I'm an analytical chemist with a two-body problem

My girlfriend is going to Berkeley; should I take a dream job in Toronto?

Published June 28, 2007 11:01AM (EDT)

Hello Cary,

I am a 27-year-old graduate student in analytical chemistry, finally rounding the homestretch toward graduation, which should be in December. Looming up before me is this great decision, this ominous cloud that has been hanging out in the distance the last six months, but has just now decided to unleash its storm, perhaps a beat or two before I was ready. The crux of my befuddlement is a particular version of the classical two-body problem: I have a great career opportunity in one part of the world, and my girlfriend is going to another part of the world.

We met in lab a few years ago, where I was assigned to help her learn the ins and outs of doing experiments in a big lab while we were working on the same project. We started dating about a year ago, with the shared understanding that each of us had our careers to mind. She was especially adamant on this point, since her dad is a big-name scientist (in some circles) for whom her mother sacrificed her career aspirations. She graduated in May and will soon be going to Berkeley to do physical chemistry. Because I am graduating six or seven months after her, my search for work started after her search for graduate schools. I had been looking all over the country, just in case, but I had my sights set on a few companies in the Bay Area. It must be mentioned that I wish to work in a particular niche of science; I'd like to design and make mass spectrometers, an obscure and small little corner of science, but one that I really enjoy and would like to be paid well for carrying out. I have pursued a few opportunities in the Bay Area, but everything has fallen through so far. Not to worry, there is a lot of time -- except, a couple of days ago, a postdoc position was offered to me in a lab in Toronto, a lab that collaborates with an important scientific instrument manufacturer. It seems like a dream fit for me, if I didn't have a girlfriend. A decision needs to be made within a couple of weeks.

Things have not been perfect for us the whole time, but in the past four months or so the intensity has really moved up a notch. I love her, it seems, as much as I can love a girl, and all the evidence tells me that she feels the same about me. I'm her first really serious boyfriend of more than a few weeks, so it seems sometimes that I get two barrels full of insecure, immature little girl. But we've worked through a lot of that, have started hanging out almost every day, and have become really, really close. We aren't the sort of people who especially want to get married, i.e., a Swedish girl and renounced Catholic boy, atheists/agnostics both. But we could be life partners, if things could just work out. I feel like I might die if I have to tell her that I'm going to Toronto, that I don't love her enough to try to find something in the Bay Area.

I've been in love before, maybe, and done stupid things, wasted a lot of time, for girls. How does anyone know when they've found someone who is worth sacrificing a career opportunity for? There are a couple of people who are trying to help me find another opportunity close to Berkeley, namely my advisor and some ex-labmates. If nothing shows up by July 11, what do I do? Adieu, c'est la vie? This is what my dad thinks, who is usually right, and whose advice in love I never take. There is no way to quantify and measure love, and there's no way to quantify and measure an opportunity. And shoot, I could move out to the Bay Area, hate it, hate my job, and hate my girl for acting as the catalyst in this decision. I know that there are more important things happening in the world right now, that in the order of things in the universe, I am nothing and this time is but a speck of dust in the hourglass. My universe, however, has stopped expanding, and appears on the verge of implosion. I don't know what to do. Except maybe cry a little.

A Sad Speck of Dust

Dear Sad Speck,

Hey! Stop your crying there, big boy. You've got work to do.

You need to decide. Are you in love with her or not?

If you're not in love with her, then what's the problem? Fine. Let her go. Break up with her. Easy come, easy go.

But that's not working for you. Why? Because you're in love with her! You two are a couple.

Does she understand that? That's what you need to make sure of. You need to tell her that you're sticking with her and you have to make sure that she understands that and wants that. If she doesn't want you to come to the Bay Area with her, you need to know that. Do you think she's going to go out there and change her mind about you? No one can predict with absolute certainty, but you need a promise of some sort. You need an understanding: You're ready to give up this job for her. She'd better be sure that you're the guy.

You say you feel like you might die if you had to tell her you weren't going with her. You need to know if it's as important to her.

OK. That's settled.

Now, since you're a couple, and couples do things together, and she's moving to the Bay Area, you're going with her.

Since you're going with her, you can't take this job in Toronto. So you have to tell the people in Toronto that you won't be able to accept the position.

Sometimes things don't work out. Bad things happen to marriages and nonmarried relationships. Nothing is assured. But one must act in the world according to the true conditions of one's life. If you're in love, act like it.

I do not think that this situation is all that complex. It is difficult but not complex. It is only difficult because it requires sacrifice. I'm not saying that this Toronto job might not be the best job for your set of skills and professional ambitions. It might be. I'm saying you can't always get what you want.

Speaking of which: Whose career has priority right now? I think hers does, since she has already accepted a position. Hers also does for her personally, since she is trying to reverse a gender-based legacy. That can be touchy for couples. Duh. Plus, this whole reversing a gender-based legacy thing is not foolproof: We find in reversing the mistakes of our parents that we make equal and opposite mistakes. But since she's made the first move, yours is, for now, the subordinate position.

So deal with it. Get your butt out to the West Coast. There must be some decent little mass spectrometer shops out here somewhere -- heck, I think there's a surfer running one just down the street out of the back of a pizza parlor. No, OK, he's making surfing wax. Sorry. I just feel like, come on, guy, get out here!

You say one cannot calculate the value of a job or a relationship, but I do not think that is true. I think one must calculate it. Courts are called upon to do so. Moreover, intuitively we do it anyway. For instance, suppose that you and she settle down and have a good relationship and good jobs. Say that one day a supernatural being comes to the door and says that you must give up either the job or the relationship. Which would you choose? Which would you consider expendable? Which would you consider replaceable?

While in science many problems are difficult because they are complex, in life many problems are difficult because they are simple, but we are human and we want everything. While in the conduct of science we would never suspend physical laws to get the result we seek, in life we try that all the time: Can one person be in two places at the same time? Well, people say no, but maybe in this case ... I don't know ... if I accumulate enough free miles maybe I could fly from Toronto to Oakland enough times that I could appear to be in two places at once ...

I don't think so.

So good luck on your move to the Bay Area. Last I checked, there were some condos starting in the low $1 millions up around Pinole. :-)

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