Have PhD, Will Travel?

I recently received feedback from multiple colleagues that frustrates me: they said I should be traveling more, particularly to give seminars at other universities. The idea is that, since I am coming up for tenure in three years, I should present my work to as wide an audience as I can in case any future tenure letter writers are in the audience. When I heard this from multiple sources, part of me thought, “Makes sense.” And part of me panicked: How can I possibly travel more than I already do?

In the last year, my husband (also an academic, but not in a travel-heavy field) has been away for 15 nights due to work-related travel, and I have been away for 49 nights for work-related travel. Like those figures about how much time in our life we spend online (23 hours per week, according to some sources) it was astonishing to me to total the number of days I have been away for this blogpost. My travel was across six conferences, five external seminars, and field work. And that was cutting many trips short – I often spend only two-three nights at conferences. I am not someone who travels enough to get status on plane carriers, which makes me wonder how much some of the superstars in my field must travel. One professor I tried to invite to give a seminar in my department told me he couldn’t because he restricts himself to three trips per month and was already overquota for next fall. Amidst teaching I think 49 nights is a fair amount of time to be away. I’ll also add that I have never turned down a seminar request. The number of nights we’ve traveled this year feels like a lot of time to be away from our small child, who is now 18 months old.

Being away from my family tugs at my heartstrings, but more than that I wonder about how my students in the classroom and the lab would feel if I traveled more. I do like giving my TAs and lab members the opportunity to lecture in my courses when I’m away; guest lecturing as a graduate student was the best preparation I got for what actually leading a course is like. But this year a couple of my evaluations mentioned feeling frustrated when guest lecturers came to class and the pace or style of presentation changed from mine. I didn’t mind this much, but find it hard to imagine to having more than four lectures done by someone else in a 14-week semester; technically if we miss more than two weeks of class, we are to notify our chair and Dean, but I wonder if others ignore this.

I particularly miss being around my lab when I travel; I now have four full-time members and multiple undergraduates, and keeping track of their respective projects is extremely difficult when I am traveling a lot. It always takes the day of my return to catch back up with email and so I feel my finger is off the pulse of the lab for much longer than my actual trip takes. I want my lab to have access to me for help, and I think we all work best when they can ask me quick questions or I can cast an eye over output that looks strange. We are a computational lab, so troubleshooting code together is usually very productive for us but often works best when done as the problem first arises.

So here’s my plan: 1) I emailed a few friends at peer institutions to ask them to invite me to give seminars. That was fruitful, once I got over the initial awkwardness. It especially helped to email young recently-tenured folks – they knew exactly why I was asking and went out of their way to accommodate me. 2) I am proposing more conference symposia than I have in the past (bonus, as female organizers increase gender representation in speaker lists!). 3) I am also not worrying about this feedback very much. In the end, my field is small and I think I can do a lot to get my name out there more by publicizing recent publications and sending them to senior folks in my field (or asking my mentors to stump for me). But I am puzzled about the best ways to stay in touch with the lab while away: I know Skype can work well, but I’d like to hear from others. I guess I find it hard to deal with Skype meetings for each of my lab members while traveling to a conference where I need to attend talks, and often being in a different time zone. What do you do to be accessible to your lab when traveling? What has worked well for you (as a mentor or mentee), and what didn’t?

Wish me luck with this next year of travel! Maybe I’ll finally achieve Premier status on United.


7 thoughts on “Have PhD, Will Travel?

  1. I try to set the exams while I’m away. It’s less like missing a lecture that way, and I often have a grad student do the exam on the board the following class as this answers a lot of questions for the students, thus slowing the flow of office hours immediately after the exam. It does burn two classes, but I think it’s quite good for learning, as they get really quick feedback, even if it takes me a bit longer to get them graded and back to them.

    Also, I say no a lot to travel. People are quite understanding and it helps keep me sane.

  2. Just discovered your website thanks to shout-out at Science. Your strategy is a good one – use your network to build your dossier, and, post-tenure, pay it forward to the next generation. Propose symposia and bring more female speakers into your sessions.

    I’m post-tenure and I travel less than I used to, but mostly because I dislike the current state of air travel. I arrange a time to call the lab if the trip is more than a a few days. Otherwise, they know they can call/email/text if they have a problem and I’ll get back to them. If they don’t have questions, then this builds their independence and confidence in problem-solving. Part of being a PI is letting students make mistakes and learn to problem-solve on their own. It’s really hard, but sometimes travel can be a good way to cut that umbilical cord.

    I took my first sabbatical last year after 23 yrs. Why did I wait so long?! I lived across the country, and Skype was perfect for communication. We set a weekly lab meeting and it worked great.

    Regarding the student comments, I wonder if they would make this same comment about their male teachers? I try to minimize it by focusing travel in-between classroom teaching periods. (I teach 5 wks on, 5 off, 5 on – this is soooo valuable.) But if I am gone, then I explain in advance why and make it clear that I am not disrespecting them by traveling.

  3. As your lab grows, you may want to encourage a hierarchy so that you are not crucial to the immediate needs of more junior lab members. A post-doc or senior grad student might be able to handle the questions and day-to-day management of the undergrads which will give them supervisory experience and also free your time up. You’ll still need to check in on them every couple of weeks, but when you’re out of town for a few days, you won’t feel like they’ll stumble without you.

  4. I’m at a small teaching-centered institution, and I’m sure somewhere in our faculty handbook there’s language regarding how many class days we can miss during the term. Because of this, I do think carefully about when and how often I travel while I’m teaching, but I’m finding that it’s normal for me lately to be taking 2-3 trips per term. If I’m missing one of the intro-level or low-level core classes, I might try to get a colleague to cover the class for me, but if it’s an elective or something only I teach, it’s harder to have someone fill in (especially since we have no graduate students). Increasingly I’ll make sure they have a group project to work on in my absence, and then cancel class so that they have time to meet and work on the projects. I have no idea if this is “sanctioned”, but it works for me and the students haven’t complained yet….

    I like angorarabbit’s idea of telling your students where you are going and why you will be gone. I do this too, and I also come back with at least one story from the travel that’s relevant to the class. Something like this might help with the disgruntled students.

    • Shouldn’t reply to my own comments…I will miss 1-2 lectures this Sept and I’m going to try something new. The postdoc will cover one of them, but for the other, I’m going to record w/a powerpoint and ask them to review it on-line. They’re big boys and girls, so the penalty will be on them if they choose not to view. I would like to work toward a flipped classroom, where straight informational stuff comes from a short webinar, and then we spend class time in discussion. I’m thinking this test will be a first step toward that.

  5. Online conferences and webinars are becoming more popular. Perhaps you can look at giving a webinar through your professional societies or find an online conference? This way you don’t have to be away any more than you already are. Not to mention, these formats will save on travel expenses and free up more money for research.

  6. Pingback: I get by with a little help from myself: making self-care a priority when times get tough | Tenure, She Wrote

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