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More on Academic Travel

Well, I honestly didn’t expect my last post to cause a stir—I think I hit a nerve.  So I want to summarize some excellent points people made in response.

First, I think a better title for the post would be, “People should be more reflective about why and how much they travel.”  Forgive my rhetorical flourish of calling academic travel “evil.”  But the story at the start of the post is true, and I was genuinely annoyed. Some other important points:

Stage of Career

You definitely need to travel more earlier in your career—you’re building a social network.  How much more is the tricky part.  For grad students and pre-tenured faculty, it helps to have a mentor whose advice you can trust.  Someone you can ask, “Should I go to this?”

Kids & Tenure

My reluctance to travel is very much based on my parenting style and priorities.  (Please play “Cat’s in the Cradle” by Cat Stevens while reading this paragraph.)  But my kids were born after I had tenure, and my pulling back from travel happened as a tenured faculty member.  Could I have traveled less pre-tenure?  I think so–somewhat. Junior faculty parents are in a tough spot. But there’s nothing wrong with putting family first, if that’s your choice.

When my kids are older I’ll definitely start traveling more.

The Other “Kids”—Your Lab Group

Do you know someone who is always on the road, and spends very little time with his/her graduate students?  Who is strongly invested in running a big lab group and having big grants, but not particularly invested in the success of those students?

For some graduate students (the kind who just want to be left alone), that works out fine.  Others might want a bit more time with their mentor.  So prospective graduate students need to be sensitive to the mentoring style of  advisors and their own personal style, and try to find someone who’s a good fit.

Local Colleagues

I have an embarrassment of riches in terms of cool local colleagues to interact with. I imagine folks who are not so lucky might want to travel more.

Sub-Fields—Especially Policy

How much it makes sense to travel depends on your (sub) field. If your work is for example about influencing national policy, then traveling constantly is central to how you get your work done.


So with all that said, I could say something super accommodating like “everyone has to make decisions that are right for them.”  And I am saying that—mostly.  But I do think we have a bit of cultural dysfunction. Travel is equated with prestige, and some people are not reflective about how much they travel or why.

Looking at the bigger picture, it’s hard not to raise an eyebrow at how much money is being spent on travel. If it’s true that research funds are getting tighter, it will be interesting going forward to see whether our norms about academic travel change.

  1. April 1, 2014 at 1:16 pm

    Do you mean Harry Chapin’s song “Cat’s in the Cradle?” (Which is, incredibly, his least maudlin song, perhaps because it was based on a poem Chapin’s wife wrote… maybe about him.)

    Your thinking about travel recalls Donald Knuth’s explanation why he gave up e-mail in 1990. As he put it, e-mail is “a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things… my role is to be on the bottom of things,” to do fundamental research that required “long hours of studying and uninterruptible concentration.”

    • April 2, 2014 at 9:21 pm

      Yes, “Cat’s in the Cradle.” I fixed it in the post–thanks.
      The version I know is by Cat Stevens. Didn’t know it was a cover!
      Thanks. 🙂

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