Day: November 24, 2017

On Travel

Urggle asks:

How about a post about the merits of travel – we scientists fly endlessly around the world, at great cost to the environment and our families. Personally, I would like to just stop travelling for work. It’s hard on my kids and on my time and well-being. But the invitations are insistent and never-ending. It’s embedded into our culture. How do you (kindly, but firmly) decline someone? How do you manage travel expectations as you climb up the ladder?

To start, I will emphasize that I am not a superstar. I am respected in my field, but I do theory and computation within the broader area, in which the heavy hitters are experimentalists. So please calibrate accordingly. My attitude toward travel might be correlated with my relative non-superstardom.

I have been a faculty member for over a decade. Tenure, full prof, named prof. I traveled like crazy on the tenure track and even a few years afterwards.

*grump alert*

I am soooooo done with travel. I don’t see the point of excessive travel. Some is fine and useful, most of it is not. Some people love travel and get energized by it; if you are like that, more power to you — have fun! But, I am sick and tired of travel for work and it is impossible to entice me to do more of it with anything touristy. I don’t care at how nice a place your meeting is. I care how exhausting and expensive it will be to get there and stay there.

Here are the rules I currently implement when it comes to travel. When I don’t want to do it, I simply say I am too busy and cannot, end of story. It’s not untrue. I might deviate from the rules to do a favor for a colleague I like, but even so I have to say no, because there are more colleagues I might have to make exceptions for than there are exceptions total I am willing to make…

I have become extremely selective regarding where I travel overseas and how frequently. Right now, I will do at most one overseas trip per year, to Europe; absolutely no more than that. I avoid going to Asia because the cost and the hassle are simply too great. I passed up a couple of opportunities to go to Australia in recent years and will take a next meaningful one to do so, but other than that it’s Europe once a year or all domestic.

There are four conferences in my field that I try to attend whenever I can, and there’s a clear hierarchy among them. There’s one I never miss (alternates between US and Europe), two that I seldom miss (one always in Europe, one goes between the US, Europe, and Asia), and one that I go to only if it’s in the US. In addition, there is a Gordon conference (always in the US) that I try to attend  whenever offered and I look forward to it this year, and three large meetings (different places across the US) where I mostly send students and only attend in person if there are particularly nice special sessions or it’s very convenient to drive.

I don’t mind most travel within the US. In fact, I quite like the three-day trip (2 nights) of the kind you might undertake to go to an NSF panel. I go to Washington,  DC, at least 2-3 times per year;  in a busy year, probably more than half a dozen times. Attending PI meetings and review panels is extremely useful in terms of both the exposure to new science and networking, so these are a priority for me.

I give talks at other institutions only if it’s convenient, along with something else or to do a favor to someone I know and like, otherwise I don’t do it.

Of course, this is something I can elect to do at my career stage. Junior people typically need more exposure. (Shameless plug: There is much more on travel, especially on the tenure track, in Academaze.)

I would like to add that you should never neglect your personal well-being (burnout is a well-known phenomenon) or the work with your group. I know people who travel so much that their group is basically self-governing. I don’t think those students get much training or advising, and the research dollars are not being spent optimally.

Never lose sight of why we do what we do and what the priorities are: to push the boundaries of human knowledge through research and to educate the next generation. Everything else is either in the service of these two or is not really essential. If a nonessential part actually prevents you from doing a job on the essential part or kills your will to live, maybe it’s time to rethink how you spend your energy. Remember, no medals are given for getting sick or forgetting the faces of your spouse and kids because of work.

Blogosphere readers, what do you say? Do you have advice for Urggle?