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I am a first-year postdoc and I am currently structuring my summer plans for travel/conferences/etc.

May already includes a 2 week international trip of a one-week workshop and two seminar talks. June includes 2 one-week conferences domestically. July includes a 2 week international jumbo conference. August includes at least a one-week international research visit. If I did all the conferences pencilled into my calendar, I would be gone for 3 weeks in September.

To top it all off, there's a few more invites that just occurred for a week long summer school in June and a colloquium invitation in August. Both international.

I have been told that "you do not say no until tenure," but this seems too much to handle. At some point I have to sit down and do research, keep up with collaborations, and recover from travel. To be fair, I love travel, I am single, and I do not have a child or pet, so I have no obligations for being home; however, I am fearful of burning out. I am in mathematics, so there's no need for a lab and could potentially do work on the road but I am much more efficient when with my collaborators at home or at their home institution (which is not where these things are).

So the chain of questions here:

  • At what point does one have too much travel? Should I just pack my bags and try to learn how to research on the road?
  • When can one say no?
  • Do people care about what conferences you have been to and if they are on the CV or just about speaking? Is there a point where more invited talks hits a point of diminishing returns?
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    Not all travel is created equal, of course. Perhaps answers should quantify things a bit -- there are big differences between a short, occasional commute to a nearby institute, spending a few days or a week somewhere that's an hour or two away by air, and taking a medium or long-haul flight. – Moriarty Apr 11 '15 at 14:35
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    "Don't say no until tenure" sounds like horrible advice. I personally think the only way to get tenure and stay sane at the same time is being really good at saying no to the right things. – xLeitix Apr 11 '15 at 15:14
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    I agree with @xLeitix - until you get tenure, you say 'no' to all service commitments that don't directly lead to publishables for tenure. If you can't say no directly, you use the euphemism: "my Chair/mentor has told me that I cannot do ________ as I need to focus on my ________." – RoboKaren Apr 11 '15 at 15:23
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    @Lilienthal: The travel makes me unable to work for one day before while getting ready and a few days after while getting my body back in check. I also lose any routine I had. This impacts my health and fitness, which I value. – T K Apr 15 '15 at 9:36
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Different people set their thresholds differently, but it all comes down to balance and cost/benefit analysis.

I don't buy into the "don't say no until tenure" argument, because a) until tenure is a pretty big chunk of your life, especially when you add in postdoc, and b) the patterns and expectations you establish before tenure will likely remain with you afterwards. You need to make a decision which is sustainable for you as your career is now and reassess every couple of years to make sure it is still working.

Myself, I travel 1-2 times per month. Some academics I know travel nearly once a week; others travel only once or twice a year. In my observation, this does not really correlate with career stage, but more with desire for public recognition vs. the tradeoffs the person is comfortable with in their life.

So, how to make that judgement for yourself? Personally, I find Latour's model of science as "credibility investment" a useful analysis tool. Under this model, you can view scientific life as manipulation of three currencies:

  • Credibility is the main and most unusual currency of academia, which is generated by your publications, your position and appointments, your visibility in the community, service, etc, and which is invested in order to obtain funding.
  • Results are the data, theorems, etc. produced by your work, which are the raw material required for generation of credibility, and which generally requires money to produce.
  • Funding is money or other forms of support, which can be obtained through investment of credibility and is itself invested in order to produce results.

Success as an academic requires management of the flow of these three quantities: your relative levels in any may rise and fall with time, but if you go broke in any of the three areas, your career is in deep trouble. They are hard to quantify, but with self-reflection and comparison to peers you can often have a sense of whether you are "doing well" or "doing poorly" in each area.

Bringing it back to travel, then: most travel can be viewed as part of obtaining credibility (e.g., conferences, invited talks) or obtaining funding (e.g., visits to program managers). Their cost, as you have identified, is primarily opportunity to produce results and to write your results up in papers (yes, they cost money too, but your time is usually more valuable). For each individual conference, you can ask how much this conference is likely to serve those goals, relative to the time that you will lose as a result. If you become good at working on the road (I love airplanes as internet-free time), then the effective cost may decrease, changing your relative weightings, but the principles remain the same.

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I'm an assistant professor in math with experience on hiring committees.

I certainly wouldn't adopt the mindset "don't say no until tenure", but in my experience (with the research mathematics job market) getting a tenure-track job that you're happy with is the more significant hurdle. (In my observation it is relatively unusual for math professors to be denied tenure, outside the top 10 or so schools. Although, of course it does happen.) Accordingly I do think that now is a good time to travel extensively, if you can stomach it -- you will not have to keep it up for eight years!

People will look at your CV for evidence that you've been to plenty of conferences and spoke at many of them, and the flashier (i.e. international) the better. But there are indeed diminishing returns; in this regard, you're already travelling extensively and you've probably passed the threshold where people will care much.

What's more important is the chance to make a positive impression on individual people. Various people in the audience might be in a position to collaborate with you, write letters of recommendation for you, share research ideas with you, tell their colleagues "I just listened to a fantastic talk...", and/or push their departments to try to hire you.

So, how much you travel depends on your own situation and goals. For example, if you've recently proved a big theorem but don't have any exciting followup projects in mind, I would recommend you take the opportunity to speak about your work anywhere and everywhere you can. If you're not sure who will be writing your rec letters in two years, then ditto. If you're already locked into a promising research program, and you just need time to sit and work on it, this might indicate accepting fewer invitations.

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If you don't learn how to say "no" as a postdoc, are you sure you can learn that after tenure?

But I think it is true that you now need to get to know people around the world - which naturally involves a lot of travel and meetings. Once you now what is going on, things calm down a bit. You'll then also know which conferences and workshops are of primary interest for you and which you don't need to attend. Or which ones you want to attend only every 2nd time.

If I had a schedule like the one you describe, I would summarize it as "nothing will happen before October besides those conferences": the few weeks in between are easily eaten up by all that little stuff that accumulates at home while you are away and all the colleagues and students that were waiting for you to come back in order to ...

Right now, I travel a lot (2 conferences last and this month, 1 workshop last month). (But it will be less for the rest of the year.)
I try to put things together: group several meetings into one tour, one or 2 days of holidays around conferences so I can stop with friends/family. I'll probably also declare the way back from the conference in summer holidays and do it as a bike tour.
And by now I have pretty clear ideas which conferences I do not want to attend (one in fall that I would have liked, but considered one too many, and two where I told my supervisor that the trade off between attending and costs in time and money doesn't look good enough - but I just know this because I have been there before).


I find that I cannot work as well in a train or plane as at my desk. (Not to speak of the lab). But I also find that I get other types work done in the hotel: maybe a bit of debugging, or sorting literature, writing paper draft/overhauling a manuscript. Of course also the first draft of the ideas that are triggered by the conference/meeting. Or the report for the funding agency.

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I'm going to approach the question from a different point of view.

Currently I´m working as a researcher in a private company. When applying for a position on this company, one of the things that they show is the expected amount of travel, as a % of the working days in a year. The usual travel load is ~10%, which is about 1 full month of travel out of the year. Some heavy traveler may do ~25%, which is about a full week out of each month, but usually only managers are expected to do that much traveling.

If you feel that traveling too much is affecting negatively your goals, you can set a personal limit on how much you travel each year, and then negotiate with your colleagues the attendance to events. Also, as other comments says, learning how to get the most out of your time in a trip is definitely a very valuable skill.

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