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The phobia of flying is discouraging me to travel for conferences, although quite a number of them are very good opportunities for me to "market" the researches of our lab and of mine. Apparently, I can't overcome this phobia even with the help of therapists. I almost passed out due to panic attacks on the airplanes, and after the flights, I always felt too exhausted to do anything for an entire week.

I think it's time to let my supervisor know that I can't to go to any conferences that I have to fly there. How can I do it in the most professional way?

Thanks

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    "Hello Prof. I should let you know that I can't to go to any conferences that I have to fly there, because I have a phobia of flying". – user102 Dec 8 '14 at 23:20
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    What else could you possibly do? Unless it was explicitly specified in your contract that you might have to travel internationally and attend conferences, in which case you should probably have discussed this point earlier. – user102 Dec 8 '14 at 23:30
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    Directly, as if your supervisor were human. – JeffE Dec 9 '14 at 2:27
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    I really don't think this comment thread is the place to probe the details of the OP's condition or offer diagnosis and/or treatment. To stay on topic, let's limit ourselves to how to mitigate the effects on his academic career. – Nate Eldredge Dec 9 '14 at 3:37
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    It takes longer, but if a conference is on the same continent, it's perfectly possible to take the train, cerrtainly if you can work. I've attended a summer school in Rome while living in northern Sweden — 48 hours by train each way. Not because I can't fly, but because I prefer not to. Europe still has a great intercity train network, and crossing the continental US by train/bus takes 3 days and many buses have wifi and outlets. I just hope you're not in Oceania or another remote corner of the world. – gerrit Dec 9 '14 at 5:25
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I'm going to take a different tract to the other answers and tell you that you need to address your fear of flying because it will continue to impact your work.

Conferences are excellent ways to network, learn from your peers formally and informally, learn of new opportunities and advertise your work.

By not flying, you are limiting your exposure dramatically and this may make your career much more difficult or fragmented, as you will be limited to geographically close events, regardless of topic, or alternatively just only attend topic-applicable events when (or if) they come near to you.


As for how to talk with your supervisor, I'd suggest speaking with them about it formally as it is a major limitation with your work, but only after you've determined how you are going to resolve the situation. Coming to your supervisor with a potential solution will be much more well received than coming to them with just a problem.

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    +1 For Coming to your supervisor with a potential solution will be much more well received than coming to them with just a problem. – scaaahu Dec 10 '14 at 3:00
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Since it doesn't sound like it's likely that you will be able able to work around it in the immediate future, I think you should schedule a meeting and just have the conversation. Explain your phobia, explain the effects, and explain that you have worked with therapists and that the problem is unresolved.

Treat it like any other health or mental health disability that will affect your ability to carry out the tasks graduate students normally do and make it clear that you will attend conferences by train or bus where possible. There are many questions about health and disability on this site and the consensus generally is that if it will impact your performance, you should bring it up with your supervisor and colleagues as soon as possible. Since this has already become an issue, you should do that now.

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    +1 Treat it like any other health or mental health disability... One wouldn't fly to a conference with a broken femur, would one? – Pavel Dec 9 '14 at 14:06
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    @PavelPetrman depends on the conference. – imallett Dec 9 '14 at 16:00
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    @PavelPetrman A broken bone is often unexpected, will have an injury management plan and will eventually be less of a limitation. – user20640 Dec 10 '14 at 3:15
  • @LegoStormtroopr true. What I meant was that the fobia of flying can be compared to other health issues that prevent you from attending a conference more obviously. Next time I'll get my simile right, hopefully. – Pavel Dec 10 '14 at 9:04
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If you live in Europe or the United States, a severe phobia of flying should not invalidate an academic career. Some conferences will be excluded. You won't attend that conference in Hawaii, do field work in the (Ant)arctic, or visit the institute on the other continent (although moving there for a longer time is still possible — search Travel Stack Exchange for "freighter travel"). When you talk to your supervisor, I would bring up the alternative.

It is possible to travel overland to conferences on the same continent. That has two issues:

  • It might take 48 hours or longer to get there. You might have to leave Friday night for a conference that starts on Monday. Europe (still) has excellent intercity trains and one can get from northern Sweden to southern Italy in 48 hours. American trains are much less developed, but even if you are one one coast and need to get to the other, you can get there. Maybe 3 days on trains and buses. Are you willing to spend that time? Is your supervisor willing to let you spend that time?

  • The cost. Even if the time is fine, it might cost significantly more to take train and bus, in particular if you request a bed on the train, so you can sleep. It doesn't have to cost more, but sometimes it does.

During my PhD and postdoc, I've attended conferences regularly, but I've only flown twice — once for a California conference when I was based in Sweden, and once for a Korea conference when I was based in Canada. All other times, I've taken the train. Longest was 48 hours each way, for a 2-week conference. For me, it was not the fear of flying. I prefer the train, want to limit my impact on the environment, and found a line in my university's travel policy that sustainable transportation solutions should be preferred. My supervisor bought that and let me take the train.

