Though Neda Maghbouleh feels that she is living her dream as a professional sociologist, her career began with the encouragement of a mentor – and with quitting a prestigious job.
“When I think about it now, it seems unbelievable – what was I thinking?” she says of that time in her life.
In the latest instalment of the U of T Careers series, Maghbouleh shares her experiences of career transitions, and the power of a strong mentor.
Maghbouleh, who completed her undergraduate degree at Smith College, says she used the skills she learned during her sociology degree – skills in statistics and research methods – to secure a position at a respected business-consulting firm in Boston. She signed the contract for the role before she graduated, making her parents proud.
But she found the work extremely boring. So, at 22 years old and after only two weeks at the firm, Maghbouleh left the safe, respectable, parent-approved job. It was a decision that went entirely against everything she thought she was working towards – but it secured her future as a sociologist.
Maghbouleh credits the life-changing decision in part to her undergraduate adviser, Ginetta Candelario, who told Maghbouleh’s parents that she was certain their daughter could be a professional sociologist if she wanted to.
“My parents were so blown away, and that gave me the confidence to leave that first job that I organized my entire identity around,” says Maghbouleh. “In my own work I strive to be that kind of professor for my students – to advocate for them, and to open up horizons that they have closed off for themselves.”
She went back to Northampton, and for three months cleaned apartments in exchange for free rent, to set the stage for the next part of her life. “The apartments had a really high turnover rate because they were slums. But I sorted my life out and applied to graduate school,” she says. “I was 22 and felt invincible.”
Next followed a two-year stint at a job that further cemented her interests in sociology. “Smith pulled together a multicultural recruitment team that was meant to rigorously recruit low-income students to campus,” says Maghbouleh. She signed up for the job, and spent the next two years travelling across the U.S., working to break barriers faced by students from low-income backgrounds when applying to universities. That time made it clear to her that she wanted to work as a sociologist.
“The longer I’m around, the more I feel like people are open to hearing from sociologists about the kind of insights that they might bring to bear on issues of politics and policy,” she says of the expertise sociologists lend to current issues. “I have noticed a growing openness to complement the insights from economics, political science, psychology and other fields, with the lens that only comes from interrogating the social.”
Her book, The Limits of Whiteness, looks into some of those topics. Maghbouleh says the book unpacks the experiences of Iranians who immigrated to the United States.
“Despite the different footholds that Iranians and other Middle Easterners have into white racial identity, they also, and in particular over the last 40 years, have experienced a dramatic uptick in discrimination,” says Maghbouleh. Her work on that book, and further sociological research, was influenced by her move from the U.S. to Canada.
“I had done all the research and work as a grad student but I only really sat down to write the book once I arrived in Canada,” she says. “The influence of Canadian multiculturalism played a part, in this country with its own unique set of problems, but that is organized differently than what I knew in the United State,” she says.
If there’s one thing that surprised Maghbouleh about her work as a sociologist it’s how lonely scholarly work can be. “I didn’t know that when I was an undergrad. Sometimes the default is to work in isolation, which can be a good fit for some people, but if you’re someone like me, who thrives on human contact and collaboration, you have to seek out to build that into your career.”
Two collaborative projects are keeping her particularly engaged and excited right now.
“I recently won a SSHRC research grant for a study on the experiences of Syrian newcomer refugees in Toronto, work that I get to do with Melissa Milkie and Ito Peng,” Maghbouleh says. “From the very inception of the project we wanted it to be very collaborative.”
In another project, Maghbouleh is working with sociologists Ariella Schachter and René Flores. “We’ve come up with this experiment to try to test how everyday people understand race and how they externally classify other people,” she says.
Reflecting on her career so far and what’s yet to come, she says that she couldn’t work as a sociologist without having an insatiable curiosity. “You can’t be too sure of yourself – you’re constantly going into the world and you have to be really open to others, and open to criticism from other people.”
The next phase of her career will be shaped by that same drive. “We don’t have certain answers but we are always working towards improving our sense of knowledge and our sense of truth,” says Maghbouleh.