Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Traveling without Moving

If I had to point out one aspect of my career that having small children has significantly impaired, it would be my ability to travel. In geek-speak, I am seeing a zeroth-order effect of reduced travel due to the years of bearing and raising small kids on my group's well-being and its immediate future.

About a week after I had defended my PhD, I moved to my shiny new tenure-track faculty position at a big state R1 with my then 4-year-old son. We lived apart from dad during my first 2 years on the tenure track, so he could work on his degree; traveling in these two years was extremely difficult for me because there was no one to take care of my son -- dad was 2,000 miles away. Occasionally my husband would come to babysit so I could travel, which meant he was taking time off and I would still barely get to see him. These two years were not fun; they were very stressful on our marriage. I was quite busy and quite miserable, and so was my husband; I worked a lot and everything was new -- teaching, recruiting students, and writing many, many grants.

After 2 years on the tenure track, my husband joined us, and I swear I got pregnant the minute he walked through the door. So due to pregnancy and breastfeeding, my travel was even more restricted in years 3 and 4 of the tenure track. I did go to the most important conferences (breast pump and all), but traveling minimally is not the same as traveling as much as possible and leaving no networking stone unturned.

By year 5 on the tenure track, my academic record looked pretty good, except that I felt I had not gotten  enough exposure. That's when I undertook the "tenure tour", a full year of aggressive self-promotion and extensive travel in order to have my work seen and heard and  try to meet all of the potential letter writers whom I hadn't already met. It was a grueling travel schedule, and it was quite embarrassing in certain ways -- I was shamelessly prodding people to invite me to give seminars, and I was hosting a tremendous number of senior guest speakers whom I didn't know well enough to wrangle an invitation for myself. The self-promotion year was quite stressful on my husband and my children. Whenever I left, someone immediately got sick (with a fever and either pukes or diarrhea, so as to maximally gross out my husband who's quite squeamish). It all worked out, I was approved for tenure smoothly at the very beginning of my 6th year, with what I hear were glowing letters all around.

One significant downside of reduced travel in my field is a reduced funding potential. Let me explain. NSF and DOE are available sources of funding, but the funding rates are fairly low and there is peer review. I think DOE program officers have a bit more leeway in what they do with the reviews (if a programmatic relevance of a project is high and the reviews are decent, you will get funded), whereas at the NSF whatever the panel says pretty much goes. NSF program directors have the ability to somewhat stir the panel, but not by much.

However, most well-funded people in my field are well-funded because they have money from one or more of the DOD agencies (such as the AFOSR, ONR, DARPA, ARO, etc.) Actually, some of my well-funded experimental collaborators have almost completely given up on submitting proposals to the NSF since it's little money and such a crap shoot. Now, the thing with DOD agencies is that one's potential for funding depends largely on one's project's programmatic value to that specific program officer's portfolio. In other words, getting money ultimately depends on how well you know your program officer and how willing he is to work with you and make you part of his portfolio. So traveling and talking to program officers, making an effort to be on their radar, and establishing a personal connection is critical. I have some DOD funds, mostly with collaborators, but I have done nowhere near enough fundraising travel and have been reprimanded by my senior collaborator many times for that. (This senior collaborator is not understanding when I mention having small kids; he considers all these to be stupid excuses and a weakness not worth discussing. So we no longer discuss it.)

I have so far conducted the work of my group so as to minimize travel and maximize research output per dollar. It's worked well, so far, but some of my grants are expiring next year and I must leave no funding stone unturned. However, I am tired, burned out, and going to give birth in a few months. My potential for travel and schmoozing is significantly diminished at the most inopportune of times... I do try to compensate by pestering people via email and phone. Not sure these media enable me to present my most charming self, though.

But it's not all bad. I can compare my career trajectory with that of a colleague from another, closely related department, who started at the same time I did and is also a computational scientist. The colleague is single and took to travel and fundraising immediately, and drew lots of money early on. In contrast, I stayed put and was more successful in recruiting students and advising them early on, so I had papers from my own new group ready for publication early in year 2. The colleague took a significantly longer time than me to successfully recruit students and get output from them, even though their group grew much more rapidly and there was more money around. Overall, my publication rate with a smaller group has been and remains higher than the colleague's and I graduated my first student earlier. However, I think the colleague brought in more dollars to the university that I did. I have another young and single collaborator from another institution -- that dude travels so much, I can't see how it even makes sense for him to pay a mortgage. He lives on planes and in hotels and is insanely well funded.

What about my female colleagues with kids? Two have stay-at-home husbands. Many don't travel all that much. Others employ overnight nannies. It's hard. And drains energy. I am not sure how my husband will cope with 3 kids, so I don't think I will be traveling much until the baby is older. What will that do to my funding and my still emerging fame? Probably not too much good. But I choose to believe that I can do a lot of good science and good advising without burning a lot of kerosene. Even if I am deluding myself, I don't really have much choice. I have never regretted having kids and my career/family balance is what it is.

So what's the moral of this story? Travel as much as you can, while you can. Travel for fundraising, travel for networking, travel for exposure. If you don't, be aware that your career will take a hit. It may not be lethal, but it will be damaging. If you have visions of grandeur, efficient fundraising and extensive networking are key, so you better dust off your frequent flier card. If you choose to be earth-bound, or if the choice is made for you, at least temporarily, there is still plenty you can do for your career, but be realistic about the inevitable compromises and sacrifices that you will have to make.

