Aug. 17th, 2010

Ok, a post just under the wire!

At some point in your graduate science career, you will travel for science. This has been on my mind, as I have done a LOT of travel for science this summer: more than 50% of my time. (My poor cat!) Traveling for science can be very rewarding, absolutely soul-sucking, both, or anywhere in-between. My hope in this post is to give some advice about how to maximize happiness while traveling for SCIENCE!

First: paying for it. Since you are lucky enough to be in science grad school, your advisor probably has money in their grant specifically for paying for travel for you. Hooray! However, you should be clear up front with your advisor about who pays what when, if you have to go through a travel office, whether you have a per diem (a certain amount of money per day for food and lodging) or you have to have receipts for food and lodging, what your budget is, if you ought to have a roommate, etc. For example, I have a deal with my advisor that if I want to take some vacation around my travel (e.g. stay an extra couple of days to do sightseeing or visit friends or whatever) the airfare can't be more than if I just went for the days of the trip. It usually works for me, and I've gotten quite good at the "go somewhere, see an old friend on the school's dime" game. Regardless, keep your receipts, your boarding passes, and hotel bills.

Furthermore, if your advisor doesn't have money, there are lots of travel grants out there. Often conferences and summer schools will have scholarship money, or your department or university may have grants, or your professional organization. There's lots of money out there! Use it!

And, seriously. Do your travel reimbursement within a week of coming back. Your wallet and your brain will be way happier.

Second: conferences/intensive schools/collaboration meetings. I'm not going to talk a lot about what you should do during a conference, as I think that varies a lot by discipline/size of the conference. However, traveling to a conference can be quite different than traveling for other reasons. Basically, I have to keep an eye on myself, more so than if I am at home. For me the hardest part about conferences is the fact that time can be quite heavily scheduled, and I'm used to having a lot of freedom in my day. So I have to be sure to make time to be by myself, calm down, and breathe. Also, eating out all the time tends to throw off my digestive system, so I have to be a lot more careful about what I eat. On the other hand, I get the most value out of conferences at meals, getting to talk to people more closely, and meet new people, so it's a balancing act.

I also think that trying to see some of the city where the conference is is a great idea. Ask the organizers, or better yet, the grad students of the organizers; they live there and can tell you the best things to do. Sometimes they'll even offer to take you to see things. After all, all work and no play...makes for a really sucky week.

Third: traveling to another lab/facility. Sometimes (or in some disciplines, like mine, almost certainly) you will need to travel to another facility to use some equipment, install some parts, assist another group, etc. Be a good guest. No, really. BE A GOOD GUEST. Obey your hosts' regulations on safety, training, ID, etc. Also, be clear on what those regulations are before you go. Do you need proof of citizenship/radiation training/biohazard training/whatever? Get it done before you go. Leave lab space that is not your own cleaner than you found it. Be prepared. Have a plan for the work you want to accomplish and how you are going to do it. Discuss your plan with your hosts before you get there. They will know if something is unreasonable. This will save a lot of frustration. Trips like this often mean very, very long work hours. Set boundaries for yourself. (Seriously. Don't work 18 hours a day. Just. Don't.)

Again, take care of yourself. Try to eat well. Schedule time to unwind a little. See interesting things around the area. I like to try to keep a schedule as much like my home schedule as possible; I like to try to stay somewhere with a kitchen, as cooking is something that feeds me cheaply and keeps me calm. You can often find twoish week sublets on Craigslist in major urban area—or even if it's for a month, it'll be cheaper than a hotel for two weeks.

If you have guests visiting your lab, be nice to them. Tell them the fun things to do in your area. Help them get the supplies they need. Help them navigate your local bureaucracy.

Fourth: be prepared for reentry, particularly if you've been away for awhile. Getting back into your rhythm can be hard. I like to come home on Saturdays, so I can relax, see friends, and do my laundry on Sunday. Then I'm ready to go on Monday. If I can't do that, I often work only the afternoon the day after I come back. Also, I find it helpful to make a report on my travels. If I went to a conference/school, I'll make notes on interesting talks. If I was doing lab-related travel, I'll make notes on what I got done, any results, and the status of my project. Then I present this at the next lab meeting. It makes you look fantastic to your advisor, and it's a great way to keep track of what you learned on your trip.

Lastly, and this is not relevant in every situation, but I've been through some hell with it: be prepared to encounter culture not your own. Now, this is true of every kind of travel (and even the point of most of it!) but more so when you are trying to get work done, rather than relax and see the sights. I have had to do a lot of travel to a very rural part of the US; I'm a city boy through and through. It's been hard for me: I don't feel the safest there, I can't do many of the things I like to do, the restaurants close before I'm even hungry, the people I work with there have political views I find abhorrent. Parts of it I've just had to suck up and deal with. But I've also countered by keeping in touch with my support structure at home. I email and text and try to keep up with goings on in my friends' lives. I have people who know I'm there and who I can call and vent to, if necessary. I try not to go there alone. I keep in contact with other visiting scientists there. Basically, I make sure that people have my back.

OK! I hope that this was not too long, and that it is helpful for adorkable new grad students. Comment if you have anything to add.

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