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Robert Neubecker

How a volunteer gig as a ‘barback’ changed my perspective in grad school

Midway through grad school, a friend asked me to volunteer as a barback—a bartender’s assistant—at the opening gala for a film festival. I was hesitant at first, having never worked behind a bar. But I said yes, lured by the offer of free tickets to the festival. I spent an evening running around like a chicken with its head cut off: slicing fruit, replacing liquor bottles, and doing other menial tasks. By the end of the night, I was tired and sweaty and I’d dropped an expensive bottle of vodka. But I felt incredible—in awe of how much fun I had—and I went home and slept better than I had in years. The event forced me to reflect on what brings me happiness and a clear state of mind. It was a turning point in my grad school experience.

I got into my doctoral program on a technicality. On my application, I’d checked the box for “Ph.D.” not knowing that a master’s degree was a prerequisite. My adviser—who interviewed me over the phone—misread my undergraduate record and thought I had a graduate degree under my belt, so I was admitted to the Ph.D. program. He welcomed me into his lab even after finding out about the error. But it left me feeling like I had a lot to prove.

I got off to a running start. My adviser had 3 years of funding to cover my stipend and tuition. I threw myself into reading every paper I could find and thinking about how to test scientific questions no one had yet delved into. And I was awarded a grant to help fund some expensive genetics labwork.

But 4 years later, I felt lost. I barely passed my qualifying exam. A manuscript I spent a year working on was rejected outright, without peer review, and I was running out of funding. My mood was in the gutter. I told my therapist at the time, “The more people are interested in what I study, the angrier I am that they care and I don’t.” I dreamed about quitting my program, moving back home, and working at the bike shop that had employed me during college. Then came the barback gig.

After we finished cleaning up the bar that night, I was handed festival tickets and an envelope with my cut of the tips—close to $40. It felt wrong to be compensated while having so much fun. I grinned as we snuck upstairs to watch the gala attendees finish their drinks and to steal shrimp from the serving bowls.

The demands of the job were exactly what I was missing from my Ph.D. program.

The next day, I tried to figure out why I loved this short-lived experience so much. I realized it was because the demands of the job were exactly what I was missing from my Ph.D. program. It was physically exhausting, the tasks I was responsible for were simple and could be completed in a short time, and I knew without a doubt when I succeeded and when I failed. My mind was blissfully blank all night. At that point, I had not had a break from thinking as hard as I possibly could for 4 years. I had never come up for air, and I was completely unaware of the toll it was taking on my mental health.

Since then, I’ve tried to give my mind more breaks. When I start to feel overwhelmed—when an experiment fails, a mistake sets me back a month, or funding falls through—I make a point of doing things that allow me to feel successful in other ways. I learn how to play a new song on the piano. I go for a run. I volunteer for an organization that I care deeply about, performing basic tasks such as stapling papers and shredding documents. The simplicity of these activities brings a peace of mind that I never find in academia. They help clear my head, preparing me to dive back into the graduate work that both excites and exhausts me.

I don’t think I’ll ever be a professional barback. But I’ll never forget the lessons I learned that night. Graduate school takes a lot of work and skill, but it doesn’t exercise all the muscles of your brain, body, or spirit. Sometimes it’s OK—even necessary—to find other, decidedly unscientific, ways to fill your cup.

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