing exponentially (48 percent per year) and is estimated to reach over 2,000 exabytes by 2020 (Centre for International Governance Innovation, 2018). So, as you can probably guess, there is tons and tons of data being collected. This then begs many questions: What to do with all this data? What is not being collected? How can data be collected and used ethically? It is important now more than ever to understand how best to utilize all this massive amount of linked data in a way that improves human and environment well-being responsibly. Large companies such as Facebook, Apple and Amazon collect, organize and use their data well for their purposes and it is high time that other sectors also use big data wisely.

I attended City Age: The Data Effect in Toronto last month. City Age is a platform used by mainly leaders in investment, design, construction, government and research, to grow conservations on how to build the future using data. They have held an event in many urban cities across North America, Europe and Asia. Below, I will share with you what I, personally, took away from this event:

Dr. Parminder Raina’s [Scientific Director, Institute for Research on Aging, McMaster University] talk on longitudinal studies and aging of population

Dr. Raina is the Lead Principal Investigator of CLSA (Canadian Longitudinal Survey on Aging), a national long-term study of individuals who are between the ages of 45 and 85 at the time of enrolment. In his talk, he stressed the importance of data being reflective of “what’s really happening”. How we age and function is influenced by both medical and non-medical factors. As such, CLSA aims to collect data on many interrelated factors including biological, clinical, psychosocial, environmental and societal factors that influence health and well-being of seniors. They also aim to link the data with admin data to know healthcare use.

Jennifer Keesmat [Candidate in the 2018 Toronto Mayoral election and former Chief City Planner of Toronto from 2012-2017]’s talk on importance of building smart cities

Ms. Keesmat shared that Toronto needs to use data to inform decisions on rental housing, transit, and safe streets and communities. A quote that stayed with me is, “in the absence of a vision, data is meaningless”. She also mentioned that we all have known what the problems are in Toronto for a while and that we are aware of and have the solutions to those problems. But, the problem currently is that there is a lack of political will to act on those problems. To all those in Policy, this may sound familiar. To get action, there needs to be an overlap between problems, solutions and politics.

Side note: after some time following Ms. Keesmat on Twitter, this was my first time hearing her live and she was wonderful. All Torontonians, I recommend following and/or listening to her.

city effect 2

Matthew Mendelsohn’s [Deputy Secretary to the Cabinet, Results and Delivery, Privy Council Office of Canada] talk on the Federal Government’s Data Strategy

Canada is currently working on a national big data strategy in order to utilize the growing power of big data and artificial intelligence for economic development. Mr. Mendelsohn shared the five components of Canada’s Data Strategy:

1) Governance – Know how to better govern (collect, manage, share) data

2) Capacity – Recognize evidence-informed decision making, build HR, and improve literacy in digital world

3) Environment – Improve the working environment within the Government

4) Communication – Communicate publicly. Move to open data that is sharable

5) Treat data as a Canadian asset – Use data to make decisions

For further information on:

The Data Effect in Toronto, visit:

CLSA, visit:

National Data Strategy for Canada, visit:

Side note: Given that a ticket cost $560 for individuals in the public sector and $670 for individuals in the private sector for this single-day event, I am thankful for MacData Institute for the ticket!