Pros and cons of traveling as an assistant professor

I (Dr. Kat) have had an incredibly busy summer in terms of traveling. I have been trying to determine whether this amount of travel was appropriate/worthwhile for an assistant professor ending the 2nd year on the tenure track. Rather than just turn it over in my tiny brain, I thought I would write a post on it, to give others insight as well. Time permitting (ha!) I’d like to write a blog post for each of the work-related trips to summarize what I learned from each.

My Summer Travel:

ASM Microbe 2017 meeting in New Orleans May 31-June 5

Field work various days

Fish Microbiota workshop in Trondheim Norway June 17-25

SING workshop in Tucson Arizona July 9-15

Talkeetna trapping trip a weekend in July

Family trip end of August for two weeks

Wedding for close friends a weekend in August

Camping mid-week for two nights

 

Other obligations:

Teaching ANSEP high school students Microbiology 3 afternoons per week for two weeks

Hiring research tech/post docs

Committees (students and departmental)

 

Pros:

Networking. I met several people in person that I follow on twitter/studied their work/used their assays/etc. I’ve gained a new perspective on their work, received great advice for how to proceed down the tenure track, and received valuable advice for my work/TT path/balancing work-life/becoming a better mentor/giving back to my tribe. There are a couple of possible collaborations that may come from meeting various folks, including a chat with a person I sat next to on the plane who happens to work in my field. That networking is much harder to do over email/twitter/phone calls/skyping.

Visiting new places to gain a bigger perspective of the world. This is true in terms of place, people, research, mentoring, and insight into how I can become a better contributor to both my scientific and personal networks.

Exposure for my lab. This overlaps with networking quite a bit. Although I didn’t get much traffic at my poster at ASM, I was able to talk to quite a few people about the work our lab is doing and get feedback during one-on-one meetings. My students/postdoc also presented at Evolution and came back with some great ideas for their own projects. I gave a talk at the Fish Microbiota workshop that was well received, and may result in some collaborations.

Insight into what others are doing in my field. As a PI, I have almost no time during the day to catch up on the latest in publications. While I read abstracts/peruse papers from links via twitter, or take a quick look through the latest titles/abstracts that come to my email from pubmed and google scholar updates, listening to a talk provides more information in a short period of time. At meetings I also tend to learn more about things happening outside my field, or studies that are only tangentially related to my studies but that could have a big impact in the way we proceed. Not to mention the papers online are summaries of work that was done years ago, and typically don’t include the negative data or failed assays that are presented at posters/talks/gleamed from talking to people at a meeting.

 

Cons:

Time away from my family. This was especially hard as I have two daughters who are asking questions like “Do you love your work more than you love me?” (seriously folks, this was asked between trips 2 and 3.)

Time away from mentoring. While I feel like my lab handled my time away from the lab OK, this summer I didn’t feel like I was being a good mentor. In my mind, that includes weekly meetings, having time in the lab to help trouble shoot assays, handling my own project, etc. I obviously wasn’t in the lab or field as much this summer, and my disconnect from my mentees reflects that.

Time away from data collecting/processing. I need to publish papers from my own lab, and yet I collected very little data myself this summer. Since I teach during the spring and fall semester, this means I won’t have as much data for the year as I would like. This is weighing heavily on my mind as I enter my third year on the tenure track.

Time away from teaching prep. My teaching load is heavier than some and lighter than others. Theoretically I don’t need much teaching prep time, but I still would like more time to process the feedback I got back from my students last year, and to develop new classes.

Less time for subsistence and no time in Kotzebue. Summer is prime time in Alaska for fishing and berry collecting. Due to my travels this year I made the hard decision to not go home to Kotzebue to help my dad with fishing or my folks with berry picking and hunting. My parents are getting older, and my chances to camp/fish/hunt/pick with them is getting smaller with each season. One of the reasons I moved to Alaska was to be closer to my folks and home so that I could regain a connection with my family. The professional travel and decision to use vacation time in the Lower ’48 is stripping away my chances to do so.

I am so so so so far behind in administrative duties. As in my inbox is overflowing, and a student is waiting for me to finish my IRB training so that he can proceed with his work. (which also means it’s time to wrap up this post)

 

Conclusion:

While the networking and perspectives gained this summer were valuable, next summer I am going to prioritize time in Kotzebue, writing, and in the lab. I will send more of my students/mentees to conferences rather than attending myself. As a new PI, this summer was a good time to travel in that I was able to make valuable connections and get exposure to our work just as we’re prepping manuscripts. Strategically, although it was time well spent overall professionally, I think I could have shortened a couple of the trips and still gotten as much out of the conferences. I arrived a day early for each trip (traveling from Alaska means that most of my trips took an entire day for flights) and left either the last or next day for each trip. I will shorten that for future trips and lose a day or two on either end.

I am going to push to have my family join me on more of my trips next year to minimize my time away from them. This will cut back dramatically on my networking (many of the connections I made were over drinks, meals, or hikes).  I will also likely only attend a few days of a conference, rather than spend a week away at a time.

One final thought: There are pros and cons to attending big general meetings (ASM microbe) vs small meetings (Fish microbiota and SING). I was able to get a broader look into research that is only tangentially related to my work at ASM microbe and I met some great potential collaborators at ASM who didn’t attend the smaller meetings. However, the connections I made at the Fish Microbiota and SING meetings were deeper because we spent so much more time together (hiking trips, several dinners, social hours) and single sessions (as opposed to the multiples sessions in different rooms in large buildings at ASM) meant that I gave my full attention to each talk at the smaller meetings. I like the balance of a large meeting and a small meeting. Because the work in our lab is so interdisciplinary (microbiology, immunology, ecology, evolution), I think I will send my mentees to more meetings next year and only attend one small and one large meeting myself next summer.

One more final-final thought: I have some personal travel time at the end of the summer. This is the first real vacation with my entire family in three years. While it comes at a tricky time (just before classes start!) due to a family event, I am hoping it provides a desperately needed break just before I dive into year three. I also hope to incorporate real vacations in future summers.

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