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Heading to a Conference? Tack on a Vacation, Too.

The results of a survey on traveling for work and pleasure.

October 17, 2017
 
 

Emily Roberts received a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering from Duke University in 2014. She is the founder of the websites Personal Finance for PhDs, PhD Stipends, and Evolving Personal Finance. Connect on Twitter with @PFforPhDs.

The opportunity for travel is one of academia’s most attractive perks. In just about any field, you can attend conferences and establish collaborations with far-flung colleagues. Certain fields also provide opportunities for travel through field work or archive visits.

But what’s the fun in traveling to a new city or country if you only work while you’re there? It’s natural to want to combine personal activities with the professional duties that are the primary motivation for the trip. I recently surveyed (former) grad students to find out how they combined personal travel pursuits with professional travel opportunities.

Adding Personal Activities to Conference Travel Is Popular

Nearly all of the respondents to my survey shared experiences of adding on personal travel to conferences.

The easiest and lowest-stakes way to accomplish this is to spend the time you’re already not at the conference, such as the evenings, however you like. Grad students reported sightseeing, attending cultural events, sampling the local cuisine, hiking, and visiting friends or family during their personal time. Ron from Duke University suggested maximizing your time: “Use the "extra" time you have - evenings out for dinner and in the city, free time the day before and after the conference if your flight is late.”

The next level up is to add days to your trip that are purely personal time. A student at Yale University who did this frequently advised: “Tack on a couple days either over a weekend or on ‘going and coming’ days to hang out.”

Jenn from Duke University attended an American Chemical Society meeting in Puerto Rico. She vacationed on the island for four days before the meeting started, timing it so that she only missed two workdays. This was a unique travel opportunity for her, as most of her other travel during grad school was obligation travel. “This was the only trip I took where I felt it was a true/real vacation (ironic that it was for a work conference). I took a trip for me to do something I loved, in an exotic location. I still talk about it to this day 8 years later. I would 100% do it again.”

It’s also possible to make it a family vacation! While at the University of Michigan, Katy Peplin (Katy Peplin Coaching) visited the Scottish Highlands with her husband before attending a conference in Glasgow. Jennifer Polk (From PhD to Life) spent a week in a villa in Italy with her parents and friends before traveling to London for a conference while she was at the University of Toronto. Mariana from the University of Brasília typically spends one month of each summer in North America vacating and attending an annual association meeting with her fiancé. They even scheduled their wedding and honeymoon to coincide with one of these trips!

Conference Selection Based on Location

Some students took their personal travel desires into consideration when applying to conferences. Diane Burgess from Simon Fraser University advised: “Give some thought to picking conferences that will combine excellent networking opportunities with the chance to travel. I try to select conferences that are in cities I'd like to visit.” Alex from Duke University concurred: “Go to legit conferences that have academic value, but in places where you can also enjoy the outside stuff. It's usually easy to do both.”

Who Pays?

Unsurprisingly, the personal aspects of these trips were only subsidized to the degree that they overlapped with the professional itinerary and available funding. Some students paid for their professional travel entirely out of pocket, but most survey respondents received partial or full funding for the professional aspects of the travel. Extra nights of lodging, personal activities and their corresponding local transportation, meals on bonus days, and airfare for family members were always paid for by the students.

Lauren wrote, “Conferences were a great opportunity to explore new cities, and taking a few days prior to or following the conference on my own dime was totally possible. Use conference funds for the conference, and self-fund personal travel surrounding it.”

A student from UC Davis suggested ways to stretch the conference funding: “Find flights on different days that are cheaper or equal price to the flight you would normally take so that the air travel is completely covered, minimize spending during professional events, and take advantage of any provided meals so that you can use your per diem to cover meals on the extra days you are traveling.”

Should You Ask for Permission to Add on Personal Travel?

The majority of the grad students who responded to the survey did not explicitly ask for permission to add personal travel on to their professional travel. A few told their advisors that they would be taking some additional time away from work, and a couple cleared their requests for staying extra time with the person who paid for their travel. However, the advice given by some of these grad students was to just be upfront with your advisor about your plans. A student at UC Davis who visited San Diego in conjunction with a conference wrote, “It's pretty expected to do personal travel; it's a not a big deal to ask about.” Ron from Duke University added, “The structure of the events and hints from coworkers made it clear that I should enjoy some sightseeing.”

Beyond Conferences

Conferences are not the only professional travel opportunities that can be combined with vacation.  A student at Miami University travel to Peru and Thailand for 10-day field expeditions, after which she took two weeks of vacation. She hiked to Machu Picchu, went birding, and scuba dived during these vacations. Kirstin from Baylor University traveled to Israel for excavations, adding on time to visit family and friends.

Vacationing Is Self-Care

Taking vacations during graduate school is challenging but necessary for basic self-care. Mariana from the University of Brasília lamented that “it’s virtually impossible to take vacations when you’re a grad student.” Combining vacations with personal travel rejuvenates students for a fraction of the money and time that might otherwise be spent.

A student from UMass Amherst wrote, “Adding personal travel gives you the opportunity to unwind before/after trip. Often nice way to take a break/reward oneself after a big professional accomplishment since our research/writing commitments can be so demanding at times and it can be hard to prioritize celebrating oneself.”

“Grad school is grueling, find some vacation time when you can,” implored Nicole from the University of Kansas.

Don’t Miss Out on this Opportunity

Professional travel to conferences or for research also presents an opportunity to recharge, experience something new, and visit friends and family. None of the participants in my survey reported any fallout from combining professional and personal travel, and many exhorted other grad students to follow suit. You can determine whether it’s better to leave your personal travel and activities unspoken or to ask for explicit permission, for example if you are extending your trip, as you know your advisor and field best. Piggybacking personal travel onto professional travel is a fantastic way to vacate while spending less time and money than you otherwise might. Don’t forgo this fantastic perk of academic research!

[Image by Flickr user Roozbeh Rokni and used under Creative Commons licensing.]

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