Academics get to go to conferences in exotic places, there is no doubt about that. But that is not the same thing as getting to see the exotic places in which the conferences are held. In my experience, too often one gets to see little more than the inside of a conference centre which, particularly in the US, may be a soulless complex of Hilton, Mariott and the like hotels and a collection of vast identikit rooms with over-patterned carpets to hide the coffee stains. Plus, of course, the airport lounges which are equally soulless and empty of fresh air. I’m afraid I think conference travel is an overstated benefit of being an academic. It frequently seems little more than an opportunity to acquire jetlag, airmiles and a clutch of cards from people you bumped into at the poster session.
Perhaps that is just the jaundiced view of an academic with an insane diary, who lacks the time to add in a day or two at either end to get away from the conference centre in order to explore the heart of the city one is visiting or the surrounding beauty spots and historical sites. Many years ago, when I was a young postdoc at Cornell, I had an excellent trip to the Grand Canyon with fellow postdocs after attending an APS meeting in Phoenix. That was a spectacular trip which made up for the fact I had been forbidden to walk anywhere on my own in the city by my professor, due to fears about the down and out’s who frequented the area around the conference centre. However, more typical (in as far as I travel abroad at all now, which isn’t much) was the trip to Atlanta from Cambridge, where I spent a grand total of about 36 hours in the US, and all I got to do was attend a reception in a revolving restaurant at the top of some tall building as soon as I arrived (not enjoyable in a sleep-deprived state); walk to and fro between hotel and conference location – a mere 300m in the fantastically hot and humid August air; and see the ever-monotonous inside of said conference centre. The trip was just long enough for my body to contemplate readjusting its internal clock, without succeeding, before going back to UK time. This was an experience I have taken pains not to repeat.
I write this post in some frustration after a brief trip to a brilliant location at the top of a fair-sized hill abutting the Mediterranean, in a medieval town full of monasteries (now defunct). No conference centre in the American sense of the word, but a converted church. Meetings in a below ground crypt are not ideal, but the views from the coffee room at the top of the church were spectacular despite the haze. And that was all I saw. I arrived after dark, I left in the early morning, and I spent 2 days in deconsecrated church buildings – and restaurants. Early career researchers, don’t kid yourself your professors enjoy themselves on such trips by seeing all the sights of the world you’ve always wanted to see yourself. Chances are, if you get to visit some far-flung place for a conference, you will enjoy your trip much more than your seniors because you live your life at a more leisurely pace. Make the most of it!
But there is a more serious side to this travelling malarkey that I was reminded of when sent some promotion papers to read and comment on recently for someone from another university. This person had stated that they had received various invitations to give talks at international locations, to indicate that they were successful and in demand. They also stated they had declined some of these invitations because they had small children. Why I cheered as I read this was that the applicant was male. I am quite sure the more comfortable men are in stating that they are opting out of travelling for family reasons, the easier it will be for women not to feel embarrassed by making an equivalent admission. It is too common for women to be assumed to be the primary carer (as I’ve discussed before), to end up having to decline trips abroad – or even within the UK – and then fearing that they will be marked down by promotions/ appointments panels for saying so. Or, even worse, be marked down because they don’t feel able to put that in writing so that it looks simply as if they haven’t been getting such invitations at all. If both sexes – and the committees - feel that the honour of the invitation is what is the mark of esteem, not the turning up and delivering (which, after all, no one will score or report back on to such committees) then it will be one more step to making success in academia not inconsistent with family life.
As I heard stated recently at another meeting I attended, this one at the Royal Society and which was not meant to be discussing gender issues but had strayed in that direction, ‘burning up the kerosene’ should not be a necessary attribute to get on in academia, nor taken as a straightforward proxy for academic excellence. By default, by lack of imagination when people make assessments, it too often is.