I write this article as I wait for my flight back to Indianapolis departing from Phoenix. I have been visiting Arizona and California for the past few days to understand the process of farming fresh produce and how food safety plus plays a role in this process. I am interested because I think we can build biosensors that might help prevent food-borne illnesses. This trip was beneficial to drive appropriate research in the lab and design technologies that can have an impact. Although this particular trip came together very quickly (everything was arranged and executed within two weeks), most of the trips that I take are planned well in advance—sometimes a year in advance (for example, I have already saved the date for a conference happening at the end of summer next year).
I enjoy travel because it gives me an opportunity to explore new places and meet a variety of people. I really only started traveling once I finished my undergraduate degree because before that I either did not have enough funds or not enough time to afford it. Since then though, I have been to almost 20 or so countries—each has added to my understanding of the world.
As professors, how much we travel is mostly in our control. If I wanted to, I could not travel at all but I would miss out on disseminating my lab’s work and building my network, which are both essential for conducting research successfully. Destinations could be local, national, or international. Locally within Indiana, my college organizes an annual tour of the state for new faculty to learn about the agricultural industries in the state. We also get to meet other new faculty and the leadership team of the college, who we might not encounter during our normal daily routine. On a national level, I go to Boston on an annual basis as an advisor for the international genetically engineered machines (iGEM) competition or to the West coast as a part of a multi-state meeting to represent my lab’s work on the microbiome. On the international scale, travel is often for conferences or international meetings; there is a microbial ecology conference coming up in South Africa next year for instance.
Both my Ph.D. and postdoctoral advisors travel significantly. When professors start to get established in their field and their research becomes known, they get invited to present at a variety of events (such as seminars and conferences); they also often travel to receive awards. I got to witness this transformation with my Ph.D. advisor because I was one of the early students to join his lab. Initially, when I was working with my advisor during my undergraduate years, he was present in his office or around the lab more often and we used to have regular weekly (or so) meetings. These meetings are beneficial for a new lab and new projects because early stages need more input and guidance from the advisor. As my advisor started to get more successful (by publishing papers, winning grants, and filing patents), he also started traveling frequently which made it challenging to meet in-person. At this point though, the projects (and the lab members including me) were more mature and needed little supervision. It allowed us to build our troubleshooting skills and make ourselves more independent. One key bottleneck ended up being the ordering of supplies that had to go through my advisor and we noticed a significant delay in the process when he was away. I am hoping to avoid this bottleneck in my own lab but I do hope to nurture the troubleshooting and critical thinking skills of my lab members.
My postdoctoral advisor would travel heavily as well. During my time in his lab, the lab members got to learn his schedule because he had a strong preference for printed drafts of manuscripts (or outlines as described before) that he could write on. He would work on these outlines even during flights and hence they needed to be in a well-organized folder. We would often hand-deliver them to (or pick them up from) his home because he might only be in town for a day or two between his trips.
From my experience, professors learn to work around their travel. I have also learned several travel hacks that make the trip smoother (for example, stay hydrated to minimize jet lag and remove shoes during the flight to rest the feet). I also try to avoid rushed trips when possible. I usually try to finish the bulk of my work before I travel (even if it means extra-long hours before departure) because even though I have my laptop with me while I am traveling, I cannot be as efficient when I am away from my office. I do manage to get some essential work done (for example, finishing up a grant or preparing a lecture) even during trips. For instance, I remember making corrections and submitting a grant proposal when I was on a beach in Mexico even before I had started my faculty position. Overall, travel tends to become a way of life.
During my travel, I usually try to take a few personal days (out of my own expense, of course) to explore the destination, especially if I am visiting it for the first time. I recently had an opportunity to explore the Rocky Mountain National Park and the elk there. I do get to work on my photography skills during my travel. Over the years, I have moved away from quantity to quality of photos. As I mentioned in a previous article on time management, on average, I travel once every three weeks, the last year this was 17 trips out of 52 weeks and in this year, it has already been 15 trips (out of 44 weeks). About half of them are for work and the other half are personal. For comparison, according to Expedia Viewfinder, most Americans take one to two trips in a year and zero international trips annually. Currently, due to the high frequency of my travel, I account for it as a normal part of life and try to organize my weeks and my work around it. Travel does keep life interesting because it introduces variety and no two weeks are the same.
I started writing this article on a trip from Phoenix and I am finishing it a couple of weeks later on a trip to Boston. As professors, we do tend to travel often and I think embracing the travel and enjoying it helps how to maintain productivity.