I don't know where you are. If you're in Australia, New Zealand, or another relatively remote corner, it's going to be a lot more difficult. If you're in Europe and in the future want to go to North America for a post-doc, or vice versa, you can still get there through freighter travel — although you probably don't want to do that for any visit shorter than six months. Even east Asia might work. Be creative — a life without flying is possible, and in fact, some people choose such a life for a variety of reasons. And yes, some are in academia too.


P.S. If your circumstances allows it, you might want to try to be at a relatively central university. For example, Germany or France if you're in Europe, Chicago area if you're in the USA.

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    @JoshVo I see. I'm going to get on the Amtrak from Iowa to San Francisco, departing this Friday evening, arriving Sunday afternoon, just in time for a big conference there... – gerrit Dec 9 '14 at 5:52
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    @jay_t55 Well, a phobia of flying would certainly prevent a career as an airline pilot! And, actually, I don't buy your claim that an inability to do certain things should never prevent one from doing a particular career. Accommodations should be made wherever possible so that, for example, being in a wheelchair shouldn't prevent you from having an academic career -- but it probably is going to make you physically unable to be a window-cleaner, for example. – David Richerby Dec 9 '14 at 12:19
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    No.. he didn't. – Lightness Races in Orbit Dec 9 '14 at 12:53
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    I know some very productive senior scientists who never physically attend any conferences or meetings. – gerrit Dec 9 '14 at 16:45
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    @gerrit: it's much more important for junior scientists to attend than for senior, more established names. – aeismail Dec 10 '14 at 4:20
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Do you need to be the one to present papers at conferences, or could it be done by those co-authors who actually enjoy airline travel?

I'm in a somewhat similar circumstance: I don't fly commercial, not because of a phobia (I have my own light plane), but because I'm not willing to put up with TSA BS and the discomfort of economy class, and have other life circumstances that make travel difficult. But there are other people in the lab who do like travelling, so they do the presenting of papers. Though for some reason, the lab director always manages to do the ones in Hawaii :-)

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Joined just to post this answer:

G.H. Hardy had a fear of travelling over sea; so he sent messages to his colleagues telling them that he had solved the Riemann Hypothesis.

Who was the mathematician who thought “god” was out to get him?

So maybe tell your supervisor that you have solved a big problem in your field and God won't let anything bad happen to you.

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Just simply tell your supervisor that you are scared of flying and you don't fly for this reason. Most people are sympathetic and will understand.

On a different note, let me offer a helpful suggestion. Of all the types of psychological problems, phobias are actually the easiest to cure. The best treatment for phobia is "exposure therapy". If you haven't already, seek out a "cognitive behavior therapist" and they will know what to do to help you.

Additionally, things like Valium and Xanax are excellent ways to help you deal with panic situations. In fact, the exposure therapy combined with Xanax is a very good way to help you learn to deal with panic, so that eventually over time you are retrained not to panic in those situations and you no longer need any medicine to help you get through it. In addition to a small dose of Xanax you can add a small dose of a beta-blocker. Beta-blockers prevent adrenaline. As the "adrenaline feedback loop" is one of the defining characteristics of a panic attack, the beta-blocker can help mitigate it as well.

If you end up using medication, you need to combine it with the cognitive behavior therapy because you don't want to get dependent on medication to deal with panic. Instead, your goal is to use the medication only as a temporary way of helping you analyze yourself and deal rationally with the panic situation, so that eventually you realize you don't actually need the medication.

If you want to talk more about this, message me privately, I'll be happy to discuss what I know.

Another thing to think about: a panic attack is a "fight or flight" response, which is your evolutionary response to protect yourself. Think about this. It's your body's own way of helping itself. Although, it happens to be misdirected at an inappropriate target (a plane, or whatever situation causes you to panic.) Everybody who has a panic attack thinks they're going to go crazy, pass out, die, etc., but it never happens. Nobody has died from a panic attack. How are you going to die from something that is actually your body's attempt to protect itself? You don't. What happens is you get into an adrenaline cycle: the adrenaline peaks, it tapers off, it peaks again 10-15 minutes later, tapers off again.... These are natural things designed to get you out of danger.

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    I'm a little worried about the lay medical advice here. It sounds the OP has already contacted professionals. He should trust their opinion, not ours. – Benjamin Mako Hill Dec 10 '14 at 2:59
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    Don't just tell your supervisor that you're scared of flying. Tell them all the things you've said in the question (that you've sought professional help, that it didn't work, that you get panic attacks rather than just feeling uneasy) and try to offer a solution as well as just the problem. – David Richerby Dec 10 '14 at 13:32

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