Robert Neubecker

My singing and research were at odds—until I restored the harmony between them

I wake up in the middle of the night and cannot fall back to sleep. I feel I’ve reached the lowest point in my life, with little hope that I will be able to finish my Ph.D. It has only been 8 days since I agreed to give up singing, yet it feels like an eternity. Singing had provided a welcome balance to my scientific pursuits. But after a roller-coaster year, including a switch to a new adviser and myriad family and relationship issues, my work had suffered. Something had to give. I thought it needed to be music.

About 3 years earlier, I had decided to do my Ph.D. in New York City in part for the musical opportunities. I joined the university chorus and several opera productions. Juggling my academic responsibilities and singing stretched me thin sometimes. But, after a long day of classes or hours in front of my computer screen trying to debug code, singing helped me decompress, recharge, and recalibrate.

During my second year, things started to take a turn. My original adviser left for a different institution. My new adviser was very supportive but had a much more hands-on approach than I was used to. I also needed to prepare for my qualifying exams at the end of the year. At times I considered dropping music. “You’re doing a Ph.D. in air pollution, not music,” I told myself. “Priorities, priorities, priorities.”

But when I remembered the joy and relaxation that I get from music-making, I rejected the idea. In fact, I took on one of the biggest, most challenging roles I’ve ever had: the title role in an oratorio. Preparing for the performance and my qualifying exam at the same time was a lot to manage. But every time I immersed myself in the music, I was transported away from the stresses of grad school—and when I came back, I was in better mental and emotional shape to tackle my scientific work again.

I got through my qualifying exam, but my relationship with my new adviser was still bumpy. Spending the following summer in China didn’t help. My research is on air pollution and health in China, and most of my extended family lives there. But 3 months without face-to-face interaction with my adviser did not improve our dynamic. Miscommunications piled up. My adviser sent me an email saying that we needed to have a serious conversation when I got back. I was dreading my return—all but the music. I looked forward to rehearsing for the roles I had lined up and resuming my voice lessons.

Although studying pollution drives me, not being able to sing drives me mad.

Upon my return—on Friday the 13th, no less—my adviser and I sat down for our talk. I was not meeting expectations; my dissertation research needed to be my top priority. My adviser didn’t know exactly how important music was for me and was just trying to help me be successful in my Ph.D. But I felt that giving up singing was my only choice. Maybe this would help get my doctoral work back on track. I wrote apologetic emails left and right, cutting all of my singing engagements.

The result? I was miserable. I lost the motivation to get out of bed in the morning, let alone do research. I realized that although studying pollution drives me, not being able to sing drives me mad.

So, I sent emails begging for the roles I had dropped. Amazingly, the directors all took me back. And a strange thing happened: I redoubled my efforts, on both my research and my relationship with my adviser. We started to meet weekly, with progress reports due. These new, more frequent deadlines were very stressful, but I scheduled my voice lessons to immediately follow each meeting. I clung to music like a rope dangling over a bottomless pit.

Gradually, my adviser and I built a strong relationship, and my research finally seemed to head in the right direction. It has now been a year and a half since that fateful night. I’m making progress on my research and performing regularly. My adviser comes to some of my shows. A poster—featuring my photo—from my most recent performance is displayed on my adviser’s office windowsill. The balance between music and research shifts at times—toward music in the week leading up to a performance, away as a grant due date nears—but pursuing both is my key to fulfillment.

Do you have an interesting career story? Send it to SciCareerEditor@aaas.org.

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