Travel and the Early Career Researcher

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A message from Californians

      Travel is a step out of the day to day routine of the early career researcher and into a different, hypnotic, series of peaks and troughs. Some traveling hours are punctuated by thumping heartbeats as you prepare to check in, and wonder whether you’ve brought everything with you. Other times they are fraught with a heightened sense of annoyance, as that person stops unexpectedly on the moving walkway at the airport and forces you to perform an inelegant maneuver on tip-toes to avoid a pile up. Most commonly, though, they merge together, feeling as if they have been pinched on either side and stretched out. The perfect time for thinking, even if those thoughts are fuzzy around the edges. It occurred to me, as I was in transit to my current location in San Francisco, that my early career – my postgraduate years and first postdoctoral placements – have been interspersed with so many different kinds of travel. Travel has been the measure of my research activity, my personal life, my bank balance, and the success of my funding attempts. Over the two years since I graduated, for example, I traveled only once outside of the United Kingdom on research, because I was working part-time, was busy with library-based work, and was living in expensive London. This year, with  postdoctoral funding, I can afford to segway around dingy youth hostels and smelly buses, and make research trips in comfort. However, upon arrival in California I still found myself in a cheap bus with an angry driver swerving furiously around highway traffic, and periodically shouting into his cellphone, in an attempt to save the thirty dollars on a taxi. Postgraduate habits die hard.

      One of the features of early career life is the periodic trips to libraries and archives. This was a big part of my own experience as a postgraduate, since my research was focused on medieval books. This is a part of life that will vary according to your choice of university and research area. Choose Oxford or Cambridge, and your sources may only be a saunter through dreaming spires away. However, select a university where there is talk of flat caps and whippets, and you will regularly find yourself on the 10.30 East Coast Mainline service to London Kings Cross. Never travel peak times, of course – you are a postgraduate. You will regularly wake up on a kindly relative’s floor or one of those disconcerting “Bed and Breakfasts” near to the British Library.

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Aiming high, Berkeley campus

     Conferences will also pull cash out of your wallet, and replace it with train ticket stubs and (if you’re lucky) an excursion for your passport. As a postgraduate, this is a wonderful way to make your non-academic friends jealous and your thesis supervisor despair. It is a great opportunity to build up a network of advisers and friends all over the world. You will share your ideas and avoid doing any work on that fifth chapter. As a postdoctoral researcher, conferences will become more problematic. Organisers – especially of the large international conferences – assume that, since you are now graduated, you will pay weighty fees with a flash of your profitably-employed smile. For many, of course, this is simply not true. They also detract from time that you feel like you should be using writing that book proposal, that article … that job application. However, they are a fantastic way of reminding yourself of why you are doing all this, because they are fun. Unless you are an introvert, in which case they can be horrific.

    Then there are holidays. You will take holidays, even if is to return to the place where you grew up and remind your childhood friends that you still exist, even if your accent has changed beyond recognition. However, as an academic, you are also probably a martyr. Therefore, you will shove your laptop, and possibly a couple of library books, into your travel bag and will periodically tap some words into a word document. You will sigh as your inbox fills with questions from your undergraduates, and despair that you do not have a job that you can just leave at the end of the day. If out and about, you might yearn for a comfortable seat and some WIFI. Your non academic friends will think that you are ridiculous.

     Over and out. Now I’m off to navigate the San Francisco tram system across town to my next meeting…

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