The Travelling Academic

I’ve returned from my recent trip exhausted and exhilarated all at the same time (is there a name for that feeling?) This travelling business is something academics are expected to do, and can benefit greatly from, but it can add to the uncertainty of our academic lives, and for me, it came at a great cost: being away from my husband and kids (now 6- & 5- yrs old) for over 3 weeks. So I wanted to make sure I used up every little bit of my time away as best as I could. As a result, I’ve learnt a lot about travelling, particularly as a PhD student on a budget, so thought I’d share some of these pointers:

1) Download the city Google Map for all the locations you will be in

This means you won’t need wifi to be able to find out where you are (if getting a local SIM isn’t an option). Save the key locations you’ll be visiting so they will be shown with a star. And yes, this did save me late one night when I decided to take the train from Waterloo Station in London rather than go to the Tube station (what was I thinking!). But the map meant that I could follow my little blue dot as I walked from Lewisham to New Cross late that Tuesday evening and safely arrive at my destination. london

2) Preparation is key if-i-had-eight-hours-to-chop-down-a-tree-id-spend-six-sharpening-my-axe-quote-1

Make the most of the time you have spent in getting to some other location (especially when you are travelling from Australia – where just about anywhere else on the planet feels like the other side of the world) by being organised upfront. I found that by taking the time to arrange lab visits / catch ups over lunch / coffees at conferences before I left, even though it took up a lot of time, it meant that when I was there I could really just enjoy, and know I was making the most of my time away.

3) Don’t assume you will get any work done on a flight 

There is a lot of downtime waiting to board a flight, on a flight, getting through airports, travelling on trains etc – so while I didn’t have any urgent work that HAD to be done, I had a lot of things on my to do list that I was hoping to achieve…. and in the end I just couldn’t do it. I felt too cramped on the plane to use my laptop, and too exhausted to think, even reading seemed like too much effort some of the time, so settled for movies & mindless entertainment instead (did Hunger Games Movies 3 & 4 back-to-back on one flight…). Long haul flights are tough – don’t make them harder than they need to be by adding the pressure of finishing off a presentation on route to a conference (Mind you – this could just be me; I did need to use the paper bag on one flight, so it might be that I’m just not the best air traveler). There are others who work just fine on planes.

4) Conferences are not all about the sessions you attend

Of course you will hopefully see some great presentations & posters (which as part of Point 2 you had already highlighted to attend), and you need to be prepared to give the best presentation of your work that you can, but an equally vital benefit of a conference is that a bunch of people, with similar interests to your own are all converged on the same location. In the end, as Jennifer Polk argues, conferences are for networking.

This is an opportunity to meet the people whose names fill your Endnote / Mendeley / Referencing Software of Choice. Not only the Principle Investigators, but their PhD Students and Postdocs too. Thinking that a certain lab would be a great next location for your next position? Then talk to as many people from that institute or university as possible. Get a feel for the people who work there, and the quality of their work, what it is like to live in that city or town. You might just find a conversation like this could lead to a lab visit invitation where you’ll be able to see firsthand whether it’s the place for you.

5) Twitter makes “conferencing” so much easier 

Large conferences, especially if you are attending on your own, are daunting. It takes courage to start or join a conversation with a group of strangers. But with twitter, at least some of the introductions can be done before you even arrive, which means you can see a familiar face in a crowd and feel more confident in approaching them. Or organise a tweet up to meet face to face (Rule 9 in 10 Simple Rules of Live Tweeting at Scientific Conferences). Of course, not everyone actually looks like their twitter profile picture, but even just a familiar name on a name tag will help you make the connection and get the conversation rolling.

6) Take time to play tourist

Cycles rule the streets in Munster, Germany

This was some advice I received on twitter and I’m so glad I did. A west-end show in London (Beautiful: The Carole King story – highly recommend), fantastic free outdoor concert of the Munster Symphony Orchestra playing Beethoven’s 6th and 7th Symphonies (2nd Movement of the 7th is my all-time favourite!), walking tour of Geneva, 4th July fireworks at Fisherman’s Wharf, San Francisco – even a Giants baseball game at their home stadium. These experiences can’t be had in other locations, so plan in some tourist fun in your downtime and get a sense for the town you are visiting – it may be the only time in your life you ever visit!

7) Take time to process

Whether it’s been a lab visit or a conference trip (or a combination of both), on arrival back home, it takes a few days to adjust. Your body will no doubt need sleep (as a result of increased late nights, increased concentration and possibly jetlag). Particularly after a week-long conference your brain can feel rather fuzzy and sore. What I found helpful was to do a brain dump.

Even a ‘brain dump’ mid-way through the trip was helpful

I jotted down all the ideas, conversations, people I needed to follow up on email, papers to read, anything relevant that I learnt. Then I closed my book and relaxed for a couple of days and had some overdue quality time with my family (and for any other academic parents worried about leaving your kids for 3 weeks, just want to assure you – they will be fine – it’s probably you that will find it most tough!)

This “time to process” has lead to the realization that my once-in-a-lifetime trip really was everything I dreamed it would be. I met so many of the “key players” in my field and was pleasantly surprised at how kind and encouraging they were.  More than all of this, I realise how grateful I am for my family who enabled me to take this journey and cheered me on. Now that I’m home, I find myself appreciating so many little things I previously took for granted: morning rituals and routines (yes, real coffee), familiar currency, the familiar view of trees from the window in our living room, reading stories with the kids (even if it is George’s Marvelous Medicine… AGAIN), my winter coat, even mobile data on my phone….

No, I won’t be planning any other academic trips anytime soon, I’m quite happy to follow conferences on twitter for a while; but at least when I do travel next, I feel like I’m a little wiser and hopefully a little more prepared for what to expect. Feel free to leave comments below on what other academic travel tips you’ve found helpful!

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