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 years of bearing and raising small kids on my group's well-being and its immediate future.
About a week after I 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 were living 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 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 my tenure track, my academic record looked pretty good, except that I felt I did not get 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 to try to meet all of the potential letter writers whom I hadn't already met. It was a grueling travel schedule, and 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 the reduced potential for funding. 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 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 makes sense for him to pay the 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. Many 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!