Gas station without pumps

2013 July 6

Do academics need to travel?

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 10:29
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In a comment on the Academic Jungle blog, a commenter identified only as “Alex” wrote

This is an important point. Bloggers talk a lot about the tradeoff between work and life outside of work, but what about the tradeoff between work and work? How does one effectively mentor students or stay engaged in the intellectual work of the project, or (gasp!) teach effectively (we are, after all, professors) if you’re always on the road? I know it works for some people, but I just don’t get how.

Or, to really walk on the wild side, how does one effectively serve their institution if you’re always on the road? I mean, nobody wants to be the bore who gossips about the minutiae of the Academic Senate, but I’m proud that I spent a year working on a change to a policy that was getting in the way of opportunities for students. Service, if done right and in moderation, can be rewarding.

I’ve often wondered about the need some faculty see to be traveling all the time.

I used to go to 2–3 conferences a year, and I found them fairly stimulating intellectually.  After a while, I dropped down to about 1.5 conferences a year, in part because funding was tight, and in part because I wasn’t getting as much intellectual stimulation at the conferences. There were few new ideas that gripped me and a lot of rehashing of old ideas, often by people who hadn’t even done their homework to read stuff from outside their own institutions.  It was good to see friends that I only ever saw at conferences, but I had trouble justifying the expense of cross-country or international travel for what was becoming a purely social event. For the past few years I’ve not been to any conferences, and sometimes I wonder whether I ought to take the $2000–3000 out of savings to go to one of the bigger ones in my field, just to find out if there is anything new going on.

I used to justify conferences as places to present my work to the world (particularly when I was in computer engineering, where conferences were the main archival publications—journal turnaround was way too slow to be of much use).  Nowadays, most of my work is in collaborations where I am not first author, and journal publication in biology and bioinformatics is faster than conference publication, so conferences are rarely important for disseminating the actual work—in this field they are for advertising the work published in journals and for informal schmoozing.

I suppose that if I were a job hopper, jumping from school to school in an attempt to maximize my salary and fame, I would want to be a major player on the conference circuit.  But I’m not that excited by moving—I’ve been at the same university now for 27 years and expect to retire from it in another decade. But some of the other faculty at our university are probably just as settled in their jobs, but see the need to travel dozens of times a year, so it isn’t just the job hoppers populating the conference circuit.

It’s not that I’m stuck in a rut—I do look for novelty from time to time, both in research fields and in teaching.

I made a major change from VLSI design and logic minimization to protein structure prediction about 18 years ago, and I’m currently looking for a niche in DNA sequencing or assembly where I can be a productive contributor (the collaboration with the UCSC nanopore lab is going well, but the collaborations using PacBio data have not produced anything I think is publishable yet, despite a lot of effort spent and some interesting preliminary results).

In teaching, I’ve created a lot of different courses over the years, and I expect to create a few more before I retire.  I find creating a really good course more stimulating these days than most of the research projects I’ve been working on, which puts me somewhat out of step with most of my faculty colleagues, who would be only too glad to shed all teaching responsibilities to be full-time researchers.

I’ve wondered whether I should go to some teaching conferences—perhaps presenting the design of the Applied Circuits course, for example.  But I’d have to be convinced that there was really an audience interested in hearing what I had to say—spending $2000–3000 of my own money to talk to 50–100 people who didn’t care would be really a bummer.

This blog costs me nothing to produce (except time), and I reach about 300 people with each post, without the huge carbon footprint of traveling by jet. So conferences are seeming a less and less efficient use of resources all the time.



  1. […] post I just published about academic conferences lead me to thinking (again) about how I should disseminate my course design (or individual lab […]

    Pingback by Disseminating the applied circuits labs | Gas station without pumps — 2013 July 6 @ 11:41 | Reply

  2. If it becomes a choice between blogging and traveling, please stick to the blogging. I can only understand about 10% of your posts but that 10% is always worth thinking about.

    Comment by Garth — 2013 July 6 @ 17:14 | Reply

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