Travel bugging

Nov 19 2009 Published by under Uncategorized

By the end of this year I will have spent over 6 weeks traveling for work, between conferences, workshops and research-related trips. Most of that travel was concentrated in the summer, but not all as I will be away for the first week of December, for instance. Minor home crises while I travel aside, that's 6 weeks that my wife has to single parent, six weeks that I can only Skype with the Wee One* rather than tuck her in and six weeks that I will sleep in a bed not my own.

Even though the amount of travel time I've had this year has put a burden on the family, 6 weeks hasn't been that bad. I arranged to not be away for more than about a week at a time and avoided weekend as much as possible, when I have the most time to spend with my family. What concerns me is that everyone I know who's lab moves at the pace I aspire to travels far more than 6 weeks a year. From my informal survey, the range seems to be between 2 and 6 months of travel per year when all of the trips are considered**. Most people don't keep up a pace at the high end of that range for very long, but many seem to have years where things are clicking and everyone wants a piece of them.

I am fortunate that, at the moment, my wife's job does not require a lot of travel but am acutely aware that my travel has a wider effect than where I sleep. I know that thousands of people do it every year across all manner of professions and they seem to make do, but in talking to several successful senior colleagues recently they have all mentioned the adverse family consequences their hectic schedules have had on their families.

As my schedule slowly fills for the summer of 2010 these conversations are one more thing in the back of my head as I wrestle with what I define as "successful" at work and at home.

*She doesn't quite get the whole Skype thing yet. Half the time she keeps looking behind the laptop to see where I am and the other half she spends hitting random keys on the computer. We're working on it.

**Hats off to those of you with a two-academic-career family, or any situation where a couple both travel heavily for their work.

7 responses so far

  • Ambivalent Academic says:

    My advisor is one of those who travels between 2-6 months of the year. He's managed it by running a large lab of up to 20 people who are all quite competent and have diverse skill sets. When the bossman's out of town there's always someone else around to answer a question or help you troubleshoot (don't tell him this but that's frequently the best choice even when he is around). Then again he has no obligations outside the lab - no family or SO...not sure how his dog feels about all of this.I'm not sure how it's going to work out now that our lab has shrunk due to finances. I kind of feel like there is a critical mass for achieving a lab that basically runs itself in your absence. I think we're probably well below that now and I'm glad to be leaving before this ship sinks.

  • Prof-like Substance says:

    AA, I'm not so worried about the lab. It can be run while traveling as long as I make it a point to check in and ensure I don't need to sign anything critical while I'm gone. My concern is the stress on the family and where to draw the line on work/life priorities, but I don't think anyone has this completely figured out.

  • Alyssa says:

    I think it's just something you have to try out and fix as you go along. Perhaps the solution will be to have a not-so-amazing-but-still-kick-ass lab for the first few years and then ramp it up a bit once the Wee One is older; or perhaps you can figure out a way to not travel as much (get some others in your lab to attend conferences, attend some online, or do a two-birds-with-one-stone thing and attend a conference while meeting with collaborators, etc.)?Good luck with it. As long as you find what works for you, it's all good 🙂

  • Patchi says:

    My dad is a scientist too. When I was growing up he would take these mini-sabbaticals every year or two to get research done (away from his university bureaucracy). These times away varied between 1-2 months, except one time when he took 3 months to get a big experiment done. We managed pretty well, not saying we didn't miss him just that with school and all our lives just kept their rhythm... The 3 months were REALLY hard on everyone, even though us kids were already in our teens. However, there was always things going on, as my mother took these absences to redecorate our apartment. What I remember most is my dad's shocked face when he would come home from these trips and there would be a midnight blue wall in the dinning room or black subway flooring in his bedroom. But I guess people have different ways of coping, and my mother had hers... It's not about quantity, it's about quality. Shed the guilt and you can enjoy the time with your family and your work too. And they will enjoy the time they have with you, and know you miss them as much as they miss you.

  • Anonymous says:

    I'm glad to hear from Patchi because I always worry about this too. Since we are a two-academic career family, there's double traveling going on. We try to keep the travel rate spread out and, in some cases, have managed to travel together (this is sometimes harder though). Our kid (3 years old now) seems to basically be used to it, maybe because this is how it's always been. We do both take off most of the weekends and evenings before bedtime and spend a lot of quality time together when possible.

  • Anonymous says:

    Don't you miss a lot of classes with all this travel? As a new Asst Prof, I haven't really figured out a good solution to that problem---missing 5 lectures this semester due to travel; canceled two, got other people to cover two, and moved one. But I don't think the students are happy about it.

  • Prof-like Substance says:

    I'm not teaching undergrads this semester, so it makes it easier. I can have people cover the paper discussion group I lead because they are there already, so it's not much of a burden. Next semester will be different.

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