A career is like a love affair

Madeleine Jacobs

Credit: Peter Cutts

I grew up in Washington, D.C., in a comfortable lower-middle-class home, with an extended family that included a grandmother, an uncle, two parents, and a brother. My father was a bassoonist from a long line of bassoonists. My mother was a housewife and, later, an executive assistant to the president of Geico. My parents were neither interested in nor even aware of science. I never had a chemistry set. My interest in science was encouraged by the spirit of the times: Sputnik had launched, the government was pouring money into science, and science was considered a noble calling—something I still believe.

And I always had a sense that I could do anything I wanted.

Don’t let others set the agenda, and never, ever let yourself be bullied.

What I wanted, I decided, was to become a researcher. I earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, with distinction. I started graduate school. Then—due to a collision of graduate school choice, maternal influence, a troubled marriage, and the Vietnam War—I postponed graduate school and became a science journalist instead. I spent 8.5 years as editor-in-chief of Chemical and Engineering News (C&EN), the flagship weekly newsmagazine of the American Chemical Society (ACS). Then, in 2004, I became CEO of ACS and held that position for 11 years before retiring in February.

At a recent event at Columbia University, hosted by the organization Women in Science at Columbia, I told my story and passed along lessons I’ve learned about how people—especially women—can make the most of their lives and careers. Here is some of the advice I offered.

Believe in yourself, and never take “no” for an answer. In graduate school, I loved reading C&EN. So I thought to myself, “Why not get a job there?” I called Richard Kenyon, who was the publisher at the time, to ask for an appointment. “Dr. Kenyon is busy all afternoon,” his secretary said. “I suggest you send a résumé.” Instead, I took a bus to Kenyon’s office. “Do you mind if I wait?” I asked the secretary. “You can wait, but he won’t be able to see you,” she replied.

When Kenyon got off the elevator, I raced over. You can imagine the look of horror on the secretary’s face when he said, “Come right in.”

Never burn bridges, but know when it’s time to move on. I was the youngest staff member at C&EN and the only woman. I loved working there. But when I discovered that my salary was 30% below a benchmark, I left. There were no hard feelings; I just took a better job, at the National Institutes of Health, and then another, at the National Bureau of Standards (now the National Institute of Standards and Technology). I loved them both—and then I encountered the Boss From Hell.

Take control. Instead of mentoring and supporting me, he stood over my shoulder micromanaging and yelling. I left as soon as I could but not before learning a key lesson: Take control of your career. I encourage young women and men to construct 5-year plans focused on their aspirations and how to achieve them. Don’t let others set the agenda, and never, ever let yourself be bullied.

Get a life. I landed at the Smithsonian Institution as chief science writer in the Office of Public Affairs and later as director of public affairs. I stayed there 14 years. It was a wonderful place to work, but it was all consuming: It was not unusual to get calls at 3 a.m. asking about a new panda cub or a tornado at a storage facility. I sought a position where I could have a life outside of work. I returned to C&EN and soon became editor-in-chief.

It was a demanding job, but I was more in control of my time. When my beloved father became ill with lymphoma, I left work every day at 5 p.m. to visit him, for 5 months. I cherish the time I spent with him. Barely a year after he died, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I didn’t miss a day of work (except for the surgery), but I was grateful for the flexibility to fit it all in. My cancer has been in remission for almost 18 years. 

Balancing a personal life and professional career is difficult, but it can be done by carefully setting priorities and not getting distracted by things that don’t fit on your list of priorities. Be honest with yourself. Decide what gives you satisfaction in life, and then make it happen. If you want to achieve that balance, it is also very important to have a supportive partner.

A career is like a love affair. There are many parallels: Both have ups and downs, it can be hard to find the right one, and sometimes we don’t choose wisely. There might not be a single choice that gives satisfaction for a lifetime.

To be worthwhile, relationships and careers must be rich and rewarding and provide an environment in which we can grow and learn. I can’t imagine staying in a relationship that didn’t have these qualities—and what else is a job except a relationship where you spend anywhere from 8 to 16 hours a day? 

Relationship or job, the important thing to understand is that there are alternatives. If we make a mistake—or if it just wears out or we change—we can move on. Transitions can be painful, but they open up exciting possibilities.

So, relationship or job, how do you find the right one? There’s a Cole Porter musical called Nymph Errant, about Evangeline, an adventurous young woman who aims to lose her virginity—pretty advanced stuff for 1933. In a song called “Experiment,” Ms. Pratt, Evangeline’s chemistry teacher, exhorts her:

To do what all good scientists do / Experiment /… / Be curious /… / Get furious / At each attempt to hold you down. / If this advice you always employ / The future can offer you infinite joy. /… / Experiment / And you’ll see.

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