Fit Your Own Mask First

Academic travel is pain and anyone who says differently is selling something.

Apologies to Cary Elwes for bastardising his great line, but I’ve recently returned from the worst trip in 12 years of professional travel and I’m feeling a little tender. The Princess Bride was on the TV in one of the five hotels I slept in over the last fortnight. Or maybe it was in one of the two airports I was forced to sit in overnight because an airline had cancelled my flight or a hotel had lost my booking. It’s hard to remember because so much went wrong on this trip. But somewhere between Exeter, Gatwick, Tampa, Oklahoma City, San Francisco, Tampa, Gatwick and Exeter, I watched the Princess Bride and the line about pain resonated.

Travel is essential for academic work. It is the key to building relationships, conducting truly collaborative research, learning about the latest developments in your field, and disseminating research findings. And when it’s good, it’s really good. But when it’s bad, it’s painful. The financial costs are never fully covered (and frequently not covered at all), the preparation and recovery time is often longer than the trip itself, work piles up while you’re away (so you return to what’s affectionately known as a shit-storm), you eat bad food, you eat expensive food, your exercise options are limited, the time difference cuts you off from friends and family, the language barrier (if you’re in a country where you don’t speak the language) is exhausting, and you never fly business class. Raul Pacheco-Vega and Pamela Gay have both written recently about the toll that academic travel takes on personal finances and the environment. In addition to these, it also takes a toll on physical health, mental health, and personal relationships.

When I returned from my most recent trip it was three days before I could get out of bed without crying. The extended stress of the trip – physical, psychological, and financial – was more than I could cope with and my body simply shut down. On a recent trip to Sweden a colleague, on hearing that I was travelling for two weeks, asked how old my children were. The question was so problematic I didn’t even know where to begin. She was making at least one (though most likely two) of the following three assumptions: (1) My children were old enough to stay home without me for two weeks; (2) I had a husband who didn’t travel for work and was at home with the children; (3) I was a bad mother for leaving my children behind. What she didn’t realise is that I’m single and childless, another consequence of more than a decade of academic travel.

My sister and I frequently remind each other to ‘fit your own mask first’. Stolen from the safety demonstration on every flight, it has become our shorthand for dealing with the complexities of our highly dysfunctional family. It’s also a good mantra for academic travel.

So in the interests of fitting my own mask first, I’ve put together some rules for academic travel. Rules I intend to follow from here on, to minimise the toll of travelling for research.

  1. No travelling for work unless someone else is paying and the trip is fully costed.
  2. No more than one destination per trip.
  3. No more than three international trips per year.
  4. No less than one month between trips.
  5. No cheap fares or hotel deals. Fully refundable/changeable or you don’t go.
  6. Do not sacrifice personal holidays for professional travel.

Have you got any other tips for keeping your physical, mental and financial health in check when you travel for research? Leave me a comment!


One thought on “Fit Your Own Mask First

  1. Thanks for sharing. Work travel certainly isn’t glamorous – but must be even worse when trying to do things on the cheap. Invariably the cheapest options have the minimum flexibility, so fine when it works but horrible when it doesn’t.
    Yay for prioritising self care & reviewing your boundaries now that you’re home!


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