On the road again

A long and tiring term is coming to a close. Time to celebrate the holidays, then head out to Vancouver for a few days, to end 2011, and then it will be a new year and a new term. The Winter term of 2012 is also going to be very intense, but for different reasons — I have quite a bit of traveling ahead of me. Indeed, it looks as if I shall be in Europe (Germany and Italy) until Summer.

One of the reasons why I like to have all of my teaching duties concentrated in a single term (usually Fall), is that I can then focus uninterruptedly on research for a few months. Having a relatively long time window is especially convenient, for work often takes me away from where I live, for extended periods of time. It is nothing unusual in my profession. Just about any scientist running an active research program, entertains a number of collaborations with peers at other institutions, typically disseminated all over the world. And yes, even in the era of internet, and for someone doing theoretical work, there is no substitute for actual human contact, when it comes to making progress or carrying to completion timely a research project. So, it is either me going away, or a collaborator visiting me, but over the past few years it has been mostly me going away.

Collaborations are normally born out of common interest, and are especially fruitful when two or more individuals bring to the table different, complementary knowledge, skills and expertise. Most of my collaborators are individuals whom I met at conferences; the most recurring scenario, is that I approach someone who has either delivered a particularly interesting talk, or presented an intriguing poster (sometimes, the opposite takes place, i.e., someone approaches me). We start talking about research of mutual interest — I guess “brainstorming” is the expression that people like to use these days. Someone says something to the effect that the particular method that the other uses, could perhaps be adapted to do a study an outstanding problem.
If things develop, a few more conversations ensue, a tentative work program is laid out [0], and if everything goes well (read: no one drops the ball) in the months that follow each one does his/her part, a lot of email exchanges and/or Skype conference calls take place, until at some point there are enough results, and the physical picture is sufficiently clear, that writing up a manuscript for publication [1] is the next and final step [2].
Now, in some cases it is possible to complete the project successfully entirely online, i.e., no actual meeting among the participants occurs, following the one that started the whole thing (and sometimes not even that one takes place, i.e., it the whole collaboration starts out online as well), but in my experience, if the project is of any significance and/or breadth, regular face-to-face meetings are greatly beneficial.

Most collaborations occur spontaneously, and are merely the result of different scientists sharing some research interests (obviously it is necessary to have a reasonably good human interaction as well). There are programs too, aimed at encouraging collaborative work, but I am skeptical of collaborations that start out mainly because the funds are there. I still think that the best way to support collaborative work, especially at the institutional level, it by making things practically easier for the host and the visitor.
To put it more concretely, having an office with staff that will take care of all visa issues, for example, as well as convenient housing, reasonable office space (cramming a visitor in crowded office, or even worse not giving the person any office space, is not going to make the person want to come back), and a relatively straightforward procedure in place to grant the visitor access to the internet, will all go a long way to encourage medium and long term stays (I have to say, my institution is pretty good on this front).

Aside from the need of completing a piece of collaborative research work, there are several other reasons for an academic researcher to spend time regularly at other institutions, and no, the enjoyment from the traveling itself is not one of them [3].
The main reason is that, not actively trying to maintain some kind of international profile, will also normally mean having a harder time recruiting graduate students and postdoctoral collaborators; it is also going to mean that one’s graduate students and postdocs will have a harder time themselves securing future employment, all other things being equal. That is my observation, and it is one which I believe that most of my colleagues will share.
It is nothing more than basic human dynamics, I think. For the majority of us who do not work at some “elite” institution, the decision of advising a student to pursue her doctoral studies at a particular place, or to be a postdoc under the supervision of a given individual, becomes much easier if we ourselves know the place or the person, have visited a few times, have a clear sense of the kind of environment that one experiences, are familiar with the modus operandi of the person or group.
There are things for which one will not develop any sense or appreciation from merely looking at someone’s web page. Granted, whether a group is productive or not can be ascertained in a few minutes by going online, but there is a lot that one can learn from talking to, and interacting regularly with graduate students and postdocs in that group, in that department, at that school.

I think most granting agencies understand that important aspect of traveling, as a way to interact with, and remaining an active part of the broader community, which is why it is considered acceptable to apply for travel funds, not necessarily earmarked to attend conferences.


[0] Usually the program involves a fairly well-defined division of labor among participants. Based on personal experience: Watch out for possible “collaborators” who prefer to leave that part fuzzy, for in the best case they are not serious and are going to waste your time, in the worst case they aim at piggybacking on your effort without actually doing anything.

[1] I am obviously greatly simplifying things. Also, it is clear that it is far more complicated to set up a collaborative effort among experimental scientists, for that almost inevitably requires that someone spend time off site (typically at someone else’s lab), possibly that equipment be moved, and all of that immediately entails a non-trivial individual and institutional commitment, and usually considerably more funds.

[2] By no means one free of possible problems, especially if one of your collaborators is of pre-socratic inspiration (i.e., not really into that “writing” thing… like pre-socratic philosophers, they dispense wisdom and insight orally only; they never write a word, confident that their disciples and followers will eventually take care of that mundane task).

[3] The amount of sightseeing that one can do when traveling for work is basically nil. One is on a budget, time is limited, and there is the pressing need of accomplishing something concrete (or at least making substantial progress) during the visit. As a result, one ends up spending most of the time at the (temporary) office or in some hotel room or tiny, spartane but functional apartment — and if one is like me, one will be eating mostly supermarket food (normally straight out of the can). In short, we are not talking the glamorous traveling described on glossy, colourful magazines.

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5 Responses to “On the road again”

  1. JF Says:

    “In short, we are not talking the glamorous traveling described on glossy, colourful magazines.”

    On the other hand, don’t tell me that you do not enjoy a few restaurants outings or beer evenings with colleagues while travelling…

  2. GMP Says:

    I am quite envious. I am on sabbatical this year, so no teaching, but due to childcare obligations won’t be able to go anywhere for more than 2-3 days. It will be a while before I can take off for a few weeks or months at a time, but I am looking forward to it.

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