Robert Neubecker

To find the right career fit, I needed to do more than move from job to job

As 170 people sat down to dinner, I breathed a sigh of relief: The conference was going well. Running it was part of my job as a university program manager, working on a project to boost biotech collaborations between academia and industry. When I started in the role a few years earlier, I thought that maybe, after years of career exploration, I had finally found the right job for me. But at the conference, I found myself wondering whether that was really what I wanted from my career. I’m a scientist, not an event planner—but I had been too busy organizing the conference to appreciate the research being discussed. Was it time for yet another change?

I had always thought that you were supposed to find the ideal job, one that ticked all the boxes. So, after my Ph.D., that’s what I went looking for.

I started off as a lab scientist. But after two postdoc positions, I discovered that the highly focused nature of lab work wasn’t for me. My next job was at a pharmaceutical company—conducting literature searches, compiling newsletters, and gathering information about the company’s competitors. I enjoyed the work, which allowed me to stay close to research and interact with a variety of people. But I was only offered a short-term contract, so after a year I had to move on. I then became a scientific journal editor. I loved the breadth of science that I was exposed to, but the job required a lengthy commute. So, I made another dramatic change and moved back to the ivory tower for my current job.

It had become a pattern: I spent a few years in each role only to find that it wasn’t quite the right fit, then moved on to try something else. In this process I built up a lot of great experience and expertise in a variety of sectors, but I felt that I’d had a series of jobs rather than a career that was moving forward in the way I wanted. I also realized that maybe I was searching for something that didn’t exist.

Organizing that conference was a turning point. Although I loved the buzz I got from running a successful event, I could not deny that parts of my work were unfulfilling. But instead of moving on again, I began to think about creative ways to add the scientific stimulation I sought to my work life. I needed a way to dip into different areas of research while keeping my “regular” job. With my knowledge of the pharmaceutical and biotech industries and my experience as an editor, I realized I had the skill set to do that through freelance science writing, such as news articles for journals and blogs and reports for industry.

I spent a few years in each role only to find that it wasn’t quite the right fit.

I put out some feelers to former colleagues from my days as a journal editor and was encouraged by their positive responses. It seemed that this might actually work—if I could find the time to balance it with my staff job. I wanted to dedicate sufficient time to writing, and I felt I could do my university job on a less than full-time schedule.

I waited until the time felt right to broach the topic of reducing my work hours with my manager. The opportunity came when an informal conversation on the train turned to the next phase of the project I managed. I used this as a hook for describing how my job responsibilities could be managed in fewer hours—I proposed 80% time—and my vision for my future. He agreed before I even completed my prepared pitch, I think largely because he respected that I was taking the initiative to manage my own career. In a happy coincidence, my first freelance assignment landed in my inbox on my first day of reduced hours.

For the last year, I have been a university program manager-slash-freelance writer, and I’ve never been happier. Working out what kind of freelance work to take on—and just as important, turn down—so that I can weave the two roles together has been a bit tricky at times. I recently reduced my university hours to about half time to make it work. But I finally feel I have a career that is tailored to my needs. It took me a while to get here, but I’ve realized that a career doesn’t need to be “off the shelf.” Jobs can be mixed and matched to get to one that fits.

Do you have an interesting career story? Send it to SciCareerEditor@aaas.org.

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