Researcher Life : Work-Travel-Life Balance

Research is a global field and involves a ton of travel – collaborations, conferences, talks, sabbaticals, training, its endless. If you are someone who, like me, enjoys travel, you may want to actively seek out such opportunities and turn them into mini vacations. Add to this vacations you take alone or with your loved ones. If you live in a different country to your family, just going home can mean travel. That’s a lot of travel making up work and life. I have written about this before highlighting why I sometimes struggle to balance my travels. I have gotten better at it over time. I can now work at airports or at conference venues between two sessions, but I still have a long way to go before I master this.

However, today I introduce to you Kohinoor Darda – a dear friend of mine, also a researcher (and a dancer), who not just loves to travel but manages it extraordinarily well with her work. The post that follows has been written by Kohinoor, explaining to you and me how she balances her life. For me, this post comes at a perfect time as I get ready to explore the city of Lisbon, attend a conference there and hopefully squeeze some reading in. Maybe I can take a page of Kohinoor’s book and enjoy it all…and maybe she can inspire you to think of life a bit differently.

“But then how do you travel so much?! Don’t you have a lot of work to do?!” is the first question I get asked when I say I’m doing a PhD in Cognitive Neuroscience.

Now most people might think I do NO work during my PhD given that I am in some new city or other every few weeks. But that’s really not the case. The thing is work and travel are both integral parts of my life (and dance of course). I love my work (let’s say 90% of the times – there have been some dark days!), and I love traveling, and I wouldn’t be able to do one without the other. I am not the kind of person who can stay in one place, go to the same office every day at exactly the same time, and take a break only once or twice in a year. There’s nothing wrong with that of course – it’s just not something that works for me. So, when Divya asked me write for her on how I manage to juggle travel and my PhD, it seemed like an odd thing to write. How do I word something that is, and has always been, such a critical component of my life? I can’t give any “top tips” or “10 things to do…” or “rules for a work-life balance” – that would just be wrong because what works for me may not work for you. But… I promised Divya that I would write something… so I guess I can start with things that help me manage my travel schedule.

The most important thing for me is deadlines. They can be both work- or travel-directed. ‘On Monday next week, I need to get my data analysis done’ OR ‘on the 15th of the next month, I want to travel to Paris.’ One supports the other – if I know I want to travel next month, I automatically work harder to finish all my work deadlines.

I need to be flexible, of course. One thing I’ve learned from my PhD is that nothing is certain. No matter how much you plan and organise and prepare, there are many things that are not in your control. Technology can fail, other people won’t deliver, you fall sick – these are just things that are out of your hands. So, what do you do in such an event? Cancel your travel plans? I try to be flexible with my travel and work plans. Can deadlines be moved? Can tickets be changed? Can I work on something else in the meantime and achieve some other goals?

Are you a working traveller or a traveling worker? I am just trying to be fancy with words here but both the terms kind of mean the same – are you someone who is willing to work while you are traveling? I think I can safely say (and brag) that I have mastered the art of working literally ANYWHERE – train stations, airports, buses, planes, ships, cafes, hotels, someone else’s house – you name it! Just recently I travelled to Oslo in Norway. After a day full of adventure and sight-seeing and walking and doing random things, I settled myself in a cosy café on one of the quieter streets in the city, and worked on one of my manuscripts for a couple of hours. And honestly, I was more productive in those two hours sitting in that café, listening to Norwegian music, sipping coffee, watching the snow fall down outside. It was excellent, and such a wonderful change from my office!

One more thing that I always try to do is apply for as many conferences as possible – that way, my University funds me to go and present my research and network, while I also get some time to explore the city. Amsterdam, Leiden, Boston, Aegina in Greece, Glasgow – they’ve all been talk or conference related travels. Another way to be a traveling worker!

Traveling all the time also involves some disadvantages of course. There have been many, many days when I have spent more than 12 hours in my office and worked on consecutive weekends in order to fulfil all my work commitments (for those who think I don’t, I DO work!). I usually don’t have complaints because like I said before, I love my work, and doing it because I’ll be traveling somewhere just adds to the motivation. Of course, it’s not so easy every time, but that is a compromise I find myself willing to make. There are other problems as well. Working when you’re traveling alone is convenient. When you are traveling with someone though, it gets a little trickier. How much of your time traveling do you want to spend alone or with someone is your choice, and that would influence how much work you will get done while on the road. A hectic work and travel life of course leave little time for socialising. If anything, I would say that is one of the biggest and most important disadvantages. I definitely miss having a stable social life where I stay. I am not the most social person, and I prefer being on my own most of the time, but I definitely do miss having friends whom I can meet regularly and just chill. With the constant moving and work commitments, more often than not, these “chilling out” sessions with friends become “catching up” sessions as we try to update each other on what happened in the few weeks that we didn’t meet. Of course, you meet new people on travels and I have managed to make some amazing friends and meet some amazing people on my travels. You cannot get the best of all worlds I guess – I would still say I am happy with the balance that I still manage to create.

Since I started my PhD around 2 years and 8 months ago, I have travelled to 18 countries, and probably more than 40 cities. That’s a little more than one city a month (yes, I am bragging). It’s true that I have had to work extra hard on most days and compromise many things over the last couple of years, but I would not have it any other way! 🙂

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