Athene Donald's Blog

Reflections on working at the physics/biology interface, being a senior woman scientist, and anything else I feel strongly about

Is Travel Good for your (Career’s) Health?

Posted by Athene Donald on October 10, 2010

In order to move up the rungs on the academic career ladder it is inevitable that one needs to fill in an answer to the question of ‘talks given’. At the lower levels, departmental seminars and small national meetings will suffice to satisfy, but moving upwards the demands get greater: invited lectures, international talks and plenary talks at international conferences become de rigeur.  This immediately poses a problem if, for whatever reason, you don’t want to travel. Perhaps you have a fear of flying but, for parents of small children, there is another obstacle. Quite simply, you don’t want to leave them. This is particularly acute for women and may hit them just at the time they are applying for a permanent post, senior fellowship or promotion. How serious a problem is this?  I would like to propose that there are in fact significant advantages in restricting travel – and if more parents believed this, it could reduce career-angst a little.

I was a lecturer when my children were born and for a number of years I restricted my travel to only about 3 days a year – or more accurately, 3 nights away from home a year. Really. These days I am frequently away 3 nights a week but back then I absolutely tried not to travel, not to be away from my children, however much I knew my husband was there to look after them and was more than capable of doing so.  Whatever biological differences there may or may not be between the sexes, I do think the maternal bond is very strong!  So, did that disadvantage my career?

In some ways I am sure it did – my international visibility was not great and if you turn down invitations, it soon becomes well known and the invitations dry up. However, and why I think the answer is less clear-cut than might first be thought, there are some definite plusses. Just think of all that time you don’t waste in airports – though a long layover in Newark once enabled me to read an entire thesis cover to cover, which I suppose was a positive – or the overheated hotels with lousy food you can give a miss, the many identikit convention centres you can avoid.  All things which one’s soul is better off without. Furthermore, while my colleagues were out on the road, I was back home talking to students and hopefully inspiring them to better things whilst keeping them on the straight and narrow.  I kept in very close touch with them and had time to read and comment on their thesis chapters, write the papers and produce grant applications (as well as being able to keep my carbon footprint down) – naturally at the expense of less time to network, raise my profile and make useful contacts.

I believe that this is an acceptable trade-off for a few years. When my children were small I basically didn’t travel; that was fine, I had my lectureship and I wasn’t trying to get promoted. When they were a bit bigger, say 5 and 7, I started travelling rather more, got some US talks on my CV so that I looked convincing when it came to promotion to Reader. Then I (and they) found their adolescent years sufficiently troubling that I cut back on travelling again – but amazingly/luckily I had already managed to get my Chair by then, so this mattered less. The timing maybe worked fortuitously well for me, but I think it is worth saying loud and clear that travel has a significant opportunity cost – in terms of useful working hours lost – as well as an obvious opportunity gain. But for parents, and most particularly for women for whom this is undoubtedly a particularly acute problem, trying to balance home life and the apparent necessity of jet-setting, I would say step back and think carefully. Some travel is vital, much may be as much about ego-stroking and having interesting experiences in exotic parts of the world as actually being productive for your career. Don’t assume more is necessarily better.

Finally, I would like to invite those drawing up promotion criteria to think carefully about this issue.  Is a long list of talks given an unnecessary hurdle for young parents? How many talks are needed on a CV to be an indicator of quality? Aa an alternative would it be reasonable to ask applicants to list invitations received, as opposed to talks physically given? The invitation is the true measure of esteem, the fact that the talk was delivered is less material, unless judgement is actually going to be made about the inherent quality of the talk – and no one does that on a promotion panel!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s