Perhaps that’s why the recent Athabasca University Master of Health Studies graduate, Gregory Toffner, decided to finally finish his seven years of studies while working the C-Suite level of the Hamilton-based, Ontario Association of Medical Radiation Sciences.
Toffner, 39, says getting his MHS while juggling two jobs, a growing family and school was “a long time coming.”
“Finishing was a good feeling, for sure,” he says.
He attributes the hectic study pace to (in the words of the band REM): “Oh, life.”
Toffner says he was trekking along fine when, three year into his studies, “life” caught him off-guard. He had finished his course work and was just starting his thesis-research when the planets collided.
I switched jobs, my personal life went a bit haywire—I went through a divorce and had a baby.
His now four-year-old daughter is named Stella.
To add to the intensity, he left a job teaching medical radiation sciences at the undergraduate level to advance in his other full-time job at OAMRS. He went from manager of professional services and deputy CEO straight to the president and CEO chair.
Later, he re-joined his faculty position, on a part-time basis, teaching courses in the four-year undergraduate program at the Mohawk-McMaster Institute for Applied Health Sciences.
OAMRS is a professional association representing the interests of Ontario-based medical radiation sciences practitioners in the disciplines of MRI, X-Ray, radiation therapy, nuclear medicine and ultrasound.
Such a regulated health profession requires employees to perform 25 hours of continuing professional development annually. One of Toffner’s mandates was to regenerate the association’s educational services portfolio.
In a nod to his AU alma mater, Toffner brought in online education programs for his company which he recently extended country-wide, with face-to-face programs in Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver, under the banner ‘Medical Imaging Ed.”
“The [CEO] position has not been an easy one,” says Toffner, who’s been with the association since 2008, already armed with a Bachelor of Science degree in medical imaging which he received from Charles Sturt University in Australia.
He says a potential student in the same boat shouldn’t undervalue the benefit of having a program like AU available to them. Juggling the life of a university graduate slash working professional who’s simultaneously enrolled in a part-time Master’s program is unique and something that requires a lot of flexibility.
To help him along, Toffner strategically tailored many of his courses to his day job.
A lot of the projects I was doing at work–in various positions–whether it was my faculty job or a leadership position –made [greater] sense,” he notes, citing the fortuitous example of when his company began the initial stages of a major reorganization.
Toffner was able to apply his change-management and organizational structure learning from courses at AU. Further, organizational change happened to be the precise focus of his thesis.
“[Tailoring those courses] actually engages you more because you’re living some of these things that you can apply exactly to your field. And when you’re in a full-time [Master’s] program you can’t do that.”
Regarding that balancing act, Toffners says he has no regrets.
I wouldn’t change it one bit. We don’t have the luxury to just drop out and quit our jobs and go into a full-time program. There’s a lot of benefits to it from my perspective.
Lucky number seven, indeed.
With stars seeming to align atop his career, the springing forth of a new family and two university extensions later, Toffner could finally see the finish line in the distance.
Even luckier, he was able to smooth some of the wrinkles from his personal life by reaching a happy balance where he and Stella’s mom share parental responsibilities separately but equally, each week.
As for melding life, work and school, “whatever that looks like,” he says, having a solid support network in place is key.
If it wasn’t for his entire family, including his ex-wife, helping him out with baby Stella, Toffner concedes he wouldn’t have been able to complete his degree.
“I can’t thank my mom enough; she has been very helpful in that regard. Helping me out and showing a lot of patience and understanding and really allowing me to work late into the evenings on this—particularly with the research, it’s so difficult.
“Having gone through the rigorous process of data collection and data analysis, you really have to immerse yourself into it,” he explains.
His advice to prospective AU students stuck on the notion that online and distant education means a cheaper, fast-track alternative to bricks and mortar post-secondary institutions—is simple:
“AU is not for the doing it half-ass,” Toffner asserts.
Indeed, enrolling at AU requires a full commitment.
“The courses are not easy, they’re intense and very involved. The faculty is world-class. But you have to work really hard to pass those courses and achieve success.”
Toffner says he tips his hat to anyone in an AU program that manages to complete a research thesis doing it part-time.
You almost have to live and breathe it in a full-time capacity, to be very successful, and to have an understanding and appreciation for putting your words on to paper and analyzing the findings effectively.
“It’s very difficult when you sort of have to break it out and do it piecemeal. You pour yourself into it for two weeks straight and then you don’t look at it for three weeks straight. It’s almost as if you’re starting over each time.”
It wasn’t until this last year at AU—his seventh—that he finally “got it” and found that rhythm to see him to the end.
To any student currently doing the get-to-grad research motions, Toffner says don’t underestimate the value of AU’s flexibility factor. He’s grateful it worked to his advantage.“I wouldn’t be here if the university didn’t have faith in me,” he reflects.
“My supervisors mentored me through the research process. Knowing some of the changes that I was going through and that I obviously had the capacity to see things through…had I not gotten those extensions I probably wouldn’t be here right now.”
Another imperative, Toffner suggests, is having confidence—”the courage to really feel, to know in your bones, that you’re doing the right thing.”
Last month, he brought his parents from Cambridge, Ont. along with little Stella to convocation at AU where, not only did he graduate in front of his beaming family, but he delivered a speech to his graduating peers at the Faculty of Health Disciplines banquet in Edmonton.
His speech centred around the themes of strong will, perseverance and never giving up—“no matter how daunting the task seems and how bad things get.”
“Stay true to your beliefs and your foundations, and you’ll find success,” he emphasized, concluding his AU program gave him that confidence to know what needed to be done, especially in his job.
Says Toffner: “Things get really bad but you’ve got to stick to your guns. And everything’s turning out beautifully. We’ve really turned the corner and things are really positive now.”
Oh, life. A long time coming, perhaps, but definitely a win.