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Robert Neubecker

After falling in love, I reimagined my career path—for the better

After I returned from a monthslong research trip, my partner sat me down to talk. We’d moved in together shortly before my departure and, in my absence, she’d been pondering our future. “I don’t want to leave Toronto. I love it here and so do you,” she said. I was in the third year of my Ph.D., and she worried my career plans would lead us elsewhere, first for a postdoc and then for a faculty position. Deep down, I knew this conversation was coming. Until then I hadn’t given the issue much thought, but I knew she was right. I wanted to be with her more than I wanted to be a professor.

My partner’s career as an operating room nurse was mobile in theory. But she loved the hospital where she worked, loved Toronto (the city where she grew up), and wanted to stick close to friends and family. She wanted to build our life where we were, to make the city our home.

During my time in grad school, I had grown to love Toronto as well. The energy in the streets was exhilarating, and as a Filipino immigrant to Canada, I enjoyed the cultural diversity. But I wasn’t aware of jobs that would allow me to stay without compromising the academic career I had been working toward for my entire life.

My partner’s concerns about our future forced me to focus on my career plans and to reassess the academic career path I’d been blindly following up to that point. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that path might not be right for me after all. There were aspects of academia I didn’t like, such as the power disparity between students and professors and the pervasive view that only academic success was real success. I also realized many careers outside academia—in industry and policy, for instance—offered a chance to make a more rapid impact in the real world.

I started to explore options by contacting Ph.D. graduates who had followed career paths I found interesting, asking for informational interviews. I spoke with venture capitalists, energy company executives, management consultants, former politicians, and startup founders. I’d always end the phone call with the same question: “If you could talk to yourself when you were in your mid-20s, knowing everything you know now, what advice would you give?” Often, the answer was that career paths are not straight or neatly assembled. It’s important to be willing to fail and pivot to something new, as doing so often leads you to better places.

The conversations opened my eyes to a universe of career options and showed me that no one path interested me most; rather, I wanted to experience them all! From then on, I started to envision my career as a set of chapters: Perhaps I’d start with one option, then move on to another at some point in the future. That perspective freed me to explore many possibilities without worrying that diving into one meant giving up a chance to pursue another.

The conversations opened my eyes to a universe of career options.

When I was in my last year of graduate school, I looked into starting a company to build the clean-energy technology I’d been researching during my Ph.D. But my adviser felt the technology was too early for commercialization, so I started to look for jobs. One day on LinkedIn, I noticed a job posting for a government position. A national lab wanted someone to lead the development of technologies to help Canada reach net zero carbon emissions. I hadn’t been seeking government jobs, but I was excited. The work had the potential to make a real impact—and it was based in Toronto. I applied, was offered the job, and accepted.

Two years later, I can say with confidence that my career transition was right for me. I might not stay in this job forever, but it feels like the perfect first step for me to take postgraduation. I love what I do—and I get to wake up every morning with a smile on my face next to the person I love most. I wouldn’t trade that for anything.

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