Dear Mentor: Advice about travel opportunities?

Dear Mentor,

I am an assistant professor and have two small children. I see some opportunities to travel in the year ahead — regional and national professional conferences, a smaller conference specific to my field where I have been asked to present a paper, and an opportunity to spend a week with a department overseas. I am torn — I’d love to go to everything but there are limitations to funding and I will need to set up childcare. How do I make decisions about what is worth attending and what is interesting but not essential? How do you make decisions about travel opportunities?

from guest mentor Karen H. Kim Yeary

It is tough making travel decisions as a junior faculty member because you need to use your time and resources wisely to establish yourself as a productive scholar. Being a mother of young ones introduces another variable into the equation that further complicates travel-related decisions. As a mother of three small children myself, I have been in similar situations in deciding what travel opportunities to take. Here are some things that I think through in deciding whether to take a particular travel opportunity.
Priorities. When a traveling opportunity comes, I ask myself whether this compromises my current priorities. I believe that God has given me multiple callings, including being a wife, mother, and an academic. Time and resources need to be put into both my family and my work. I prioritize family over work, so I am careful to not take too many travel opportunities that would take me away from my family. I have personally struggled with not wanting to be away from my children and have asked myself the following questions:
  • Am I being selfish in traveling?
  • Am I spending enough time with my children?
  • Will they be okay when I’m gone?
  • Am I missing out on their childhood?

I think it ultimately comes down to trust in the One who has you and your family in His hands. I have realized that I needed to trust my family to God (that they and I would be okay) to fulfill my calling as an academic. At other times I have struggled with the doldrums of daily life that can come from caring for small children and have wanted to escape my responsibilities through traveling. In these cases, I needed to trust in God to keep me content during this season of motherhood. Only you can decide whether your choice to travel is consistent with your priorities. I encourage you to ask God to help you to know whether a traveling opportunity is consistent with His priorities. I have found that God has made things clearer to me in prayer. 

How will this contribute to my career? I think you need to be strategic with your time and resources to choose traveling opportunities that will advance your career, particularly as a junior faculty member. When I was an assistant professor, I was advised to only attend conferences where I was presenting. I think this was wise advice because to become tenured and promoted, you need to do things that will "count" towards your promotion and tenure portfolio. For every discipline, there is the conference or conferences that the experts of that discipline go to. I would submit abstracts to those conferences and prioritize travel to those conferences where you have accepted abstracts. Another important component to building your career is networking, so I would prioritize attending conferences that will give you the opportunity to build relationships with others in your discipline, particularly experts in your discipline that can help advance your career. Ideally, I would prioritize conferences where you are presenting, and network heavily at these conferences. Other travel opportunities I would place on the lower priority list. There will be ample opportunities to travel throughout your career, so travel opportunities you do not take now you will most likely be able to take later in your career (post tenure!). ;) 
Does God want me to go? As a Christian academic, God is part of all of the travel-related decisions I make, whether it is through the mind he has given me to make wise decisions, prayer, reading Scripture, others’ advice, and other ways. A lot of what I have described above concerns the mind. However, there have been times where I have made travel decisions that did not necessarily make sense to the mind (i.e. to advance my career directly). In some instances I have traveled because I believed it was important for others to hear a particular message I was presenting through my work. At other times I have traveled because I thought it was important for me to build relationships with other people. There are some systematic things that you can think through in deciding whether to take a particular travel opportunity (e.g. is this consistent with my priorities, does this advance my career, etc.) but God can be a wild God and you may feel led by him to take a particular travel opportunity that doesn’t make sense to you, but does to him from his all-knowing perspective. So be open to God and to the possibility that he may want you to travel or not travel in certain instances where it may not exactly make the most sense to you.

from guest mentor Joanne Marshall

Dear Rolling Stone Mama,

Congratulations on a surfeit of opportunities!  That speaks well for your being hooked into your field already. 

Setting aside the very practical concerns you’ve already raised of funding and childcare, you need to figure out what traveling gets you professionally versus what it costs you. Your field has certain expectations of what you should be doing. Mine, for example, expects me to attend a national, peer-reviewed conference specific to my field in the fall and a gigantic national peer-reviewed conference in the spring. Ask the senior scholars in your field what they would recommend, particularly the ones at your institution. (Everyone likes to be asked for advice!)

In my area, presenting at national peer-reviewed conferences is required because we must demonstrate “impact.” If you have a good discussant and session participants, presenting provides great feedback on your work before you submit it for publication. There’s a chance to network with colleagues who do similar work and the senior scholars who are giants in your field and will be writing your external review letters some day. You will form professional and personal relationships which will last for years. People will think of you when they have a project relevant to your interests. You will learn about the hottest trends and form new ideas about your own work. Your mind and spirit will be all revved up.  These are all great benefits.