Here's the song that inspired the title of this post. Enjoy!

13 comments:

feMOMhist said...

love it the tenure tour. After self imposed 6 years on the mommy track I'm back doing the liberal arts version, conferences and archives

Namnezia said...

I have to admit that both due to having small kids and a deep distaste for airline travel I've limited my travel quite a bit to maybe a couple of conferences and a couple of talks a year, yet have been able to stay fairly well connected to those in my field. I did this by collaborating and by inviting several seminar speakers a year (I'm chair of the seminar series committee so I get to fill in the empty slots), and it seems to have worked fine. I was also fortunate to have very good PhD and postdoc advisors who introduced me to a bunch of people even before I got my TT position. My chair seemed to suggest that this was more than sufficient, while other senior colleagues suggested I get out more. As a result however, I've managed to keep the lab productive as you mentioned in your post.

Anonymous said...

Your situation sounds exactly like mine, only you're further along. The kid(s), the living apart, etc. We've just been realizing how difficult travel will be and have been trying to figure out how to prioritize conferences. I've got 3 or 4 that I'd like to attend, but 1 or 2 is much more realistic. I do feel I need to get out more, but where?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this - I was feeling exhausted at the thought of all of the conferences I have lined up the next few months (my husband and I travel together because we are in the same field and we have a young child, who either comes with us or we have to arrange for grandparents to stay with him). I had been doubting my wisdom in setting up all of this travel. Now, though, I think maybe this is exactly what I ought to be doing (I have a year to go before my tenure files go out).

Meadow said...

Love the idea of a tenure tour. Must implement it.

So I'm thinking of password protecting my blog so as to describe for example what I do when my kids are sick. I had a terrible two weeks when my youngest got so sick he had to go to the hospital (he's fine now by the grace of God). Describing what happened and how I handled it (or mishandled it) would identify me to those who know me.

I'm thinking 'sneetch' would be an easy to remember password for my blog. Not sure if anyone would read my blog though if it is too much trouble to access.

Micro Dr. O said...

This might be one of my biggest concerns right now. There's a great conference at a very far away place this year in my field, but I won't be traveling, in spite of the availability of funds. I just can't fathom being that far away from Monkey at his age. I don't think that the traveling would have as much of an impact in my field as it does in yours, but it certainly is important. I know I want more kids, and I can't imagine how this will all balance out with a TT position. I already feel like I'm constantly weighing the cost-benefits of every move I make; I imagine that feeling will only intensify if I do get a TT position. :|

Anonymous said...

I agree that the major and hidden tie of having children is that it restricts your ability to travel. I stayed home for a year after child no 1. I could still get papers out but not meet the people I need to see to promote my lab. I don't know of any solution either. Even a stay-at-home husband or cooperative grandparents can't do everything.

prodigal academic said...

Great post! I am trying to use my limited travel times to go to potentially high impact destinations. I have been prioritizing smaller, focussed conferences over the large general field conferences when I can, and trying to combine multiple destinations into one trip. It is nice to hear that academic success is possible, even without having to travel 200 days a year!

Anonymous said...

I'm just about to go on my first trip since the birth of first baby 7 months ago. The prospect is terrifying, even though I've crammed the trip into 3 days to minimize away time. But it's for a big review panel that I committed to do with some very important people in my field, so I'm hoping it's worth it. I've one or two other review panel/invited talk trips this year - again, trying to keep them as short as possible to keep up visibility whilst not leaving husband a gibbering wreck. But I have said no to one or two longer trips. In a previous life I would have gone, but in profmommyland long trips are no more!

inBetween said...

Jamiroquai!!! I forgot about him... love the song - thanks.

And I love the post. Thanks for writing about this. As I sit here on my laptop at home with a 9 day old infant sleeping on my chest I am realizing how difficult so many of things I used to do will be. I completely embrace these, and am incredibly fortunate that I don't have the new professor worries and pressure to endure on top of the massive life change. I deeply admire you -- I'm sure you will do fabulously even without the ability to self-promote like many of your colleagues. In many ways you are a much better scientist and professor because you have maximized productivity with what you have. Too bad those skill sets aren't a little more valued in the P&T process.

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for posting this. It is really timely for me. I just returned from a conference, after not having attended for 1.5 years b/c of a baby. For some reason, this is the one consequence of parenthood that I hadn't really thought about. I knew I wouldn't be able to take vacations and that I would have no free time, but I didn't think about the fact that my ability to travel for work would also be limited. Also, I completely underestimated the importance of visibility. I appreciate your viewpoints. Thanks.

EliRabett said...

WRT NSF, and actually all of the other agencies, remember who selects the reviewers.

Anonymous said...

I am on the TT in a top 10 research university and I have 2 young kids, 4 months old and 2.5 years old. I have been to a conference for 1 day (30 hours) when my youngest was just one month, and I gave a talk. My husband was rather against it but he felt I had the right to make my own decision. The conference is the biggest one in my field, and ex post I feel I should have maybe stayed 1 day longer because with my one day trip I barely got to do any networking. I just got my interim tenure review and my committee suggested I should get out and travel more. However, the key reason why I didn't travel more so far is that I am shy about asking for talks, and I am waiting for that killer paper that will impress them all. I'll definitely have to travel more as my tenure decision gets close (my department has very tough standards and getting promoted is nearly impossible). Still, as another commenter put it, with young kids you have to weigh the cost/benefits of each move.