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Robert Neubecker

Amid the pandemic, I learned to reflect on what really matters to me in a career

“Hot off the press, congratulations!” my Ph.D. supervisor wrote to me back in August. Our paper—which I had written during lockdown based on labwork I completed before the pandemic—had just been accepted for publication. “Great!” I responded. And that was that. I went back to cleaning my apartment and waiting for bread to bake. My city’s lockdown made celebrating with co-workers at pub trivia or group drinks impossible. The only person who was going to celebrate this accomplishment with me was me—and I didn’t feel like celebrating.

If you had asked me at the beginning of my Ph.D. what I wanted to do after graduating, I would have said that I wanted to hide away at a fume hood and do research. If the pandemic hadn’t hit I probably would have blithely remained on that track, carried along by the momentum of my expectations for myself and my future. The cheers of labmates and colleagues when I published that paper would have spurred me forward.

But publishing in isolation, with no celebrations, gave me a chance to reflect on what I truly find rewarding. The paper gave me little sense of personal or professional accomplishment. I realized I don’t find satisfaction just from the act of research. In the words of organization expert Marie Kondo, it doesn’t “spark joy.” Where did that leave me?

I had more than a year of my Ph.D. left. The prospect of working at something I no longer enjoyed, for a goal I was no longer excited about, was discouraging. “Get a Ph.D.” had turned out to be less of a career plan and more of a single step toward something unclear. I no longer knew what my career trajectory ought to be. I had been getting emails about university-sponsored graduate student career workshops every week for years. Like most people I knew, I figured I had better ways to use my time. Now, feeling aimless and uncertain about my future, I thought I would give them a try.

When I attended my first (virtual) event in November, I was a little discouraged at first to see it was mostly first-year graduate students who were already thinking about their career plans and how to optimize their grad school experiences accordingly. I felt late to the party, and somewhat regretful I hadn’t taken advantage of these resources earlier. But I told myself late is better than never and that there was still lots I could learn.

As part of the workshop we completed an Individual Development Plan (IDP), a sort of quiz that helps you rank your career values and priorities. I had last taken a career quiz in high school. It told me to pursue marketing or vending machine repair, so I was fairly skeptical going in. When I got my results, I was surprised at first to see that “teamwork” and “help society” ended up as my top career essentials. But when I thought more about what I found fulfilling over the previous year, this began to make sense. I realized that I’ll remember the people—the graduate students and other researchers I met and got to work with. I’ll remember painstakingly going back and forth with my supervisor to craft a manuscript we were both happy with. For me, collaboration sparked joy.

Publishing in isolation … gave me a chance to reflect on what I truly find rewarding.

The IDP suggested careers in public policy or administration. The prospect of leaving research was scary. But if the major research milestone of publishing a paper wasn’t fulfilling for me, I needed to look elsewhere. So, rather than start new research projects, I’ve begun to write my thesis earlier than I planned, aiming to apply for a science policy fellowship in the fall. I’ve started to do something I previously associated only with business students and career professionals: networking with past collaborators and professors.

I wish it hadn’t taken a global catastrophe for me to find my way to what I hope will be a rewarding career path. Yet if COVID-19 hadn’t happened, I expect I would still be going full-steam ahead on research and would have realized far too late that I was on the wrong path. Going forward, I hope I can make a routine of regularly reflecting on what sparks joy—without waiting for a crisis.

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