On the cost side, traveling means that you are not writing or publishing or doing whatever you normally do during the week. If you are doing your job at the conference — presenting, going to sessions of other presenters who do work similar to yours, having lunch with people, going to receptions, and being smart and charming and remembering everyone’s name and what they've written recently — you are “on” from dawn to midnight. You are not able to write or research or publish or teach or grade papers or attend meetings at your home institution or even keep up with your email. You also do not get to see your family or exercise or check in with God. And you will need a natty wardrobe. And you will be exhausted when you get home, whereupon your family and the people at your workplace will be so happy to see you that they will attach themselves to you like baby koala bears and you will not get a moment of rest for the remainder of the week as you play catch-up from being gone. 

How much of each of these do you want to do?

What are the expectations for tenure and promotion at your institution?

How supportive is your spouse and whomever is taking care of the children? How much emotional and financial obligation might you incur?

If you were at my research-extensive institution, I would tell you to protect your time. It is the most valuable resource you have. Presentations do not count as much as publications. Only national and peer-reviewed presentations count at all. Forget regional conferences. The invited paper might be worthwhile if the person who asked you is a luminary in your field or if it is going to lead to a publication; otherwise, forget it. Forget the visit to another institution unless it is for an intensive writing or grant project where you need to be face to face with these people. It comes down to your goals: Will this opportunity advance your career? If it doesn’t, forget it. There is time to travel later, when you have tenure. In five years you do not want to be remembered as “that interesting woman from ____ who used to come to our conferences but didn’t get tenure.”

Ask, ask, ask around, and do what’s best for you and your family, because no one else will.

A hug of peace to you as you figure all this out. I know you will. 


from guest mentor Catherine Hirshfeld Crouch

Dear Junior Faculty Mama,

My two colleagues have said everything that I might say and said it persuasively and eloquently! Bottom line: your time is extremely valuable at this stage, you can’t do everything that would be worth doing, so you have to prioritize, and trust God that it’s okay that you won’t do everything.

From my perspective as a scientist, let me just highlight some things that I think are the most important in this prioritization process.

Make your travel decisions keeping tenure criteria in mind. Make sure you know what your department and institution value most for tenure. To find out both the formal criteria and other more unofficial but still important considerations (which may come from your department’s and institution’s culture), ask multiple people who are closely involved with the tenure process and have some responsibility to help you get accurate information, such as your department chair or faculty mentor.

Understand the value of conferences and visits. The value of conferences is in giving you ideas, getting exposure for your work, and giving you the chance to build relationships with colleagues in your field. Invited talks at high-profile conferences can be important, but invited talks at peer or highly respected institutions are probably more important, both in showing the value of your work to peers and in giving you the opportunity to network. Also keep in mind that tenure evaluations normally involve letters from colleagues in your immediate field. Some may be required to be from people you have had minimal personal interaction with, but typically some can be from people who have interacted with you to a modest degree, such as at conferences or hosting you for a visit to their institution. There can be strategic value in building relationships with people who you don’t collaborate with but can serve as evaluators in the future. (And even if such people are not admissible as tenure evaluators, they will still be refereeing your papers and grant applications.)

Weigh the value of each opportunity. When deciding about conferences, consider (a) how much a particular conference will let you keep abreast with what is happening in your subfield and help you meet/solidify relationships with people, and (b) how essential a particular conference is for your work to be showcased to others. Faculty in the sciences typically have grad students and postdocs who can go and accomplish (b) (and who can help with (a) by reporting back to you). Weigh these things when deciding how valuable attending a conference in person is.

Recognize the impact of brief visits to other institutions. In the sciences it is common to make a one-day visit to give a talk and meet with faculty throughout the day. That’s a very high impact way to spend your time, especially in sharing ideas and cultivating relationships with people who may be refereeing your work.

Making an longer visit to another institution is most valuable if you are actively collaborating. If you are actually collaborating with individuals at another institution, then it can be really worth spending several days to a week in residence there to work intensively. These are possibly the most important kind of travel you can do if you are in an active collaboration, as they can be extremely productive and also reduce some of the stresses and challenges involved in collaborating remotely.

However, I would not spend that amount of time visiting a department where you were not actively collaborating, unless you felt that the visit would let you learn new things that would significantly improve your scholarship in the next five years (i.e., before tenure).

God be with you!

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