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? 


  1. 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.

    This kind of hit me, but in the opposite way that you meant. What if it’s a part of the essential part that is starting to kill your will to live? In my case, it’s the year 1 and 2 courses of a techcnial specialty taught to a very diverse group of students, some 20-30% of whom are almost computer illiterate, hate maths or can actually do maths, but have zero confidence in themselves. I have dealt with it sufficiently well until this year, when all the student computer rooms where we have labs have been converted to Win 10, with which the specialty software (which is the industry standard, so we can’t switch to something else) does not play well. 90% of class time this year was spent troubleshooting software or dealing with computer illiteracy (which I’m also noticing seems to be on increase, as students keep using phones/tablets and are helpless when they are asked to open a zip file, which they have never encountered before or when they can’t understand why specialty software doesn’t work on their Mac laptop – because it’s a windows only software, nothing we can do about it).

    I managed to get through the semester, but I can’t deal with this again, I am not teaching the technical specialty, I am standing next to each student telling them where to click instead. And if you ask if I have TAs, yes, I do, but our classes are large (200 students) and I can only get one TA, so we both have to be present in labs (40 students per session). I have also noticed a very passive attitude of the students towards software (or even fear?): when something crashes/goes wrong, their reaction is not what it was previously (re-start the software, try again, then if the problem persists, ask teacher for help). Instead they just sit and look at the screen and wait until I get to them to fix it for them – it’s like they are afraid of doing something that might break the computer? Very weird.

    So perhaps another topic for you to write about? How to deal with the increasingly lower computer literacy of students?

  2. “But, I am sick and tired of travel for work…”

    I am sick and tired of getting sick because of travel. I had back to back trips before Thanksgiving and the cold I caught on the first one took me out of commission the three days between trips. Yuck!

  3. Seems to me you’ve got a pretty sane travel policy. I’ve been trying to find my happy place on travel these past few years, but I spend so much time agonizing over each invitation that it’s ridiculous. When my son was born, it was impossible to travel for a few months and super-hard after that, and it’s only now starting to get easier as he approaches 2yo. It has freaked me out a little to cut back on travel while on the tenure track, but so far the world hasn’t ended after I’ve said no to some stuff, and I agree that there’s a really big tradeoff in ability to mentor my group members — part of why my group has been so productive in the past year is that I took a sabbatical semester almost entirely at my university and just pushed a bunch of papers out the door. I’m so glad I didn’t kill myself with travel during my precious one semester of sabbatical. Between my son’s birth and some medical complications I wound up turning down a bunch of high-priority invitations, but now, a few years out, I see that while it slowed me down it didn’t stop me in my tracks. Two of them just invited me back the next time they happened, and I’ll be going to those in February/March. I do feel very obligated to say yes to almost everything this year, as it’s my final year pre-tenure, but I’m already sad about being away from my still very little son for one airplane-length trip per month next semester. I look forward to being able to feel out the best balance of travel *without* the added pressure of impending tenure decisions after this year.

  4. I dislike traveling but am putting up with it for only another year. (Soon getting a Southwest Companion Pass so my husband can tag along occasionally!) It constantly amazes me what valuable connections I make while traveling. Many of the trips involve potential funders, and I feel a need to see what other bigger, faster labs are up to so that I do not accidentally compete with them.

    “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…”

    What if it’s an arguably essential part that is killing my will to live? I spend more time mentoring than doing science, by which I mean that most mentoring is just getting people to think about what they are actually doing or trying to say. I know I’m teaching valuable skills, but it makes me so sad to spend more time teaching basic writing, talk organization, exploratory analysis, and literature search techniques (as if there’s much to teach!) instead of digging into the problems themselves. It’s draining, it stresses me, and I occasionally resent my trainees (a symptom of burnout, and one I aggressively manage). I am realizing I would rather have a much smaller lab and do only a few hours of such mentoring per week than the few hours per student/postdoc per week that I am averaging now. I am ambivalent about getting tenure at this rate.

  5. David, wow, yes, and ouch! Those are some serious leg cramps on intercontinental flights! If I lived in Australia, I’d probably never go anywhere. How do you manage travel?

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