An MIT Alumni Association Publication

Why Writing Books Is Better Than Being a Dentist for This MIT Alum

  • Slice of MIT

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As an MIT management grad turned dentist turned writer, Gloria Chao ’08 prefers creating magic for her characters to working in people’s mouths. Unhappy in her career as a dentist, Chao used books and writing to cope. She quit her job to become a novelist and published her first book, American Panda, in 2018 about a germaphobe student at MIT whose parents want her to become a doctor. “Since MIT is a place where students can be themselves, it was the perfect place for the main character to learn who that was,” she says of her debut novel. 

Over the last few years, she has also published Our Wayward FateRent a Boyfriend, and her 2023 title, When You Wish Upon a Lantern. She is also a screenwriter.

Read more about Gloria in the Q&A below: 

What influenced your choice of undergraduate major? How has it shaped your career choices and professional ability?

I majored in management science with a concentration in operations research. I rarely use that specific expertise now, but I do not regret my choice of major or college because MIT was where I learned how to think and where I developed my perspective on the world. These experiences helped shape who I am as a person, which also affects my writing and narrative voice. Also, my debut novel, American Panda, takes place at MIT and includes every tradition I could get in there (hacking, tunnel chair surfing, liquid nitrogen ice cream, LSC, the parabolic benches, and so much more)—so thanks, MIT, for that!

What influenced your choice of graduate programs? How has it shaped your career choices and professional ability?

This is probably not the answer you were looking for when you wrote this question, but becoming a dentist made me appreciate my change to writing in a way I wouldn’t have without leaving a career I hated. I also would not have found my passion for writing if I hadn’t been so miserable in dental school that I turned to reading to escape my reality. Publishing is a long road, but choosing it after turning away from a career that was a terrible fit for me helped me get through the difficult parts. Also, dentistry has inspired many scenes in my books, like in Rent a Boyfriend, when the fake boyfriend-for-hire who is supposed to be an aspiring surgeon is brought to assist his “girlfriend’s” father on a dental procedure and almost loses his cover after gagging over the spit and blood.

Is there anything you wish you had done differently or more of while you were at MIT?

I wish I had explored more. MIT is known for math, science, and engineering, but it’s also a leader in many other fields. I wish I had taken a broader mix of classes instead of focusing so much on my intended major from the start. I only took one writing class while I was there, and I wish I had branched out more and earlier. If I had done that, perhaps I could have discovered my passion for writing sooner. I think it’s difficult to know what you want to do with the rest of your life at such a young age, and I wish I had viewed college more as a time of discovery. It’s probably not a surprise that all of my books so far are coming-of-age stories about characters figuring out who they are and what they want in life!

What has been the most rewarding aspect of your career?

Hearing from readers has been by far the most rewarding part of being an author. I’ve been lucky enough to hear from readers of all backgrounds about how they have related to parts of my stories and characters, and I cherish those messages. I wrote with the hope of helping at least one other person feel less alone, and it was such a pleasant surprise that my readers have helped me feel less alone. I never knew before my books came out that there were other Taiwanese moms who fed their daughters papaya hoping it would make their boobs grow, or that other Asian parents thought going outside with wet hair was worse than licking a pigeon. I’ve also been so honored to hear that my books have helped readers when they’ve been at a crossroads in their lives (and I very much hope I didn’t lead them astray!).

What motivates you to do the work you do?

Hearing from readers certainly motivates me to keep writing. But when it comes down to it, I just love creating stories, and I’m lucky that I get paid to do it. I also like to write about Chinese folk tales, traditions, holidays, and practices that are less familiar here—like, when I found out there wasn’t a novel about the boyfriend rental business in Asian countries, I wrote Rent a Boyfriend—and I’m motivated to bring those to a new audience. My most recent book, When You Wish Upon a Lantern, is a love letter to my culture and a collection of all my favorite things. I also wanted to write a contemporary story that feels like magic, with the magic coming from the characters making lantern wishes come true for others in their community. I wanted to remind readers and myself that there’s magic in our world, and sometimes we need to create it for ourselves.

Making decisions, especially important-feeling career decisions, is really challenging for people at all stages of their career. What strategies have you used to make career decisions?

My biggest career decision was when I decided to hang up my dental drill and become a full-time writer. It was especially difficult because I did not have support from everyone in my life. To be honest, I questioned my decision for quite some time even after I’d made it. But I was unhappy as a dentist, and I knew that I needed to make a change. I leaned on the ones who did support me (especially my husband), and I tried to focus on continuing to put one foot in front of the other, even when the step felt very small. And it did help that I was writing a book that was drawing so much from what I was going through. My overall goal is to write with honesty and to stay true to my experiences, and I try to let that guide me in all of my career decisions.

What’s the best piece of career advice you’ve received?

Eyes on your own paper. Don’t compare yourself to others and focus on your own journey. I think this is applicable to many careers, not just writing!

And a more publishing-focused one: Don’t write for the market. If you try to write something you think will be trendy, the trend might be over by the time it’s ready, and you won’t end up with the best book possible. I write what I think will make for the most entertaining book first, then I think about the market later when I’m talking to my agent.

What career advice do you have for current MIT students, or those interested in entering your industry?

If I can do it, anyone can! I didn’t have any training, didn’t read for most of high school (Spark Notes was my go-to then), and didn’t have a passion for writing for the first two decades of my life. There isn’t one right way to write, and you don’t have to have any connections in the field to enter it. My best advice is to figure out what process works best for you and to keep going.

Do you have any tips for networking or job searching for current students and recent graduates?

For networking in publishing, I think social media is a good way to try to meet other fellow writers. For navigating agents and editors, do your research. All of the resources I used on my publishing journey can be found on my website. I found my literary agent through a cold query (meaning, I didn’t know her and emailed her a pitch for my book according to her submission guidelines), so it’s possible to get your foot in the door without any prior connections.

What do you like to do outside of work for fun/relaxation/inspiration?

My husband, Anthony Fowler ’09, and I are avid curlers, and in the winter, that’s where you’ll usually find us! My husband actually started curling with the MIT Curling Club, and we have become devoted curlers in the last six years. We are currently world-ranked in mixed doubles and we qualified for and competed in the 2022 USA Curling Mixed Doubles National Championship.

Do you participate in any volunteer/community service activities? If so, how do you balance your professional and personal responsibilities?

I try to give back to the writing community when I can. I have been and continue to be a mentor through various organizations such as We Need Diverse Books and Pitch Wars. And I’m thrilled that my previous mentees are now published authors.

version of this Q&A written by Cami Mejia ’23 was originally posted as part of Infinite Careers, a collaboration between Career Advising & Professional Development and the MIT Alumni Association to explore career paths and the non-linearity of career decision-making.

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