The travelling academic (2) Being allowed out

Retirement doesn’t mean being condemned to silence. We are allowed out. This post will be going live while I’m on my way to a conference, just to chair a session and hang out. In the previous week I received two invitations to speak later this year, one asking for a conference paper and the other for a lecture to mark the inauguration of a new medical society. Both invitations were tempting, but they are scheduled for a month in which I already have too much in my diary, so it’s ‘sorry, no’. These invitations made me think about how I’ve changed – before I retired, I very rarely turned down such suggestions – and also about what tips I’d offer on the subject of academic trips (although they probably apply to other sorts of travel too!).

Can you afford it?

I’ve described in an earlier post how, when I started out, I was an impoverished PhD student. There wasn’t much on offer in the way of travel funds from the institutions at which I studied and then worked. The British Academy’s excellent scheme paid some of the fare if you were giving a conference paper in another country, but it was strictly controlled; only a certain number of people per conference, limits on how often you could apply, and no accommodation allowance. However, on the inspired suggestion of my PhD supervisor, I offered to speak at nearby universities, and thus accumulated enough bits of money to cover the fare (to the US) as well as having accommodation from members of staff along the way, and thus got to meet lots of interesting people whose academic friendships stayed with me along my career.

When I was single, going to conferences wasn’t just a way of growing networks and ensuring visibility, it was also a way of making sure I took a break. I used to add a couple of days on at my own expense, before or after the event, to do some sightseeing. At the larger US conferences, there would always be other people staying on, at least for a night, simply to make their travel plans work, so sometimes I could find congenial people with whom to explore the neighbourhood.

When you get to a certain point in your career, people will pay your expenses. This could just be travel, or travel plus accommodation, or travel plus accommodation plus an honorarium. However, simply because everything will be paid doesn’t mean you should accept. ‘Can you afford it?’ also applies to the work-life balance. You still need to factor in the time to write the talk you are to give; and that can be difficult to achieve in term-time. It’s very, very stressful trying to do the research and thinking and writing the paper itself, when you also have to keep up with the day-job.

Can you get there from here??

Sometimes the route to a conference or visiting lecturer gig is easy; cheap flight from a major airport. Even then, things can go wrong, as in a trip to speak in Geneva when my flight was stuck on the tarmac in the UK and eventually left so late that I missed my own talk. However, even though this was before everybody had a mobile, the audience had received the various panicked messages I’d sent via the phone of a sympathetic businessman on my flight, and they were all in position as I arrived (flustered, hot, tired, etc – me, not them). At moments like this, I recommend drinking milk – lines the stomach, substitutes rapidly for the food you haven’t eaten, etc. Within the UK, too, there’s plenty of scope for train failures, but at least with modern communications it’s usually possible to let people know where you are…

Sometimes, though, the route isn’t easy at all. I had already accepted a different invitation to give a paper in Geneva (yes, I like the city!) when I had a great offer to speak in Cologne. I said yes, assuming something on the lines of ‘Hey, this is Europe, it’s easy to move around!’ Then I realised that the timing was insane. But I found a route; flight from Geneva to Zurich, then 5 hours on the train from Zurich to Cologne. It meant pre-booking a taxi from Zurich airport to the city (since I could only arrive a few moments after the last bus was due to leave), then having a night in a somewhat iffy hotel next to the station at Zurich, then taking a very early train, but it was possible – just.

Sadly, I didn’t learn from this, which is why more recently I found myself giving a paper in Cambridge in the afternoon, taking the train to Stansted for a night in an airport hotel, and then getting a disgustingly early train to Padua to speak at a one-day conference there. However, the balance of benefits meant that this was still a good decision. I couldn’t let the Cambridge organisers down when the Padua opportunity opened up – that’s just bad manners. Padua was all-expenses-paid, the conference was on something central to my research, and hey, it’s Padua. As a side benefit, we had a tour of the new medical history museum, MusMe, before it officially opened, and since I take a tour group to Padua (among other places) in alternate years, this gave me a chance to assess whether or not we should add MusMe to our tour (we did).

Other than the complete change of scene, which made one night in Padua feel like a holiday, what made that Padua craziness work was a simple point for self-care: spending money on the airport link. Rather than negotiate public transport when tired, stressed and unable to think straight, on the advice of the organizers I took an airport shuttle which delivered just me and two other travellers to locations in Padua. The door-to-door service meant that, once I’d located my driver, I could switch off for a bit – which, as I arrived at the hotel just as the conference organiser walked through its other door, meant I arrived with my mental faculties as intact as they could be!

Summing up, then: weigh up the benefits and expenses (not all expense is financial); combine pleasure and business where possible; remember how long it takes to get anywhere, checking routes and timings carefully before you say ‘yes’; and if there’s a not-too-expensive way of saving you from dragging luggage along hot streets/getting lost on public transport/missing your train, then take it. You deserve it!

And if you want my best-ever conference tip (picked up from a very experienced Quality Assurance Agency reviewer): wear an old T shirt for breakfast rather than the smart top you are going to wear when you give your paper. When you’re nervous, there’s a high risk of spillage. Hope that helps.

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