An astronaut’s advice for students

Julie Payette on why she chose engineering over music

The 2013 Maclean’s University Rankings asked some of Canada’s most successful writers, politicians and scientists what they wish they’d known in university. Their answers are perfect additions to our First Year Survivor blog. Here’s advice from Julie Payette, Canadian Astronaut and Quebec’s Scientific Representative to the U.S.

I did my first degree at McGill University. I started in 1982. At the time, I was very clear I was going to become an engineer. Actually, I did have a bit of hesitation. I wanted to also study music. But it dawned on me that even though I loved music, I was not good enough to make a decent living at it, whereas I would become a fine engineer and could still do music. So I ended up choosing electrical engineering, which was perfect for me.

Music courses weren’t on the list of general electives for electrical engineering. So I remember going to my department and lobbying the people in charge, saying, “Hey, if you allow history of the Renaissance, then why don’t you allow history of music of the Renaissance?” As soon as I started those music courses, I also started singing with the Gilbert and Sullivan society and choirs.

I was very fortunate to have gotten a scholarship. Basically my job was to study and do well at school. I did not live at home but I was near my parents in an apartment. I was a good student but I was not the top of the class—never have been—and that is probably all right. The first degree is a stepping board to go somewhere else. The better you do at your first degree, clearly the more ability you have to choose. I wouldn’t say I was that conscious of that.

Two years earlier, I had written on my application to get the scholarship that sent me to an international college in Wales that I would like to be an astronaut. The people on the selection committee still tell me today that they were a little thrown by that. I probably wrote the same thing on my application to McGill. It’s always been in the back of my mind. I knew that if ever there would be an opportunity to become an astronaut, a second degree was probably a must. I looked around and saw the engineering faculty had computing associated with electrical engineering at the University of Toronto and that interested me greatly. I applied there and to Massey College. I was accepted at both and it was a very privileged way to go to school, right on campus and to be part of this diverse group of graduate students.

I would say still today to anybody who asks, and I will say to my children: choose your path. Don’t choose somebody else’s path. Look at what you are, what you like, what your interests are, what you are good at, because we are all good at a several things. Try stuff. It is a bit of a truism but it is much easier to put effort into something we like than something we don’t like.

As told to Julie Smyth