How to have two careers, and be happy with both

Close-up of Alessandro Sala playing bass for Rhapsody Of Fire

Alessandro Sala has found a way to balance his scientific and musical responsibilities.Credit: Esther W. Pink

I am an experimental physicist in the field of surface science, investigating the properties of nanostructured surfaces, 2D materials and organometallic molecules with a scanning tunneling microscope.

I also play bass for Rhapsody Of Fire, a heavy-metal band that has sold more than one million records throughout its 25-year history and regularly tours the world. This role requires month-long absences from the lab, early-morning flights and dark leather clothes.

The story behind this double life is long and full of life lessons, dating back to my PhD at the Fritz Haber Institute of the Max Planck Society in Berlin. Then, all my spare time and money went on early-morning flights and trains for rehearsals and concerts to play with my band at the time based in Trieste, Italy, my hometown. I was lucky to have both a tolerant doctoral supervisor — Hans-Joachim Freund — and bandmates with ‘normal’ jobs, so the band mainly performed at the weekend.

In 2011, after three years of this punishing schedule, I decided to leave music to dedicate more time to my PhD. But focusing solely on science helped me to understand that I really wanted to pursue both careers — I felt incomplete doing just one.

I also realized that if I wanted to combine the two then my working life would involve slowing down one activity when I needed to concentrate on the other. Both careers have moments that require my full attention — experiments and project writing for one, and composition and touring for the other.

Balance and sacrifice

In 2013, after completing my PhD, I joined Elettra, the synchrotron radiation facility in Trieste, as a postdoctoral fellow. This role enabled me to stay in science without developing a completely independent research line, because most of the experiments came from the research of visiting scientists.

It also enabled me to restart my music career. After playing with other bands, I joined Rhapsody of Fire in 2015. A year later, I went on my first world tour, and I haven’t stopped since.

I’ve realized that being involved in both worlds means that I will probably never excel in either. I accept that I might never be an Ivy League professor, nor will I compose the next The Dark Side of the Moon. But this doesn’t mean that I cannot be reasonably good in both. For me, the bigger picture is more important than the single achievement. I feel that downgrading your initial career expectations is not a failure if you accept broader ones.

But having an outlet for my music revitalized my interest in science. Everything was easier, even at night shifts at the synchrotron, because I knew that I was going to express myself and interact with people through music. Once the pressure to succeed was eased, I perceived science for what it really is: a way to satisfy my own curiosity about nature, not just a way to make my life. At any rate, I always have another way to earn money.

In 2017, I received a second postdoctoral grant from the University of Trieste, Italy. This position allowed me to start my own research line without compromising my music. I had full control over my daily schedule and could take long holidays to tour — the grant did not expressly state a maximum number of vacation days.

I realized that the best way to avoid complications with your supervisors and co-workers is to be honest from the very first interview. I’ve found that, at least for my supervisors, carrying out a project in the assigned delivery time is more important than a constant presence throughout the year.

My co-workers were also happy to use my scanning tunneling microscope while I was absent. I think that my strange schedule somehow strengthened the team: in the lab, everybody is capable of using every instrument, and often we help each other on our scientific projects.

After three years, I earned a permanent position as a researcher with the National Research Council (CNR) of Italy. I still work in the lab at Trieste because the professional and social environment is perfect for the life I want to have.

Plan years ahead

Inspired by the music business, I have also learned to plan my life several years in advance. In the industry, events such as composing and recording new music, video shoots, pre-issue promotion, releasing an album, live tours in support of the new record and summer festivals are routinely planned around two years ahead.

A good music business plan spans at least two records. So, naturally, I wanted to create a parallel business plan for my scientific career to ensure that both flow smoothly. I define time windows in which I don’t have any music obligations and I am fully committed to the lab, and I give myself deadlines to complete an experimental session or an article draft. I now prefer not to stick too long on a single scientific topic. I treat research branches like albums: every couple of years I revise them critically, and I am not afraid to start a new one, if needed.

Regarding time management, I have found the best strategy is to find separate spaces for both music and science, instead of pushing then both into my schedule indiscriminately, as I did at the beginning of my PhD. I accept master’s candidates and temporary lecturing positions only if no big tour is scheduled in the following semester. I train my postgraduate students to be completely independent, so they can keep working when I travel. I plan to attend conferences only during May, June, September and October, to avoid a schedule conflict (my band tends to tour in many of the other months).

When new songs are written, I arrange my parts mentally over a couple of months, and condense all the recording sessions of a new album into a couple of weekends; this means the laboratory schedule is not affected. I carefully plan lab activities with my co-workers year by year, and share my musical commitments with them so we have a schedule that satisfies everyone. While I am on tour, I periodically attend lab meetings remotely to keep myself updated — but I don’t write articles or projects, or analyze data. And I never rehearse while I’m immersed in an experiment; I do listen to good music, though.

Not only does this make life easier, but it also helps my brain to be fresh and focused. When I come back to my lab after a month of sleeping on a tour bus, my mind is ready for new scientific ideas, and I feel free to dedicate myself to a scientific task within a well-defined time frame. Good time management is the key to having the best of both worlds.