Why I Left the Nuclear Industry

It's okay to rethink the decisions you made at 18

Why I Left the Nuclear Industry
It was a rough day at work

My cover letter starts:

On January 4th 2022 I quit my job as a nuclear reactor operator. I’d taken the job after graduating with my bachelor’s in chemical engineering and while the subject matter was interesting, I found the actual day to day work to be miserable. Looking back, I realized the times I felt most engaged were when I was programming, be it in my college’s Matlab course or with my hobby projects. So I went back to school to pursue a master’s in computer science.

Now, as I prepare to graduate with my master's in computer science, I thought it would be a good time to reflect on why I chose to leave the nuclear industry. This excerpt from my cover letter hits the important points; I no longer enjoyed the work and my passions were elsewhere. But I think if we dig a little deeper, there's a lesson to learn about how we make choices in our careers.

Bachelor's Degree

It's no secret that at 18 it's hard to know what you want to do with your life. After high-school the next step for many of us is college, but unless you have a great deal of clarity on your passions, it's hard to know which degree is best for you.

When I was looking at colleges I was between electrical and nuclear engineering programs. I was very interested in green energy and nuclear power in high-school. I thought there was something inspiring about the work to combat climate change and I thought nuclear power was fascinating. What swayed me in the end was finding UMass Lowell's chemical engineering program that had a nuclear engineering track. UMass Lowell also boasted a nuclear reactor on campus they used for research.

While I was at UMass Lowell, I had a job as a part-time reactor operator at the campus nuclear reactor. It took a lot of effort and involved months of self-study, but I earned my federal nuclear reactor operator license. It was such a unique experience and I learned so much. Me and my fellow student operators took a lot of pride in being highly trained to respond to all manner of emergency and incident (not that it ever happened, it was a very safe facility).

Nuclear Reactor Operator

I wasn't sure what I wanted to do after college, but I knew I enjoyed reactor operations and thought it was worth exploring further. I ended up getting a job as a senior reactor operator at the MIT Nuclear Reactor Laboratory, another campus nuclear reactor.

I was still very enamored with the nuclear industry. There was so much to learn and everything was so new. For a while I really enjoyed working as a reactor operator. It again involved months of self-study, this time working towards a senior reactor operator license.

A friend once told me, "there are subjects that are interesting that I want to learn about, and there are subjects that I actually want to do day-to-day." Those two are not necessarily the same. There are subjects that are interesting and fun to learn, but that I wouldn't actually want a career in.

It's a trope that they don't teach you everything you need to know in school, and this is true. In any field there are a lot of skills that you only learn on the job. But the corollary is, how you feel about a subject in school is not an adequate representation of how you'll feel working professionally in it. This is one of the reasons colleges advertise co-op and internship programs. They give students insight into how much they'll enjoy the work itself.

My interest in nuclear engineering did not correlate with a passion for the day-to-day work of a nuclear reactor operator. After I got my senior reactor operator license, my sentiment about the job turned sour. I started doing normal shift work and things became very repetitive. The hours didn't align with my sleep schedule and there wasn't a lot of upward career mobility. It started to feel like I was stagnating. On top of this, I was assigned duties that involved manual labor that exacerbated my chronic injuries.

Master's Degree

It was around this time that I started thinking about going back to school. I had always intended on going back to school, but early on I thought I'd do it part time while working at MIT. As I became disgruntled, I realized what I really wanted to was to quit and go to school full time.

One of the reasons I had delayed going back to school was that I didn't know which path to pursue. I could continue learning about nuclear science, or branch off and learn about health physics. I could also start pursuing data science, which was trendy subject at the time and seemed interesting.

It took a lot of introspection but what I finally realized was that I wanted to pursue a career in computer science. Looking back, I'd always been working on CS adjacent hobby projects. For example, in undergrad I learned Python and wrote some simple automation scripts. After graduation, I also put together a bunch of Raspberry Pi's and started serving websites from my apartment. The key realization was that I was most engaged in my work when I was coding.

I knew there was a big foundation of computer science knowledge I was missing and I would be better positioned for a career switch if I got a degree in it. Almost right away when I started the program I could tell it was the right choice. Unlike when I was in undergrad, the coursework clicked much more easily and I was much more intrinsically motivated to do it. Getting my internship at Jabra was even more affirming. At work one day, I had the thought, "if this is what my day-to-day is like after I graduate this will have all been worth it."

Career Decisions

I'm much happier now than I was at MIT. Don't get me wrong, I love the MIT NRL. I'm so incredibly grateful for everything they did for me. I mean, they got us through the pandemic without laying anyone off, which is absolutely remarkable. Just because it didn't end up being the right fit for me, does not mean it isn't the right fit for some people.

But what I learned while working there is that my passions lay elsewhere. What's more, I think there are qualities of software engineering that better align with my disposition. It's project based work, you're constantly building something new or making improvements. It's a much more dynamic role than being a nuclear reactor operator. Again, this isn't a value judgement on that kind of work, it can be very rewarding and enjoyable, but it wasn't the right fit for me.

One of the students I worked with at MIT told me it was encouraging to see me leave. They were about to graduate and said seeing me switch careers to something totally different reassured them that they could do the same. If their career after graduation wasn't a good fit, they weren't stuck and could move on to something else.

I think a big takeaway from this whole endeavor is that, just because we made the best decision we could at the time, doesn't mean we need to stick with that decision in the future. Over time you'll grow and change, and it's important to give yourself the flexibility to rethink your decisions.

And it's easy to trick yourself into thinking something is the right fit. There's a lot of emotional incentive to think we made the right choice, especially when we've put a lot of time and effort into something like a bachelor's degree. Making changes to our path is difficult and scary. Quitting my job involved moving back in with my parents (which I'm incredibly grateful for) and it was terrifying.

Rethinking the decisions I made about my career helped me see what I was actually passionate about and got me to a much better place. I have so much to be grateful for and this experience has been a genuine life changer.

With that said, I'm looking for a new job 😁 If you're interested in working with me please check out my resume and get in touch: contact@kyleclapper.dev